Question and answer format
My company is in the throes of revising the comp plan for next year and one of the most hotly debated items revolves around compensating a salesperson on all business generated from dollar one for the life of the account. Currently our firm doesn’t discriminate between “new” dollars and what I’m calling “annuity” dollars- they pay the same rate over the account life whether it’s 1 year or 10. We don’t have a lot of support staff so most, if not all the account maintenance falls on the salesperson’s shoulders. Most of the heavy lifting is done during the prospecting stage & within the first 1-2 years of the relationship then the historical pattern is the revenue drops (variety of reasons outside of the salespersons control and some within).
There are several ways to put together plan mechanics in such a situation, and I have listed a few below, with some commentary.
1. First dollar payment, and “a dollar is a dollar.” This is what I believe you have now. This will focus sales people with substantial annuity business first on maintaining the base, then once that is secure, on growing new business. It generally is straightforward to track sales credit and calculate compensation – both very desirable. The cost of comp in relation to sales volume is very predictable, as is the income level of the sales person. The challenges raised by this arrangement are:
1. a. It does not recognize the increased degree of difficulty in landing truly new business – so that the time spent on new business development may not be worth the risk of not closing to a sales person who can farm established accounts.
1. b. It can result in a “phantom base” where the sales person has a large portion of their apparently variable pay that will almost certainly not vary year to year – so they have little real risk or upside in their compensation plan to help support the drive to grow.
1. c. Depending on how the compensation plans work, it may mean that each deal is paid over the life of the contract based on the comp plan in place at the time it was signed. If this is the case, the compensation administrator may be simultaneously administering several comp plans (this year’s, last year’s, etc.). This would tend to limit the company’s willingness to adjust the plans to focus sales effort on this year’s priorities.
1. d. Sales people with “rights” to an annuity stream are less likely to accept restructuring of territories to expand the sales force, reassignment of accounts, etc. This can limit a growing company’s ability to scale quickly and maximize market penetration.
2. Added payout value for new business. This is similar to #1, except that the payout on the “existing” business (“existing” vs. “new” needs careful definition) is reduced to fund a higher payout amount on the “new.” Generally the intention will be to keep total compensation the same, but to shift the emphasis to the new business a bit. This can be as simple as an increased commission rate for all new business during its first twelve months, funded by a reduction in the commission rate for existing business. This solves a above, b somewhat, and does very little to address c and d.
3. Split the compensation into a quota-based incentive for the existing business and a true commission on the new business. For the quota-based incentive on existing business, there may be a threshold below which no payout is earned (e.g., 80% of the quota), and dramatic acceleration for any over-quota attainment (e.g., double the target incentive at 120% of quota). For the new business, the payout should be from first dollar and perhaps it should accelerate over quota. In this case, business should count as “new” for the first twelve months, not just for the rest of the plan year. This approach solves issues a, b, c and d listed above; but it also undermines simplicity, makes it hard to know the comp value of existing business on a per-deal basis, and raises the stakes on setting reasonable and accurate quotas for both existing and new business.
There is not a perfect answer to this situation that will satisfy all stakeholders and be bullet-proof. But there are better and worse approaches, depending on your sales roles and your business model.
Donya Rose, CSCP, is Managing Principal of The Cygnal Group. She is a recognized expert in sales compensation plan design, regularly speaking at conferences and writing published articles. She serves clients from F500 to growth-stage businesses, and advises WorldatWork on sales compensation hot topics and best practices.