California, a state already ahead of most in regulating calculation and payment of sales commissions, has put into law the requirement to document commission plans in writing effective January 1, 2013.

To be clear, this law would apply only to true commission plans, so sales incentives paid as a goal-based incentive would not be subject to it. For more on the difference between these two, see What is the difference between a commission and a bonus? (Note that a goal-based incentive is officially called a “bonus” by WorldatWork, the accepted keepers of the “Sales Compensation Body of Knowledge.”)

It is always a best practice to provide great plan documentation, and we generally recommend it take at least two forms, possibly three:

  1. The rollout presentation. This is often a PowerPoint document which provides an overview of the plan design, explains what is new for the updated plans, and makes it clear what focus, behaviors and results are needed to earn well under the new plans.
  2. The plan document. This explains the plan in further detail, ideally with good examples included. It is not general across all sales people, but specific to the person who receives it, and includes documentation of their own target compensation and sales goals. It also includes a section covering a range of contingencies (shared sales credit, crediting rules in case of transfers, provisions for leaves of absence and termination, management discretion clause, etc.). It needs to be technically correct in terms of the mechanics of the compensation plan, but also needs to be reviewed by legal counsel in all jurisdictions in which eligible employees live and work.
  3. The earnings estimation calculator. This is either built in to  the compensation administration system as a feature, or provided as a stand-alone spreadsheet, often in Excel. It allows the incentive-eligible employee to enter sales goals and target compensation, and also possible sales results, and see the resulting compensation. (We love it when a comp plan is so simple that a calculator would be overkill, so occasionally we can recommend NOT providing a calculator. But for most businesses, a calculator can be a great tool to speed understanding of a new plan.)

These three communication tools are so vital to plan success that they are standard deliverables in all Cygnal Group Full Service plan design engagements.

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.

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