SalesGlobe recently conducted a panel discussion with several experienced compensation executives to explore last minute sales compensation design. Mark Donnolo, managing partner of SalesGlobe, facilitated. In case you’re scrambling to put together a sales comp plan, or maybe your plan is complete and you’re curious what the procrastinators have in store, here are a few of the highlights around Step One: Setting Limits on Change.
MARK DONNOLO: How do you look at change at your company, and what drives any shifts in the plan?
PANELIST 1: That’s a good question. For us, we try to keep the North Star really around what the strategy is for the business. Our fiscal year starts October 1, so the whole process starts in January after the end of our Q1 or calendar Q4 end. There’s a nine month planning cycle, so a lot of time is spent with the CEO and his executive staff to really understand where the company is going in the marketplace, our strategy, and which customer segments we want to be in. Are we rolling out solutions? How do we want those solutions to mix with our existing strategy? From that we start to build what the coverage model looks like and how we are going to deploy resources. The sales comp plan really is one of the last things we talk about, even though it’s one of the first things that everybody likes to jump to. “How am I going to pay people? We hope to roll out a new product and I want to pay them more for this.”
We have done a nice job of coaching the leaders that sales compensation is really the caboose; it’s not the engine. While it tends to be the solve-it-all solution for everybody, it’s really not, right? We need to solve how to run the business and drive the business first, understand how we want to go to market, and then let the sales compensation plan structure really be the vehicle for executing on the strategy. That’s important for us.
MARK DONNOLO: You’re getting a head start then. I think nine months ahead is insightful, especially for a lot of organizations that will pop up at the last minute and say, “Hey, we have to look at the sales compensation plan.” It’s been talked about during the year, but it hasn’t really been part of an evaluation or planning process.
PANELIST 1: Yes. And I’m not going to lie to you, because it sounds like, “Oh wow, you start nine months ahead. Everything must be perfect and everyone is aligned.” But just like in every company, the executives change their minds a lot. For example, recently we were hosting a call with the international and U.S. divisions, and finance and operations were saying, “We’re three weeks away from the launch of the new plan and the end of the year. Here are the critical changes that we are aligned on. Is everybody prepared for communications? Are we ready to start rolling out quotas next month?”
And a lot of the sales leaders started questioning some of the decisions that we had aligned on in July. “Is this the right decision? Should we maybe change the mechanics of the plan? Should we go to this third measure vs. this measure we took out?” And you’re sitting here thinking, “We’ve got three weeks left. It’s not like it’s a quarter to go.”
But I think the planning process is continual until you actually communicate it. Because you might have someone from the product house say, “I told you I wanted to pay this product differently.” And maybe you structured the plan to have a separate measure or a multiplier or something. But what we find is that it’s very difficult to corral the leaders and have them stick to something. So we are going to be tweaking things almost up to the last minute, which I guess is appropriate for this topic. But I think the overall structure – we’ve done a very good job of keeping that consistent from the decisions made a couple of months ago. Even though the mechanics might change slightly with three weeks left to go in the year.
MARK DONNOLO: I know one question that comes up is: where do you stop? How do you put an end to it? Someone said recently, “It’s as if our sales leaders have free reign to continue to change things all the way up until the last minute.” We really need to end it at a certain point and move ahead. Is there a way you’ve found to do that?
PANELIST 1: I think you’ve got to be positioned well in the organization. I think the sales compensation function has to be seen as a leadership role that has authority to push back. If it’s not, I think it’s going to be much more difficult. The sales leaders or the others will run wild.
If you’re set up in your organization to have that leadership role, it’s just a matter of saying, “Guys and gals, it’s T minus three weeks, these are the decisions we aligned on. Here’s why we can’t make a change. Here are the cost implications. Here are the ramifications. We’re going to move forward. If it’s a tweak – change this accelerator, change this threshold level – you can do this until after the plan rolls out. But as far as large structural changes, we’ve made it clear.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that movie Armageddon where there’s an asteroid coming in and there’s a little plane on the computer, where, if the asteroid passes that point the earth will blow up. We sort of set that up for the sales compensation design changes. We have said, “Beyond this date it is not feasible to make structural changes because quotas can’t be set on time. You won’t be able to pay people on time because you’ve got to redo the structure of the Oracle or Callidus or Excel or however you’re calculating sales compensation.”
You lay out exactly what the implications are, right? So if the business says, “I value your opinion but we do want to make the changes.” Then you’ve got to make it very clear. “Ok, guess what? You’re not going to pay people accurately in month one; or quotas won’t be out until month two.” They can think through it and say, “What is the business rationale for the change? Are we willing to take that risk for the change we’ve requested?
MARK DONNOLO: Good point. So the wheels start coming off at a certain point, if we go beyond that.
PANELIST 1: Correct.
SGF Member: We definitely have this problem. We have constant change. We just recently went through a pretty large change and we’re just trying to get our arms around some things. We definitely had that issue ongoing.
MARK DONNOLO: It seems, and you described it well, that having the authority to push back and let people know what the implications are, that things really do start to fall out. Have you been successful in being able to push back effectively?
SGF Member: Yes. One of the key things I think you hit on is making sure that we have leadership buy-in. If we don’t have leadership buy-in, it’s very difficult for us to limit the process. And a lot of times we’ve noticed what you’ve mentioned before, where we are trying to do the compensation plan as the forerunner rather than trying to support what the sales strategy is. I think sometimes we get it backwards. We try to flip flop that to indicate we need to know what the strategy is and we’re really here to help set the behavior vs. drive that behavior. I think that’s something that’s really important. But I think at this point the success we’re seeing is making sure we’re getting executive buy-in. If we don’t have that it makes it really difficult.