Let’s look at one of the most exciting components of the sales compensation plan. (No – your eyes have not failed you. I said “exciting” and “sales compensation” in the same sentence.) It’s the part that can sustain or destroy the sales culture, and it lets top performers know whether (or not) they can earn big money. Upside potential is the incentive pay, above target incentive, that a sales person can earn if she exceeds quota and reaches the higher levels of performance in the sales organization.
Let’s say, for example, a rep had a total target compensation set for $100,000, and had a 50/50 pay mix (so he would earn $50,000 in base salary, and assuming he met his quota, he would earn an additional $50,000 in incentive pay). But then, this rep just kept going. He kept selling. He went above his quota. His company knew he was capable of this extra effort and had a plan in place to reward him. It’s called upside. (As a side note: a top performer is usually a person at the 90th percentile of performance or above in the company, and the upside potential earnings is usually set as a multiple of pay at risk.)
For example, a plan may have the potential to pay 200 percent of target incentive to a 90th percentile performer. So, in our example, the rep’s target incentive is $50,000, so the plan would have upside potential of an additional $50,000 (paying 200% of target incentive to the 90th percentile performer). So now, our rep earns his $50,000 base salary for showing up at work and playing nicely; he earns another $50,000 for selling to his quota; and now he earns an additional $50,000 for being a top performer. Some plans pay 300% of target incentive – it’s up to the company to decide, but the amount of upside potential is usually determined by the competitiveness of the market to attract and retain top performers and the margins of the business to sustain a certain level of pay for top performance.
To me, this is what makes upside potential so interesting: Without the upside potential, the incentive compensation plan favors the company, because it only pays up to quota. The risk is all assumed by the rep; if she doesn’t make her quota, she won’t earn her total target compensation. But if she knocks her quota out of the park, she’s not rewarded much more. Upside potential balances out the risk and reward equation for the rep, making it worthwhile for the rep to put that pay at risk rather than just take a flat salary.
Believe it or not, some companies have very little to offer reps above quota. There’s minimal incentive to reach beyond their goals. In the case of our earlier example, the employee seeks a job with a company willing to pay her upside.
Let me know if you’ve seen examples of upside well used — or a company that doesn’t believe in it.
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