Within sales compensation, a threshold is the performance level at which the plan begins to pay incentive. For example, if a rep’s quota is to sell $1,000,000 in revenue annually, she might have a threshold of $400,000, or 40 percent of quota. If she sells less than that, she’ll only earn her base salary, without any incentive compensation. Once she sells that $400,000 – the threshold point – then her incentives kick in. She can earn these incentives up to her target incentive, which she would earn once she’d sold the full $1,000,000 of her quota. And of course, if she sells beyond $1,000,000, then she’s eligible for upside (the really good stuff).
But, are thresholds fair? To say a rep cannot earn incentive pay until she sells a certain amount could sound like she’s selling for nothing. But don’t forget, the company already pays a base salary for the core job responsibilities and minimal performance. So some companies believe paying incentive on top of that would be double-paying. Thresholds also set a clear minimum performance expectation: performing below a certain percent of quota (or a certain dollar level) is unacceptable, and may ultimately find the rep looking for a new job. Withholding incentive is the first painful step but send a clear message that that level of performance is unacceptable in this company.
So for what types of jobs are thresholds appropriate? That decision is largely based on the job’s sales strategy and type of sale. This is where the (pretend) bus accident comes into play. Ask the question: “If at the beginning of the year the rep was hit by a bus, what percent of his annual quota would come in without him there?” If the answer is, “All or most of it,” because a large portion of his revenue is recurring, then you might want to consider a threshold for that role.
If your answer to the (pretend) bus accident question is, “None of it,” because the rep is focused on new customer selling or working with current customers that have little recurring revenue, then each new sale may simply not exist without the rep. If that rep has a high degree of influence for each sale, then plan should have little or no threshold.
The (pretend) bus accident question is a great tool to cut through the arguments about thresholds with some straight logic and cross-industry practices. The actual level of the threshold, in terms of percent of quota, is usually set either mathematically or through management expertise. Using the mathematical approach, the organization should look at quota attainment historically at the 10th percentile, and use that as an estimate of a reasonable threshold. The management expertise approach answers the question, “Below what point would it simply not be acceptable to pay incentives?” Most executives will have an immediate answer to this question.
Once the threshold point is set, beware of changing it from year to year just because the performance distributions change. Expect variability and keep a steady hand over time unless the market, nature of the sale, or job role change significantly.
How do you determine whether or not to set thresholds? Do you think they’re fair?
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