Why the Best Sales Contests Don’t Reward the Top Producers

I’m a big believer in sales contests. During my 10 years in sales leadership, I’ve had a lot of time to experiment with designing sales contests—some of which have worked, some of which have been miserable failures. In this post, I’ll share my biggest takeaways on how to put together sales contests that drive excitement and superlative results.

It’s All About the Team

Research shows that creating healthy competition within sales teams can substantially increase results. I know; you don’t need me to provide proof that salespeople are competitive!

Sales contests are the most obvious way to ignite that competitive spirit, but they shouldn’t be about elevating one individual over another.

It doesn’t matter if you’re selling event management software or kitchen knives. Running effective sales contests is all about pushing the entire team to reach collective new heights. To do this, you must keep in mind that the three main goals of a sales contest are to:

  1. Elevate the performance of poor/average performers
  2. Increase overall team activity
  3. Enhance team morale

Notice that none of these goals have anything to do with driving more sales directly.  In fact, “sell the most” sales contests usually have a negative effect on all three of the goals above.

A small sync between the Bizzabo AE and BDR teams.

Don’t Build Your Sales Contest Around the Top-Selling Sales Rep

Easily the biggest misconception about sales contests is the notion that their goal is to reward the top-selling rep. In fact, the worst sales contests are created around the premise of “most revenue in a month wins X.”

Rewarding elite sales production, in and of itself, should not be what you design a sales contest around. You should already have mechanisms in place to incentivize that kind of excellence, like a “BDR of the Month” award or an “Account Executive of the Quarter” trophy.

And if you have a large enough organization, you also probably have a “President’s Club” where those in the top 10% of production for the year go on a well-deserved, company-paid vacation. You should leave the acknowledgment of top sales results to those types of rewards.

Shake the Tree by Rewarding Front-end Activity

First and foremost, sales contests should almost exclusively be designed around rewarding front-end activity. The primary reason for this is because activity is the great equalizer; if you’re new or struggling, it’s much easier to stay in contention with the top sales performers when you’re judged on booking demos, making a lot of dials, or passing over qualified leads to account executives (or any other top-of-the-funnel activity). 

RELATED: 7 Steps to a Successful SDR Cold Calling Sales Contest (Case Study)

A secondary benefit to building sales contests around activity is that it tends to “shake the tree” of your top-performing reps. Elite reps who are benefiting from strong pipelines and a mastery of your sales process typically shirk their responsibility to generate high activity. They’re so efficient they’ve forgotten what it means to hustle. But unfortunately for them, if they want to be competitive in an activity-based sales contest, they’ll need to step up to the plate and improve their behavior.   

Moreover, when you structure contests around the top-of-the-funnel and not the end result, you’ll benefit from everything that comes with a level playing field; everyone is engaged and team activity soars.

Strong Sales Contests Don’t Focus on the End Result

Put yourself in the shoes of a new sales rep or someone that is struggling to produce on a consistent basis. It’s the first day of the month and your manager is visibly excited to roll out the new sales contest. As usual, the parameters are around selling more than everyone else to win. The manager thinks the prize, a new 4K TV, will motivate everyone to work hard and the competitive spirit between the reps will lead to a record sales month.

What is more likely to happen is that the top reps who always do well will pull ahead in the contest within the first week. The remaining reps, whose production you actually need to improve, will fall hopelessly behind when they realize they have no real chance of winning. For the next three weeks, the majority of the team disengages from the sales contest and the historically best reps will inevitably win again.

The rich get richer and you just gave an expensive prize to a rep that was going to have a great month anyway. When this occurs, why even bother running a sales contest at all?  

Add an Element of Chance to Your Sales Contest

Even if you’ve changed your contest parameters to reward front-end activity, if the sales contest is still as simple as “most demos booked in a month wins”, you’re missing a huge component of running great contests – having fun with gamification. One of the key learnings I’ve had in running almost a hundred sales contests is the importance of introducing the element of luck.  

By tying qualifying contest activities to playing a game with an unpredictable outcome, it truly makes it feel like anyone can win. More specifically, the randomness associated with playing a game should appear twice in your contests – once when a qualifying activity is completed, and once at the end of the competition to determine the final winner.  

Yes, we are spinning a roulette wheel in the name of better sales performance and morale.

As an example, I recently designed a contest for my BDR team around the number of qualified opportunities accepted by the account executives. To introduce luck, I went online and bought a cheap plastic roulette wheel. I explained to the reps that every time an account executive takes a demo into their pipe, they get to spin the roulette wheel. Whatever number they landed on was then converted into the number of poker chips they earned.

When a “game of chance”  like this accompanied each individual activity, the BDRs were unusually driven to book demos just so they could spin the wheel. While they were having fun, I was basking in a flurry of activity that ultimately leads to more sales.  

Then at the end of the month, all the BDRs took their chips to a no-limit poker table and the person left standing won (and I can assure you, they were not my best rep).  I can’t over overstate the benefit to company morale when everyone was watching me deal the final hand and cheering on the underdog.  All it takes is one successfully run contest to get everyone excited for what you’ll do next.

A High Tide Raises All Boats

When I was an individual contributor at the start of my career, I was involved in many “sell the most” contests.  I experienced first-hand how ineffective they were and vowed to never repeat those mistakes if I were to lead a team of my own.

Once I earned a promotion to management, I put an end to contests designed around the end result – why give more to the best reps only to demotivate the rest of the team?

From my experience, contests that revolve around playing games with top-of-the-funnel activity are a high tide that raises all boats – everyone is engaged throughout the competition, team morale soars, and most importantly, you’ll get an appreciable bump in results.

This is what has worked for me and why I don’t design contests that only reward top producers. Do you agree? Awesome. Disagree violently? Even better. Weigh-in in the comments and let me know what innovative contest ideas have worked for you!

Also published on Medium.

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