Optimize Your Commission Based Pay & Sales Compensation

A major challenge for businesses expanding rapidly (e.g., startups) is fairly compensating employees when income has yet to stabilize.

These businesses occasionally solely pay their salespeople on commission in the hopes that they would perform well, continue to close transactions, and bring in new customers.

Commission-based remuneration makes sense from a leadership standpoint in terms of promoting sales while increasing the company’s income. However, because they see it as being excessively hazardous, many people won’t be drawn to a position that pays simply commission. Those who accept the task could eventually get (or become quickly) discouraged.

Regardless, your company’s future depends on how well your employees meet their sales goals, so what’s the best compensation plan for optimal employee performance?

Designing a compensation plan for top sales performance: Meaning, motivation, and measurement

An effective sales compensation strategy should pair a competitive salary with a commission schedule. Pairing fair base pay with commission ensures your employees can focus on work without worrying about meeting basic living expenses. At the same time, however, the commission provides strong motivation for the employee to meet and even exceed sales goals.

A meaningful compensation structure will reflect the challenges of the job. In other words, the commission will be appropriate for the difficulty of each sale. In addition, your sales employees should view the commission as a reward worth working toward.

Finally, any good compensation plan will include a way for success to be measured objectively.

Balancing salary and commission-based pay is key to an effective compensation plan. Company executives in Sales, Operations, and HR should work together to develop a strategy aligned with your short- and long-term business goals, pay philosophy, and cash resources.

Writing up your sales and compensation plan

Your discussions with team members may have yielded a clearly defined compensation plan, but you still need to get the policies on paper and distributed to your sales team.

Your written policy should include:

  • The sales goals for the entire team for the time period in question (e.g., per month, per quarter, per year)
  • The significance of these goals to the company
  • The sales goals per employee and how success will be tracked
  • The system for measuring individual performance
  • A description of the performance review process
  • How salary and commissions will be paid and the formulas used to calculate bonuses
  • Company objectives, performance metrics, and payout management

Best practices for follow up

Once your compensation plan is on paper, be sure and follow your company policy regarding the approval process. Does your Board of Directors need to weigh in? How about an attorney?

New hires should be provided a copy of the plan during the onboarding process, with the employee’s manager explaining the particulars.

If the new plan pays less in salary than your current employees earn, you may want to consider “grandfathering” these employees in, to ensure the smoothest transition to the new payment structure.

Review the results of your plan on a regular basis and use the data to make improvements as needed. Ultimately you’ll want to work with your sales team to create a plan that gets your company the best results while maintaining employee satisfaction.

Interested in learning more? Read “Salary or Commission? Making the Case for Sales Compensation Planning.”

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Karaka Leslie

Karaka Leslie is one of the Product Managers at PayScale, a compensation data and software company. Karaka started her career as an agency recruiter, helping companies find the best talent. Since then, she has worked with numerous businesses to assist them with building a solid case for good compensation planning. Outside of compensation, she also founded a Community Giving group to help connect professionals to local community organizations focused on education and career services.


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