These days, motivating a sales team takes a lot of creativity.

The traditional commission or bonus structure is no longer the best motivator — instead, it can damage employee engagement. Capped commissions often deter employees from working hard after they’ve reached their limit, and cash bonuses can demotivate teams that fail to reach sales goals. Adjusting annual quotas or benchmarks, meanwhile, can feel unfair to high-performing employees and create rifts within the team.

A recent Gallup poll shows that only 13 percent of employees feel engaged at work, while 49.5 percent don’t feel engaged, and 16.6 percent are actively disengaged. This disengagement can lead to higher turnover, costing U.S. companies $11 billion each year.

Instead of relying on age-old tactics, companies must look to new approaches to motivate their sales teams and drive performance and employee engagement.

The Mario Kart Approach

When it came time to inspire my own sales team and rally them around something besides cash, I looked to an unusual source of inspiration: the video game “Mario Kart.”

I wanted to create an inclusive game that encouraged employees to participate — some even got into the spirit by taking on the roles of Mario and Luigi. To start, we gave each sales team member three balloons, similar to the actual game. For every sale made with over a $1,000 account deposit, the employee could pop a balloon belonging to the team member of his choice. At the end of the week, the employee with the most remaining balloons won.

Employees were also allowed to steal balloons when they made sales with deposits of more than $2,000, so employees who lost all their balloons early in the game were motivated to make difficult sales and get back in the competition.

Although our two sales teams typically remain siloed, the game brought everyone together into one big, collaborative team. Some employees even made alliances across teams to eliminate other team members’ balloons, increasing unity and driving bigger sales.

Strategies for Motivating a Sales Force

Our “Mario Kart” initiative motivated employees to try harder in their sales approaches by not settling for a “no” or a small deposit. The game brought camaraderie, competition, and excitement to the team. Here are three strategies to help your company take a similarly creative approach to employee engagement:

1. Figure out what truly motivates your team.

As my team discovered, sometimes fun initiatives can outweigh financial incentives. After the initiative concluded, our employees reported valuing the game over a cash bonus because it increased their engagement during the workday.

We also have a culture team that stays in tune with employees and constantly reevaluates and identifies what truly motivates them. As we have seen over time, you may need to shift priorities: What motivated someone five years ago may not matter today.

2. Find unique ways to financially empower employees.

Writing a check may seem like the simplest path to financial empowerment, but helping employees with long-term financial wellness is a better option.

For example, we planned a financial wellness program after learning that many of our employees are burdened with student debt. The weeklong program brought in experts to discuss relevant financial topics such as taxes, mortgages, student debt repayment, and college savings plans. Because the bulk of our staff is relatively young, we want to set employees up for lifelong financial well-being.

3. Try out new motivation tactics.

No one-size-fits-all approach to motivating employees exists. Money may seem like the ultimate motivator, but until you try something else, you won’t know what truly incentivizes your employees.

The “Mario Kart” game worked especially well for us because of our primarily young employee base, many of whom grew up playing the game. By tapping into something that brought them joy, we escaped the trite cash cycle and brought more engagement and fun to the workplace.

Determining how to motivate a group takes constant trial and error, communication, and effort. Remember that it’s OK to think outside the box. What creative techniques have you tried?


Jason Kulpa is the CEO of San Diego, California-based Underground Elephant, one of the nation’s premier customer acquisition solutions companies for leading brands. By leveraging proprietary next-generation marketing automation technology, Underground Elephant provides Fortune 1000 companies with high-quality direct response solutions on an unprecedented scale.