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Why Incentive Compensation Matters – and How to Build the Program that Suits Your Business

salesperson happy with their incentive compensation
Rewarding your employees with incentive compensation is key to your overall business success. [Adobe/Salesforce]

Learn how to build an incentive compensation program that fuels your company's growth.

Why do you reward your employees? It’s not a hard question to answer: You want to show your employees that you value them while motivating them to perform at a high level. An equally important question – and the key to a successful incentive compensation program: How do you reward your employees?

In this article, we’ll cover the ins and outs of incentive compensation and provide some key tips for developing a program that simultaneously rewards your employees and supports the growth of your business.

What you’ll learn:

Motivate your reps with automated incentive pay

Discover the power of automating commissions with Incentive Compensation Management, and easily create incentive programs that scale.

What is incentive compensation?

Incentive compensation is a form of payment that rewards employees – often sales employees specifically – for achieving certain goals or objectives. It is often tied to individual or company performance and serves the purpose of motivating employees to work as effectively as possible and achieve better results. 

Incentive compensation can take many forms, including bonuses, stock options, profit sharing, and commission-based pay structures.

Although incentive compensation is primarily used to compensate sales teams, it’s not uncommon for other roles to earn incentive pay. Employees who work in sales operations, customer success, recruiting, and marketing are often eligible for incentive compensation beyond their base salaries.

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Long-term incentives vs. short-term incentives

Incentive compensation typically falls into one of two categories – long-term incentives and short-term incentives.

Long-term incentives are awarded over several years or even decades. These incentives may include stock options, restricted stock units, performance shares, or other equity-based compensation that vests over time. Their purpose is to align the interests of the employee with the long-term success of the company, as the value of these incentives traditionally increases based on the company’s performance.

Short-term incentives, on the other hand, are typically awarded and paid out within the current fiscal year, quarterly, or semi-annually. They are usually tied to specific performance goals or targets and may include bonuses, commission, or other performance-based rewards. Short-term incentives are used to drive short-term performance and provide immediate rewards to employees for achieving specific goals.

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Specific types of incentive compensation 

Let’s quickly break down some of the specific types of incentive compensation that an organization might offer:

  • Performance-based bonuses reward employees for achieving certain goals or targets related to their specific roles.
  • Restricted stock units (RSUs) give employees shares of a company’s stock, which typically vest over time and are entirely owned by employees once vested. RSUs are typically offered by publicly traded companies that want to attract and retain their top performers. 
  • Profit-sharing bonuses distribute a percentage of the company’s profits to employees, usually on a quarterly or annual basis, incentivizing them to work together to increase the company’s overall profitability.
  • Commission-based pay provides a percentage of sales revenue to employees who generate sales.

Some organizations use only one type of incentive pay, while others use multiple types of incentive compensation to create a more well-rounded incentive compensation program.

You’ll also see each type of incentive plan leveraged differently. Some companies pay sales teams only in commission, for example, while others pair commission with a base salary. What works for one company might not work for another. It’s best to test out different combinations of incentive offerings until you find what works best for your specific goals and objectives.

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Benefits of incentive compensation

Incentive compensation can provide the following benefits to both employers and employees.

Increases motivation

By tying compensation to specific goals, employees are motivated to work harder and achieve better results. When overall comp is based on their performance, employees have more incentive to achieve their goals.

Facilitates alignment of interests

Incentive compensation can align the interests of employees with high-level company strategies, encouraging them to work towards the company’s success.

Improves retention

Incentive compensation can help retain top-performing employees by providing rewards and recognition for their efforts.

Promotes accountability 

Incentive compensation plans set clear goals and objectives for employees, which holds them accountable for their performance and rewards them for their productivity.

Enables flexibility

Incentive compensation can be customized to fit the unique needs and goals of the organization as a whole as well as individual employees, enabling companies to offer the right compensation packages for their specific staff.

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Drawbacks of incentive compensation

While its benefits are significant, incentive compensation can present the following risks if designed or distributed poorly.

Undermines teamwork

When incentive compensation plans over-emphasize individual performance, they risk creating a culture that doesn’t place enough value on teamwork and collaboration.

Incentivizes bad behaviors

Poorly designed incentive plans can inadvertently motivate the wrong types of behavior. Without provisions like clawback clauses in place, employees might resort to unethical tactics or take a quantity-over-quality approach to selling. This can negatively impact sales results, morale, and overall productivity.

Can be difficult to maintain 

Incentive compensation can be costly for employers to administer and manage. Without the right resources, manual efforts to track and measure employee performance can be time-consuming and frustrating. The admin work alone can reduce an organization’s profitability – as the overhead of managing an inefficient incentive program inhibits admins from spending time on more revenue-driving activities.

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Best practices for designing effective incentive compensation plans

While there’s no set way to design an incentive compensation plan, there are a few key factors that will ensure you’re setting yourself up for success.

Define a clear structure 

Define which teams will earn incentive compensation. Then consider the goals of each of these teams. Develop your plans around the factors directly within this team’s control, and pay close attention to the behaviors you want to incentivize.

For example, for an inbound SDR team, you’ll want to incentivize the activities that indicate high inbound SDR performance – things like lead response time and qualified opportunity generation. If you neglect these factors and only reward closed-won revenue, you’ll fail to incentivize inbound SDRs to perform their key responsibilities.  

Establish and consistently measure clear performance metrics

Make sure you are measuring the same core metrics consistently, over time. You need to have reliable data around metrics like closed-won revenue, demos booked, and qualified lead generation to determine how these specific results should be weighed in your incentive plans.

Ensure fair and consistent payouts

You also want to make sure your business is able to consistently deliver on the incentives you’ve promised to employees. If you fail to make accurate, consistent, and timely payouts, employee engagement, morale, and trust in leadership will suffer.

Provide transparency to employees

Your employees should be able to understand how their performance tracks to their goals, what specifically they’re getting paid for, and how to access and understand their incentive compensation statements.

Review and adjust incentive plans regularly

If an incentive plan isn’t working out as intended (or at all), then it needs to be adjusted before it does more harm than good. We recommend reviewing your goals and KPIs at least quarterly in order to catch and resolve issues before they happen.

Invest in incentive compensation management tools

What systems or tools do you have in place to help you manage and maintain the manual work that often goes into managing an incentive program? Be sure you have the answer to this question before rolling out your plan. If you have a large team or limited bandwidth, you’ll want to explore incentive compensation management solutions that can help keep your program operating smoothly.

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Continuously fine-tune your incentive compensation strategy

Incentive compensation is too essential and multifaceted to exist as a set-it-and-forget-it program. Make sure that you’re regularly analyzing your compensation strategy – from your overall philosophy down to the specifics of individual plans – so that you can identify areas for improvement and make adjustments that benefit your employees and promote high performance across the entire organization.

Launch sophisticated compensation plans fast

Is outdated commissions management hurting your growth? See how to quickly create automated incentive plans that motivate your reps.

Erin Hueffner, Writer, Salesblazer
Erin Hueffner Writer, Salesblazer

Erin Hueffner is a writer from Madison, Wisconsin. Her career spans two decades in tech, journalism, and content marketing. At Salesforce, Erin’s work focuses on sales fundamentals and best practice content for Salesblazers. Erin has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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