By: Mark Donnolo
On a chilly morning in Sacramento, I sat perched on a vinyl bench seat, warily eyeing my rolling workplace for the day: an 18-wheeler, windows fogged from the cold, vibrating slightly as its engine idled. My tour guide, Cliff, was a driver sales rep for a major brewing company. Cliff climbed into the cab, slid over to the driver’s seat, and we pulled away from the distributor’s warehouse towards a 10-hour day of sales calls to convenience stores, supermarkets, bars, and restaurants.
As we drove, we talked about how Cliff sold beer. He had been with the company for a number of years and was very successful, but he explained that his role had changed. “Two years ago, I was selling cases of beer to store owners. Now, I’m trying to make the beer they already have move faster. I check the signs, inspect the coolers, and try to get our beer in the best position.” In addition to being a driver sales rep, Cliff had become a bit of a marketer, too, since the company had changed his objectives a short time ago.
In the parking lot of a convenience store in a gritty urban neighborhood, Cliff dragged down a hand truck and I followed him to the back of the store and into a huge cooler which held cases upon cases of light beer, regular beer, and premium beer in 12-ounce, 16-ounce, and quart containers. Cliff looked through the stacks, pulled the expired boxes, and loaded them into the truck. He then lugged beer from the truck and packed it into the cooler. As he did this he talked to the convenience store owner about what was selling and what was not. Then he detailed the cooler display at the front of the store, making sure the facings of cans and bottles were aligned and that the packaging and tags for the week’s specials were clearly displayed.
The brewery Cliff worked for had changed its sales strategy recently. The old approach was to sell as many cases of beer as possible, as often as possible, to as many retailers and restaurants as possible. Cliff and the other driver sales reps were paid cents per case commission to load more cases into the cooler, rotate the stock, and pull out old beer.
Eventually, the brewing company realized that pushing more bottles and cans into the backroom of a retailer wasn’t necessarily selling more beer to the customer. With competition at the point of sale increasing over the years, sales out was less driven by stocking the cooler and more driven by effective marketing. Strategically, what was important to the brewing company was selling beer to the end consumer. The company learned that the consumption of beer was driven by TV, radio, and social media advertising. Point of sale advertising, they discovered, was another driving force.
For years the company had missed the opportunity to mobilize the driver reps and had motivated them toward the wrong goal. It had mistakenly promoted a transactional model of selling into the backroom. Finally they realized what actually sold beer – product placement, use of signs and displays, and matching price points with competitors. But the question remained: how did that translate to the sales organization? How could this strategy convert to incentives meaningful to the driver sales reps?
The quest for that answer found me undercover in a convenience store cooler, wearing a starched uniform with “Mark” neatly scripted above my left shirt pocket. We worked with the company to determine how to motivate the sales organization with performance indicators that could ultimately steer consumer preference. The company moved their sales compensation plan off of a purely volume-based plan and connected it to the metrics and activities that drove beer consumption. They developed performance measures that were focused on merchandising such as the number of facings, the position of the product closest to the cooler handle, the placement of signage in the retailer, the positioning of large displays, and competitive matching. If their competitor’s malt liquor was in 32-ounce bottles, they made sure their 32-ounce bottles of malt liquor were positioned right next to them, hopefully with a larger number of facings.
By understanding what influenced the purchase of beer and connecting it to something that was important to the driver sales rep, the company was able to change the behaviors of the reps and get them to sell more beer. Now, Cliff talked to the store owner not only about how many cases of beer he wanted and yesterday’s baseball scores, but also how the beer was selling and ideas he had about improving the marketing of certain products. He talked about the positioning of the product and displays, and he had statistics on how much that could increase the volume. The store owner listened because he knew Cliff’s advice was in his best interest.
Because Cliff’s compensation changed, his conversations changed. Because his conversations changed, the results changed. This retailer had struggled with the sale of premium beer brands in this particular market, but had seen a dramatic improvement in those sales over the past 24 months because of Cliff’s marketing.
The company and Cliff had learned an important lesson about translating the new sales strategy to the front line. The customer learned an important lesson about how to improve the results for his business, and together the company and the customer saw significant improvement in results, demonstrating the power of sales compensation and its connection to the sales strategy.
One of the first things our firm does when we look at sales compensation is understand the sales strategy. We ask: How should the priorities of the business be represented in the sales compensation plan?
One of the ironies of sales compensation is that while it’s a tactical program, it can churn up issues that are actually bigger sales effectiveness misalignments. For example, Cliff’s sales compensation plan paid him for generating pure sales volume, an activity that was out of alignment with the company’s strategy of positioning product competitively and playing an advisor role to help the retailer grow its business. A transactional plan like this would ultimately cause a breakdown in the company’s ability to achieve its goals. Sales executives have to be able to distinguish between issues that are sales compensation related and those that are indicators of bigger strategic challenges. They have to know when they have a sales process issue that needs to be fixed.
Mike Kelly, former CEO and president of The Weather Channel Companies, began his career years ago at Fortune magazine. There, Kelly worked directly with the business customer – sometimes the CEO of the company – who would have a personal preference for a business magazine, whether it was Fortune or Forbes or Business Week. Because the decision maker was at a senior level in the organization, it was important to understand the corporate strategy. When Kelly took over the sales organization of a new magazine, Entertainment Weekly, he took that customer orientation with him.
Traditionally, a magazine would research target companies and try to prove to clients and agencies that their audience was the right audience, as opposed to trying to connect their customers and advertisers to the subject matter. But Kelly implemented a customized, consultative approach, connecting advertisers to entertainment marketing. Unfortunately, Kelly explains, “We over-customized it, and the organization had a hard time making money.”
Entertainment Weekly was scheduled to be profitable after two years, but by year five it was still losing money and Kelly was feeling some pressure. “We would always point to our growth. Our circulation growth was great, our revenue growth was great, and everybody assumed, ‘Okay, at some point or another we’re going to get to profitability.’”
Kelly enrolled himself in an executive education class at Columbia University where he met Professor Selden, who talked about an idea called customer segmentation. He told his class the best companies understand not only who their customer is but also what their customer’s needs are. They group their customers based on needs as opposed to what they want to sell them. By segmenting his customers Kelly could understand the profitability of each customer and each customer segment. Then he could align his resources against those customer segments that were most profitable.
“It was revolutionary for me,” says Kelly. “No one – and certainly no one in the magazine industry – thought that way. All revenue was good revenue. And we typically thought our biggest customers, our highest volume customers, were the most profitable customers.”
So Kelly took this idea back to Entertainment Weekly, and his team analyzed the profitability of all of the advertisers and all of their segments. They figured out that cable advertising was starting to explode. Networks wouldn’t let cable channels advertise on television because they thought they would steal viewers. Cable had to buy print advertising; it was the biggest, broadest reach they could get. Entertainment Weekly had a smattering of cable channel advertisers, but it hadn’t been a big focus. Kelly and his team had concentrated on what everybody else was concentrating on – automotive companies and health and beauty companies. They were big advertisers that had a lot of appeal but were price sensitive. Kelly, however, realized that the cable television advertisers were actually their most profitable advertisers because they paid full price; they were time sensitive – they had to be in certain issues in the magazine because the show was on a certain night – all the factors that compelled them to pay a premium.
Kelly completely changed how his organization thought about who their customer was, who their most profitable customers were, and how they should go after their customers. He realigned the sales force, putting more people on the most profitable categories with strong growth expectations and sales incentives and fewer resources against the customers for whom it was really just a price buy.
“We were supposed to lose money that year,” Kelly says. “We made money. And then we went on to have 30 percent CAGR [compound annual growth rate] for the next five years.
“I learned that sales is sales. But there are principles of finance that if you apply them to sales, including incentive plans, you can accelerate what you do. I’ve brought that to every other job I’ve had. We really try to understand who the customer is and what our value proposition is to that customer. Then we segment those customers so we understand who the most profitable ones are and who they aren’t. We put our resources behind that profit.
“If your compensation plan doesn’t align with the strategy and the segments you want to target, then you’re going to be working at cross purposes. It’s hard work to get an organization, any organization, to start to think differently. And in most companies, sales is product-focused or platform-focused. They’re going to go sell their product wherever they can. When a company becomes more customer focused, all of a sudden it starts to define the product mix based on what the customer needs are.” The sales compensation program can either support that customer focus, run counter to that focus, or create confusion. In Kelly’s case, the priorities of the sales strategy were well-represented in the sales compensation plan, and it drove the desired behavior.
When thinking about sales strategy and sales compensation, it’s critical to have a framework. “The comp plan is the caboose, not the engine,” says Doug Holland, director of human resources and compensation for Manpower Group North America, a global workforce solutions company. “Compensation should never be driving the strategy. The strategy drives the compensation. It’s incredible, especially in times of stress, how that message can kind of get lost. Comp issues are often symptoms of bigger problems, and it’s the easiest, most tangible thing to look at. The challenge is, do we have the right job designs? Do we have the right people? Those are harder conversations. That’s often the struggle with comp plans.”
We developed The Revenue Roadmap from our decades of work with hundreds of high performing sales organizations. The Revenue Roadmap identifies four major layers, or competency areas, and 16 related disciplines that must connect for the organization to grow profitably.
For an in-depth look at The Revenue Roadmap to align your sales strategy with organizational goals and ensure your sales compensation program drives the right behaviors, get “What Your CEO Needs to Know About Sales Compensation”.
This post was updated on July 22, 2019.