Building an Engaged Sales Force: What Matters to Asia-Based Employees?
Simmi Mehta, Senior Consultant, Sales Effectiveness and Compensation Jon Randall, Director, Sales Effectiveness and Compensation, Asia-Pacific
Watson Wyatt research shows that employee engagement is a leading indicator of a company’s financial performance. Employees who are highly engaged tend to perform at higher levels and be more productive, driving corporate success. And, compared with other workers, highly engaged employees are five times as likely to believe passionately in what their organization stands for in the marketplace.
Given the direct impact of your sales force on top-line performance, keeping sales employees engaged is the key to achieving business objectives. But what factors motivate them? And how can you ensure your human capital programs are supporting the commitment and performance of your sales professionals? Using insights from the Asia-Pacific version of Watson Wyatt’s global employee attitude research, we will explore what drives sales employee engagement and suggests ways to optimize sales force effectiveness.
Employee Engagement is a Leading Indicator of Financial Performance Watson Wyatt research shows that employee engagement is a leading indicator of a company’s financial performance. Employees who are highly engaged tend to be more productive and perform at higher levels. In fact, compared with other workers, highly engaged employees are five times as likely to believe passionately in what their organization stands for in the marketplace, and they more readily identify with the company’s products and customers. In turn, companies with highly engaged employees have 16 percent higher five-year total shareholder returns, 50 percent higher market premium and 26 percent greater employee productivity than demonstrated by companies whose employees are less committed.
Implications for Managing Your Sales Force
By knowing the right engagement levers, and keeping these in mind as you design and implement human capital programs, your organization can optimize employee engagement and help drive achievement of usiness results. But, what about that segment of the workforce with the most direct impact on top-line performance — the sales force? Here, too, the research provides some helpful insight.
Employees who are highly engaged tend to be more productive and perform at higher levels. Sales employees are often thought to be primarily money-motivated and selfmanaging. As long as you can offer a compelling incentive opportunity (so the thinking goes), strong producers will thrive and stay with the company, and weak performers will either find a way to improve or self-select out of the organization.
In this Darwinian “survival of the fittest” approach, sales management tends to focus on the care and feeding of top performers (the 80/20 rule, where 20 percent of the salespeople deliver 80 percent of the sales) rather than on improving the performance of lower performers. With this approach, the majority of time is spent monitoring and driving quota achievement, while softer “people management” activities such as performance coaching, employee development and career planning programs take a backseat.
Is this a smart strategy? Not if your goal is to drive sales performance through a highly engaged sales force. The research shows that these “people” programs are important — even to sales employees. Indeed, in Asia, highly engaged sales employees are six times more likely than their less-engaged colleagues to believe their company provides helpful career planning tools and resources, including coaching, self assessment, career paths and clear competency frameworks. They are also eight times more likely to think their company does a good job of helping poor performers improve.
Building a Motivated and Committed Sales Force
What makes your sales force want to sell? Globally, the top three areas of greatest impact on sales employee engagement are performance management, change management, and pay program alignment and appreciation.
Acting on the Research Findings
Many organizations have developed company-wide performance management programs. However, ensuring that these programs are meaningful and add value to sales employees may require some tailoring. The following checklist can help pinpoint potential opportunities:
- Have you identified and clearly communicated sales-function-specific performance and competency expectations that are linked to your company’s go-to-market strategy and selling process? As the company’s face to the customer, your sales force is in a unique position to shape customer perception of your brand, based on the nature, integrity and value of the interaction. In particular, for companies that are shifting their go-to-market strategies (e.g., from “product push” to “needs-based” selling; from a focus on sales representatives to key account managers; from individual selling to team selling), competency frameworks can help clarify important new sets of skills and behaviors that are needed and expected.
- Have you identified those critical attributes of your top performers that most directly explain their success? With the right programs and processes in place, some companies are successfully replicating their best salespeople’s key skills and behaviors, helping lift the performance of the entire sales force.
- Does your company provide performance management and career development frameworks to help managers have meaningful conversations with their front-line sales teams about expectations, development and career progression opportunities? In Asia, particularly in markets such as China and India, being able to more clearly describe career progression and the ways in which the company supports skills development is helping a variety of companies more successfully compete for sales talent.
- Have you trained and equipped your managers to engage in the performance and development discussions — and are these happening? Do you monitor the value that sales employees are deriving from performance coaching discussions with their managers?
Taking the time to assess and, as necessary, refine your sales force performance and talent management programs can be well worth the effort: In Asia, fully 91 percent of highly engaged sales employees agree that they understand the measures used to evaluate their performance, know how these measures are linked to company strategy and goals, and feel recognized by their immediate supervisor when they do a good job. Moreover, these employees are more than twice as likely as their less engaged counterparts to believe their performance reviews have helped them become even more successful in achieving their sales goals.
For sales employees, change can take many forms: a new customer segmentation strategy, a redefined selling role, a new sales process, a redrawn territory or a shift in product mix. Although leaders often view changes such as these as a challenge to maintaining a committed workforce, Watson Wyatt research shows that change actually presents opportunities to increase employee engagement, as long as the change is carefully managed.
The process of helping employees accept and adapt to change is frequently punctuated by “engageable moments.” These are critical junctures in the employee-employer relationship, where companies can either strengthen the employee’s commitment and line-of-sight to results or diminish these drivers of employee engagement. By recognizing and managing engageable moments, you can create positive interactions that enhance employees’ motivation and commitment and drive higher performance.
One key to turning change into a positive experience for employees is to deliberately involve them in the change process. This may seem counter-cultural to Asian companies, where many retain “top down” management styles. Yet, in Asia, highly engaged sales employees are 11 times more likely than employees with low engagement to agree that the management at their company does a good job of involving employees in decisions that affect them.
Pay Program Alignment and Appreciation
Across Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America, “rewards” (compensation and benefits) is one of the top three drivers of employee engagement. Not surprisingly, it’s also a key driver for sales employees. Indeed, in Asia, highly engaged employees are 18 times more likely than less engaged employees to be satisfied with their pay. However, in interpreting this finding, it’s important to think beyond the magnitude of rewards. In our experience, how rewards are structured and communicated has a significant impact on their “engagement” value.
For example, overly complex sales incentive plans with too many metrics tend to diminish sales employee focus and dilute plan power by spreading rewards too thinly. Similarly, plans with confusing payout mechanics tend to create ambiguity around earning opportunities, which in turn tends to lower employee engagement. This is especially the case for plans with multiple performance hurdles, gates and docked pay.From the employee’s perspective, these plans were designed to “not pay out.”
Often, we find that an immediate “low-hanging fruit” opportunity to improve a sales incentive plan is to simplify both design and communication, while ensuring close alignment with selling strategy and priorities. The resulting clarity of the pay-for-the-right-performance deal tends to significantly increase employee engagement and drive superior focus and sales achievement.
Sales employees are not exclusively money-motivated and self-managing.
Rather, the research shows that skills development, career progression, manager recognition and input into changes that affect them are powerful drivers of engagement — in addition to a well-crafted sales incentive plan that drives the right selling focus. Smart companies are implementing people management programs that are carefully tailored to the needs of the sales force in order to drive higher engagement and reap superior results.