Create a Winning Sales Contest

A prevailing thought in sales is that ex-athletes make good salespeople.  Typically athletes are competitive and have a strong drive to get better and are competitive.  They are also very coach-able.  I have always liked sales contests.  I’m a big believer in them.  During my over 15 years of sales experience, I’ve have witnessed a ton of different sales contests.  I have seen some that have worked and others that have not.  I would like to share with you some of my thoughts around what makes a good sales contest.  

Before we can design the best sales contest, we need to address the elephant in the room – What are you actually trying to achieve when you run a sales contest?

Team Focused

As I said earlier, research and the prevailing thought process is that the top salespeople are inherently competitive.  Having a sales contest should be the most obvious way to ignite the competitive spirit of your reps.  But the sales contest should not be about elevating one rep over another.  An effective sales contest is about pushing the entire team to reach a new level of performance.  With that in mind, the three main goals of sales contests are:

  1. Increase the performance of under-performing reps.
  2. Increase team activity (notice not sales dollars but activity)
  3. Increase attitude and/or morale of the team

Notice that none of these goals have anything to do with driving more sales directly.  In fact, “sell the most” sales contests usually have a negative effect on all three of the goals above.

Don’t build your contest so that your Top-Selling Reps win

The worst sales contests are created around the premise of “whoever sells the most wins X.”  You should have incentives in place to reward the top performer.  This could be the “Rep of the Month” or “Rep of the Quarter” trophy.  The sales contest should focus on something else. 

Reward early stage sales activity

Many sales thought leaders agree that the key to sales success is your early stage sales activity.  These are the sales prospecting actions that lead to sales opportunities.  Sales contests need to exclusively be designed to reward these activities.  The key reason for this is because this activity is the great equalizer.  If you’re new or struggling, it’s much easier to stay in contention with the top sales performers when you’re judged on booking demos, making a lot of dials, or passing over qualified leads to account executives (or any other top-of-the-funnel activity).  A secondary benefit to building sales contests around activity is that it tends to “shake the tree” of your top-performing reps. Elite reps who are benefiting from strong pipelines and a mastery of your sales process typically shirk their responsibility to generate high activity. They’re so efficient they’ve forgotten what it means to hustle. But unfortunately for them, if they want to be competitive in an activity-based sales contest, they’ll need to step up to the plate and improve their behavior.   Moreover, when you structure contests around the top-of-the-funnel and not the end result, you’ll benefit from everything that comes with a level playing field; everyone is engaged and team activity soars.

Strong Sales Contests Don’t Focus on the End Result

Put yourself in the shoes of a new sales rep or someone that is struggling to produce on a consistent basis. It’s the first day of the month and your manager is visibly excited to roll out the new sales contest. As usual, the parameters are around selling more than everyone else to win. The manager thinks the prize, a new 4K TV, will motivate everyone to work hard and the competitive spirit between the reps will lead to a record sales month. What is more likely to happen is that the top reps who always do well will pull ahead in the contest within the first week. The remaining reps, whose production you actually need to improve, will fall hopelessly behind when they realize they have no real chance of winning. For the next three weeks, the majority of the team disengages from the sales contest and the historically best reps will inevitably win again.

Add an Element of Chance to Your Sales Contest

Even if you’ve changed your contest parameters to reward front-end activity, if the sales contest is still as simple as “most demos booked in a month wins”, you’re missing a huge component of running great contests – having fun with gamification. One of the key learnings I’ve had in participating in almost a hundred sales contests is the importance of introducing the element of luck.  By tying qualifying contest activities to playing a game with an unpredictable outcome, it truly makes it feel like anyone can win. More specifically, the randomness associated with playing a game should appear twice in your contests – once when a qualifying activity is completed, and once at the end of the competition to determine the final winner.  As an example, I recently participated in a contest around the number of qualified opportunities accepted by the account executives. To introduce luck, we went online and bought a cheap plastic roulette wheel. We were told that every time an account executive takes a demo into their pipe, they get to spin the roulette wheel. Whatever number they landed on was then converted into the number of poker chips they earned. When a “game of chance”  like this accompanied each individual activity, the BDRs were unusually driven to book demos just so they could spin the wheel. While they were having fun, I was basking in a flurry of activity that ultimately leads to more sales.  Then at the end of the month, all the BDRs took their chips to a no-limit poker table and the person left standing won (and I can assure you, they were not the best rep).  I can’t over overstate the benefit to company morale when everyone was watching me deal the final hand and cheering on the underdog.  All it takes is one successfully run contest to get everyone excited for what you’ll do next.

A High Tide Raises All Boats

When I was an individual contributor at the start of my career, I was involved in many “sell the most” contests.  I experienced first-hand how ineffective they were and vowed to never repeat those mistakes if I were to lead a team of my own. Once I earned a promotion to management, I put an end to contests designed around the end result – why give more to the best reps only to demotivate the rest of the team? From my experience, contests that revolve around playing games with top-of-the-funnel activity are a high tide that raises all boats – everyone is engaged throughout the competition, team morale soars, and most importantly, you’ll get an appreciable bump in results. This is what has worked for me and why I don’t design contests that only reward top producers. Do you agree? Awesome. Disagree violently? Even better. Weigh-in in the comments and let me know what innovative contest ideas have worked for you!

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