Sales Competition Advice From Manchester United's Alex Ferguson

March 16, 2016 Geoffrey Walters

‘A winning mentality is built up over a period of time. It’s not a case of being born with a good attitude and work ethic. It can grow inside you. You have to surround yourself with people that have accountability inside them. They want to win every single day. High standards have to be set.’

Gary Neville, former Manchester United player and current manager of Valencia

Even if you’re not familiar with European soccer, you might have heard of Alex Ferguson. Ferguson was the legendary manager of Manchester United under whom Gary Neville spent his entire playing career, and he recently took up a long-term teaching position at Harvard Business School. Ferguson himself agrees with Neville that a winning mentality does not have to be innate: it can be learned.

‘You hope your personality and character eventually seeps into their pores and they then mirror your outlook on life and the outlook of how you approach matches,’ Ferguson said in the ESPN documentary 25 Years United. ‘And I think we’ve quite a few players who, in their own way, have developed a character in the shape or form that I thought I was like as a person. Just determined.’

As the most decorated manager in the history of English football, Ferguson certainly knows what he’s talking about. But what relevance does this have to sales? Many sales managers were star salespeople themselves before their promotion, burning with ambition and fired by their winning mentality. Yet these same managers have often struggled to transmit this mentality to those in their charge the way Ferguson did.

One route that has been frequently tried and found to be fruitless is the sales competition. For every manager that’s been successful, there are a host who will tell you that a competition had no effect on numbers. But I’m going to tell you that competitions really can drive numbers up. And they can do more than that: if they’re run correctly, your salespeople, like Ferguson’s players, can come to ‘mirror your outlook on life.’

Are Sales Competitions Really Worth The Hassle?

maze hassle

Image Source: Longleat-maze by Niki Odolphie CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

In a document produced by the performance-management platform Ambition, some of the key reasons for sales competitions are cited. These include: indifference in the sales team; lack of focus; sales reps lacking independence and requiring constant direction; and lack of communication and peer-to-peer coaching.

But surely these are problems that can be solved in other ways. Retraining, seminars, deep dives, courses and other methods are all ways of improving performance in these areas. Why seek to remedy the problem with a sales competition, especially when many sales managers are deeply cynical about these competitions’ effectiveness?

The answer to that question lies in something about the profile of a sales manager. They didn’t get their promotion by accident: generally, they will have been a top-performing salesperson, a star performer who has never needed anyone to motivate them. They know that, if they run a competition, the star salesmen will be first through the tape by a distance as usual, lapping the laggards as they go, with the middle 60%-80%—the so-called ‘core performers’—jogging to the finishing line in no particular hurry.

In short, the whole thing is a complete waste of time in remedying any of aforementioned maladies that often infect sales departments. In fact, in many cases, these competitions have the effect of increasing the gulf between successful reps and everyone else. High-performing reps enter them expecting (rightly) that they can hit the numbers and take home the prize. No-one else bothers, because they’re already certain they’ll lose.

But the problem here lies not in the idea but in the execution. In an article for the Harvard Business Review entitled Motivating Salespeople: What Really Works, Thomas Steenburgh and Michael Ahearne argue that the traditional makeup of a sales manager as a former ‘rainmaker’ renders him or her less able to empathise with the core performers—the people who make up by far the largest part of their sales team.

core performers

Image Source: A Performance Curve for the Sales Force by Thomas Steenburgh and Michael Ahearne Harvard Business Review

‘One reason [that core performers are ignored] is that sales managers don’t identify with them,’ write Steenburgh and Ahearne. ‘At many companies the managers are former rainmakers, so they pay the current rainmakers an undue amount of attention. As a consequence, core performers are often passed over for promotion and neglected at annual sales meetings. But this is not in the best interest of the company. Core performers usually represent the largest part of the sales force, and companies cannot make their numbers if they’re not in the game.’

Still not convinced? Neither was George Bradt, founder and chairman of the executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis, which has acted as a consultant to Elizabeth Arden, MTV and Miller Brewing, among others. Writing in Forbes magazine, Bradt says that he had always adhered to the school of thought that getting the poor performers out of the way was paramount. ‘[F]eed the top. Cut off the bottom,’ writes Bradt. ‘The generally accepted path to success is to invest in top performers and not worry about the rest.’

But then came Bradt’s moment of epiphany. Debating the idea with Adam Hollander, the founder of FantasySalesTeam, Bradt was shocked by Hollander’s contention that the best sales competitions are those that motivate the middle 80%. ‘It made no sense,’ wrote Bradt, ‘until he persuaded me that he was right.’

In a previous job as a sales manager, Hollander had run a variety of different sales contests, always with little or no effect on numbers. There were two reasons for this:

  • Top performers always won without actually putting in any extra effort as their motivation was already very high
  • Middle performers thought they had no chance of winning and stopped paying attention as soon as they were out of contention

Hollander realised that his competitions had been unable to maintain interest across the sales team. As the Ambition document puts it, ‘The overarching goal of every sales contest is to fire up the troops and get people engaged. But the best sales contests go above and beyond that.’

In his quest to find the perfect sales competition, Hollander did go above and beyond. He designed a fantasy football-style contest, giving people incentives to help each other be successful. Ambition’s document lists the goals of a good sales competition as:

  • Engaging personnel
  • Making people accountable
  • Facilitating coaching
  • Creating excitement and dynamism
  • Bringing transparency
  • Building a winning mentality

Hollander’s competition managed to deliver all these things. There was a variety of awards for achieving different targets both individually and as a team, and you could select a ‘fantasy’ team of your colleagues, creating a mutually supportive network that encouraged people to help each other gain success.

As Bradt notes, a competition he designed for a company called Wireless Zone ended up being won by someone who had previously been the worst-performing sales rep in the company. ‘That individual was performing at 150% of what he had done in prior months,” explained Hollander. “He was invested in success.’

The key to the whole thing is that the core performers did not feel disenfranchised. They had attainable goals and felt satisfaction and motivation from reaching them. As the Wireless Zone example shows, even the laggards could be motivated by Hollander’s revamp of the traditional sales competition.

‘The ultimate victory in competition is derived from the inner satisfaction of knowing that you have done your best and that you have gotten the most out of what you had to give,’ said the American sports journalist Howard Cosell. Both core performers and laggards could feel that they had been able to do their best and that they’d gotten something out of the competition without constantly feeling in the shadow of the company’s star performers.

And what of these star performers, the salespeople who are so ultra-motivated it’s impossible to squeeze anything more out of them? How do they feel when they see people whom they are outperforming taking home prizes while they are left empty-handed?

The answer, in this case, is to give the illusion of fairness. ‘The key is to offer gifts (not cash) for the lower-level prizes on some dimension,’ write Steenburgh and Ahearne. ‘Suppose a prestigious golf vacation is awarded as a top prize and a local family getaway is awarded as a lower prize. The family getaway has a lower market value than the golf vacation, but core performers… can rationalise their prize by saying, “I’ve golfed plenty lately—what’s important to me is spending time with my family.”’

‘We consistently find that core performers work harder and perform better in contests of this kind than they do in a contest with cash prizes. Furthermore, their increased effort does not come at the cost of decreased effort from stars or laggards.’

In fact, far from causing a decreased effort on the part of the stars, a separate study by Michael Ahearne found that stars performed even better in sales contests where multiple prizes were on offer. “Increasing the number of prizes in a contest increases the chances that a laggard or a core performer will win a prize in place of a star, which motivates stars to work harder,” write Steenburgh and Ahearne. In other words, the fear of being toppled by a lesser performer triggers the star’s winning mentality.

Don’t go too cheap with the prizes, though, or sales teams will become cynical. ‘When it comes to sales contests, bigger is better,’ argues the Ambition paper. Ambition suggest that you look for relatively cheap but exciting alternatives such as those provided by Blueboard, where leftfield prizes like skydiving, massages and cookery classes are the order of the day.

How To Maintain Employee Interest

office employee competition

Image Source: Arm Wrestling Competition Women Females Challenge by skeeze CC0 Pixabay

‘Competition gives me energy,’ said the Irish MMA fighter Conor McGregor. ‘It keeps me focused.’ This is exactly what a sales competition is designed to do, but if it’s the wrong length, whether too long or too short, employees will end up losing their focus, apathy will set in, and you’ll be back to square one.

Competition length is one of the hardest things to judge. If you are trying to bring about genuine change in the company, then a one- or two-week competition simply won’t cut it. Yet you don’t want them to drag on forever. Adam Hollander says that a competition should be reset every 30-60 days so that boredom doesn’t set in but real change can still be achieved.

Regular updates of statistics—which team is in the lead, which person is the biggest climber in a given week—will help maintain interest. ‘Using social media, company-wide email updates and other channels to publicly recognize top performers is a great way to prolong rep engagement,’ reads the Ambition paper. ‘Sales contests are a quid pro quo type of initiative—you give your reps an exciting, incentive-driven new initiative with the expectation that they will give back, in return, a higher level of performance.’

Varying goals for each competition is another way to keep your sales team invested in what you’re doing. ‘Sales contests shouldn’t always have the same goal,’ writes Lindsay Kolowich on InsightSquared. ‘Think about your company’s current goals… Let’s say that your company released a new piece of software in late November and the executive team set a Q1 goal to sell five subscriptions of that software. Use this insight to design a sales contest for Q1 centred on selling the most of that software.’

Sales competitions should also be tailored to the size of your company. The Ambition paper suggests three different focuses Startups with very few employees should focus on establishing your nascent culture and refining your processes. Mid-market businesses with between 20-100 employees should be looking at improving sales data accuracy, CRM usage and adherence to a daily sales process, while established businesses should look to drive daily activities proven to attain company objectives and build camaraderie between multiple offices in often sprawling companies.

‘It is nice to have valid competition,’  said Gianni Versace. ‘It pushes you to do better.’ The statistics show that, if you’ve created the right kind of competition, your employees will indeed strive to improve. Competitions can help your employees to learn that winning mentality that drives you every day—and your business is the ultimate beneficiary.

Featured Image Source: Alex Ferguson kisses Premier League trophy by Andrew Yates Getty Images 

About the Author

Geoffrey Walters

A serial entrepreneur and digital nomad, Geoffrey has been running his own marketing consultancy for the past year.

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