Which factors motivate salespeople the most?

Which factors motivate salespeople the most?

salespeople motivation

Probably almost more than any other position or role within an organisation, salespeople span the boundary between an organisation and the clients or customers. Additionally, the organisation’s salespeople act as consultants, problem solvers, value co-creators, knowledge brokers, essential parts of the open innovation and intelligence gathering/feedback process, as well as one of the main conduits for revenue.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the sales function and its people to the sustainability of most organisations. They are a fundamental part of an organisation’s system for creating a competitive advantage.

Traditionally, salespeople have been incentivised through either:

  1. Outcome-based or direct incentives, such as performance related pay or commission.
  2. Behaviour based incentives, such as the number of appointments or calls made.

The vast majority of the thinking around incentivising salespeople tends to focus on financial remuneration of some description. However, such extrinsic motivation has been found to work only to a certain degree. After a level of financial success has been achieved, money becomes increasingly less motivational in terms of encouraging greater effort and care.

self-determination theory

Self-determination theory

It has been found that when people perceive that their behaviour is being controlled by others through devices such as rewards, incentives or threats there can be a reaction against that level of control. There is a distinction to be drawn between controlled motivation and autonomous motivation, where people engage in an activity or behaviour in a fully conscious and willing way.

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People tend to engage in autonomous or intrinsic (internal) motivation based on four psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy.
  2. Competence or self-efficacy (the sense that one can solve problems and deal with issues).
  3. A sense of purpose, whereby an individual has the belief that they are making a contribution to a cause greater or more important than themselves.
  4. Relatedness or connection, where they feel connected to the task and/or the other people involved in the task

A new study

A new series of primary research studies by a team of researchers from Grand Valley State University, Seidman College of Business and Muma College of Business, University of South Florida, both in the US, have looked at the impact of a sense of purpose on sales people’s behaviour and outcomes.



The researchers found that:

  1. All four psychological needs (autonomy, competence, relatedness and a sense of purpose) are strong motivators for salespeople.
  2. A sense of purpose was found to be a particularly strong motivator.
  3. A sense of purpose was found to be different from job meaningfulness. Job meaning here refers to the value the individual believes a particular job has for the organisation. A sense of purpose, on the other hand, refers to a perception that the role they are performing aligns with their values and contributes towards something larger than the organisation’s well-being. For example, working for a charity, or working for a medical supplies business that helps patients in some way.
  4. Together all four psychological needs create a sense of intrinsic motivation which was found to be a significant predictor of effort, performance and adaptive selling.
  5. Intrinsic motivation was found to be more powerful than extrinsic reward or punishment, and this was found to be even more so with younger salespeople below the age of 30.

Organisations, therefore, need to be showing how they are “meeting new salespeople’s needs for autonomy, relatedness, competence and a sense of purpose”.

Primary reference

Good, V., Hughes, D. E., & Wang, H. (2022). More than money: establishing the importance of a sense of purpose for salespeople. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 50(2), 272-295.

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Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxcognita LLC 2024. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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