In his 2015 book Misbehaving, Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler addresses the concept of loss aversion and its impact on decision making. “Roughly speaking,” he asserts, “losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing makes you happy.” For this reason, given the choice, people tend to put more energy into reducing losses than actively pursuing gains. In a sense, he says, “Loss aversion operates as a kind of cognitive nudge,” the inversion of no pain, no gain.

Humans Aren’t Rational

A professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Thaler won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his groundbreaking work in behavioral economics. Among his greatest contributions: challenging the notion that we are always rational beings and pioneering the idea that often we act in ways inconsistent with economic theory. In the spirit of transparency, I am also an alumnus of the Booth School.

So, why does loss aversion matter to salesforce compensation?

Consider a recent story in The Wall Street Journal reporting on a new compensation plan for Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch unit. Critics of the plan argue instead of rewarding brokerages for growth, the plan punishes them if sales targets aren’t meant.

The plan emphasizes cross-selling of Bank of America’s retail-bank products, rewarding brokers with more new clients and referrals to other parts of the bank. So, while revenue growth still matters, asset and liability growth matters more for broker compensation.

If minimum sales targets are not met, the average broker generating $1 million in revenue could lose up to $10,000 from their monthly paycheck, a 2% drop in pay. Conversely, brokers meeting the new targets will receive an increase in pay.

Bank of America executives say the new compensation plan is designed to boost shareholder value and retain Merrill Lynch’s top performers for the long term.

Carrot or stick: What works best?

The Merrill Lynch example illustrates an important issue every VP of Sales confronts: what works better to motivate more sales people to equal or exceed their assigned sales quota? Do penalties or rewards spur the most asset growth? How do companies move the performance distribution of salespeople to the right of the status quo?

The loss aversion principle offers food for thought. Let’s say, for example, that the salesforce incentive plan has four components. One of them is product mix with a weighting of 25% and an on-target payout of $X. The salesperson is paid the $X upfront when the year’s plan is communicated. At the end of the year, if the product mix quota was not achieved at 100%, then the $X would be clawed back.

Under this scenario, there will certainly be individual winners and losers after a major change in compensation structure like the one Merrill Lynch has made. That’s why a good deal of time and attention should be paid to developing and communicating any new sales compensation plan.

Sum and substance

Are you considering changes or new incentives for your salesforce compensation plan? Often change is advisable when a new corporate strategy is being implemented or to attract and retain the right kinds of sales people. Experimentation and adjustments that align with changing market forces is beneficial.

If you would like to discuss this topic or your other salesforce compensation needs further, please contact Tim Weizer at tim@salescne.com or 312-479-6411 or Neil at nlappley@lappley.com. Also, feel free to share this article with anyone who might be interested.

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