Tell Them What They've Won! How to Run Successful Sales Contests

A client recently asked about sales contests and promotions. Whether or not I felt they are an effective and worthwhile investment. My response was a guarded “Yes.” Guarded because not all promotions are successful and not all contests leave the seller, the company, or even the customer better off than where they started. It boils down to motive or reason for to have a contest, in the first place. For a sales promotion the motive is typically to sell more stuff. For sales professionals the motives are usually far more complex.

As a Sale Professional, I used to love contests, promos, and spiff money. I was fortunate to have sold in an industry that always had some contest going on. Many of the contests were seasonal and didn’t change much from year to year. I got to a point where I knew which contests and promotions I could win easily; which ones I had a shot at, given some effort; and, which ones I had no hope of winning. I applied myself accordingly—changing my behavior when it suited me. I knew my motives.

Sales contests and promotions should be run with one thought in mind. Changing behavior to achieve a desired result or outcome. A contest should be designed to get sellers to: start doing something they aren’t; keep doing something they currently do at a higher level; or, sometimes to stop doing something they currently do—as it relates to contests a new policy or procedural change could be an example of stopping a specific behavior.

Additionally, it is important to understand the general nature of how sales contests and promotions are viewed by the participants. In other words, you need to know their motives—to the best of your ability. Top performers tend to look at contests and promotions with just two thoughts in mind. First, “Can I win this contest based on what I am doing now?” Second, and more importantly, ”Is the contest designed in such a manner that I will fail?” Often, especially for very competitive people, the fear of losing is a stronger motivator than the merits of winning. It’s not uncommon for top performers to “check out,” or not engage in a contest or promotion if there is little chance of them winning. “If I don’t play I can’t lose.” They probably won’t articulate this, but they’ve rationalized it in their mind. No engagement equals no behavior change.

A similar mindset can be found in sellers at the bottom of the performance scale. Newer sellers and under-performers will “check out” or never engage if they feel they have no chance of winning. While they may not share the emotion of “fear of loss” the way a top performer would, they will often concede to sellers they perceive as “hands down winners” before the contest starts. Again, no engagement equals no behavior change.

This leaves the sellers in the middle of the spectrum, or your “B” players. Depending on the size of a given sales force, this group may be large enough to achieve a desired result for the organization.

Building and Running a Campaign

The first step is to decide exactly what you’re trying to achieve. In other words, “What is the purpose of the contest?” Second, you’ll need to identify the behaviors required to drive the desired results—think in terms of what they will specifically need to start, stop, or keep doing.

Once the goal(s) and necessary behaviors are identified, you’ll need to establish the details. Include the mechanics, rules, timelines, prizes, etc. Generally speaking, you’ll want the rules to be easy to understand. The sellers must know exactly what they need to do to win. Next, communicate all of the details. Communication of the promotion is critical to the overall success. You’ll need to communicate not only the details of the promotion but also why you’re having the promotion and what it means for the company as well as the participants. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of communication from before the contest starts right up to the end.

The best way to check for understanding is to have your team explain the contest back to you, or have them tell you what they have to do to win. If done correctly, as a Sales Manager, you’ll have an opportunity to build individual plans for each salesperson on exactly they need to do as individuals to win. These individual plans should include where they need to focus and what they’ll need to measure. It’s more impactful than just presenting the promotion and asking if there are any questions. If at all possible, when presenting the details of the promotion, have the prize(s) on hand. If the grand prize is a big screen TV show it to them at the kick-off meeting. This can help generate excitement as well as demonstrate the company’s commitment.

Know in advance who’s going to track progress and results along with how it will be done and when the results will be published. Promotion tracking should be done in real time whenever possible. If the tracking proves to be a bit complicated make sure you test the systems and check for accuracy. This will save you headaches and possibly money later on.

Get and Keep Them Engaged

Earlier I mentioned one of the pitfalls of contests is a potential lack of engagement by sellers at differing levels. Establishing tiers within the sales team is one possible solution. The tiers can be in the form of tenure with the company, current customer base or sales volume—use whatever criteria makes the most sense for your organization.

As an example, if you have a group of 20 sellers you could put them into three different groups based on average monthly sales and create more opportunities for everyone to win. You may want to budget for three prizes, one for the top performer in each of the groups. Now your newer seller is competing on a level playing field.

Another way to increase engagement is how you structure the goals. Going back to having different groups based on predetermined criteria you could make the goals slightly different for each group. Let’s say for example there are three groups based on average monthly sales; the top group may only be required to produce a 15% increase in sales while the bottom group may need to be at 25% to win. For example, a 15% increase on $100,000 a month in average sales is better than a 25% increase on $40,000 a month in average sales.

Structure the promotion so anyone can win. One way to do this is to design a contest, so any movement toward the desired goal equals an increase in personal income. Part of your communication process should include WIIFM or “What’s In It For Me.” If your sales force is on any commission or performance bonus, this should be fairly easy. It can be as simple as “Sell more stuff, and at the very least you’ll make more money.” Be sure to illustrate the potential increase in personal income during the kick-off meeting.

Once the promotion is underway, you’ll want to keep it alive from start to finish. Communicate everyone’s standings on a regular basis. Referring back to rules that are easy to understand: ideally, the contestants should be able to keep track of their results. Half the battle in winning is knowing where you are at any given time. Publish the current standings in a public forum. You can use progress charts on the sales floor, a spreadsheet emailed to all in sales, a group voicemail or all of the above. Make sure everyone on the team knows where they stand in relationship to the rest of the team. Regardless of the method, stay true to the timeline. If you commit to publishing results by noon every Monday stay true to the commitment. You’ll know you are on track and have buy-in if your team is anxious to see the standings. Posting the standings provides an opportunity to recognize individual performance on a regular basis. Without feedback, there can’t be any real change.

In addition to posting their standings, you can build team meetings around the contest. At the very least have it as an agenda item at sales meetings. You could have top performers share their strategy during training sessions. Keep their eye on the prize—literally. If it’s viable, have the prize on display. All of these suggestions are meant to keep the promotion top of mind among the sales force.

When the promo is over, award the prize ASAP, and in public to have the greatest impact. Ideally the highest-ranking person in your organization should present the prize and thank the winner(s). Demonstrate to your team the importance of the promotion with some fanfare. Be sure to recognize everybody who made progress toward the goal. Well-run contests can also provide coaching and goal setting opportunities before, during and after the actual contest. Be sure to take advantage of them.

Assess the return on your investment. How did the entire team do regarding meeting the company goal? What was the dollarized value of the promotion relative to the expense? Use what you learn in past contests to make future contests better. If something worked particularly well do it again. Likewise, if some aspect of a promotion failed don’t get stuck in doing the same thing in the future.

One More Thought on Contests

One thing often overlooked in planning a promotion is the customer. Far too often their perspective is never taken into consideration during the planning and execution of a contest. It’s easy to look at the benefits of a contest from the company and sales person’s point of view, but if we don’t look at what’s in it for our clients and customers, a short-term success could turn into a long-term loss.