Why Are Salespeople Paid On Performance?

Andreesen Horowtiz had a great podcast a few weeks ago on the topic of Getting Sales Right.  It was a conversation between Peter Levine, a GP at the firm, and Daniel Shapero, who helped build LinkedIn’s initial enterprise sales team. Levine asked a question about sales compensation, and why are salespeople paid mostly on commission where almost every other role is paid a flat salary. Surely companies care about getting the best out of every employee, why isn’t every employee paid mostly on commission?

Two interesting insights came out of this discussion.

  1. Salespeople are unique in that they spend most of their time facing the outside world and are constantly being told ‘no’. They face rejection on behalf of their company all day long. To offset some of this pain, when they finally do get a yes and a big win, it’s something that should be celebrated; both in the form of compensation (commission) and public recognition. The commission helps keep salespeople motivated to go get the next one in the face of all that rejection.
  2. There have been studies that suggest that when a person is paid largely on commission, they’ll tend to go after a win at all costs. They’ll look for shortcuts and take the quickest path to success. There are lots of roles where that “win” isn’t so easy to define and measure. Further, for some roles like product and engineering, shortcuts could cause longer term damage and stifle creativity and long term thinking.

For these reasons most of the sales teams I've seen are paid largely on commission. But the other side of this issue is the failure rate of sales versus other roles. In nearly all of the companies I’ve worked with, salespeople fail at a far higher rate than any other role. This also begs the question, why?

Are recruiters just really bad at hiring for sales roles and really good at hiring other roles? Of course not. In my view the reason for the discrepancy is that the performance of a salesperson is easy to measure. If a salesperson is failing, everyone knows it. If an engineer is failing it's not as easy to see. That's why you'll often see 30% variances in termination rates between these roles.

The best companies I've seen are aware of this and take this on as a challenge and expose these numbers and try fix the imbalance.  If the termination rate of a sales team is 40% and the termination rate of other roles is 5% then non-sales managers either aren’t measuring performance or they don’t have a high enough bar for success. Measuring success in non-sales roles is hard (that’s a topic for another day). But measuring the difference in the failure rate of a non-sales team versus a sales team is easy. And an important thing to expose.