7 Elements to Building a Highly Motivated Startup Sales Team

October 20, 2015

You walk into the sales room. The lack of excitement is written all over the reps’ faces as they make calls and answer emails. The energy in the room is stale, the reps speak formulaic phrases in a mechanical tone and as a result, the prospects aren’t engaged in meaningful conversations.

In short, you have an energy crisis on your hands.

Motivation is the fuel your startup runs on and your team needs a refuel. If they don’t feel emotionally invested in their work, how will they consistently deliver peak performance?

As the person leading such a team, you might ask yourself: “Did I hire the wrong people? Is my commission structure not incentivizing them properly? Do they need Bulletproof coffee?”

A better question to ask yourself is:

What steps can I take to motivate my sales team in the long run?

Wolf of Wall Street

You don’t need to go all Tony Robbins and jump around on stage – but you do need to know the ins and outs of motivation, beginning with the myth of self-motivation and ending with how to create a motivated sales team.

The myth of self-motivation

Silicon Valley

In the startup community, we’re obsessed with the idea of the self-motivated individual. We think that if we hire people who are intrinsically motivated and determined, we won’t have to manage and motivate them – they’ll magically smash all the targets.

This is a myth. Everyone occasionally needs outside motivation.

Yet, we look down our noses at motivational techniques, quotes, and inspiring books, thinking that our teams don’t need any help.

However, faulty thinking leads to faulty actions. If you believe everyone is supposed to be bursting with motivation at all times, but notice that your team is flagging, you’ll become frustrated and overly critical of both yourself and your team. Your initial concern will turn into hostility and this will have the counter-productive outcome of reducing team engagement and motivation.

When you look at the role of sales teams, particularly SDR’s, they have a tough job: it’s repetitive (no matter how creative you get) and filled with more “no’s” than “yes’s”. That’s a difficult burden for any individual, so it’s essential that you create an energizing environment for your team rather than leave it open to chance.

The first step? Figuring out what motivates your team.

Wu-Tang Clan was wrong: Cash doesn’t rule everything around me

If compensation were a sufficient motivator, your team would already be delivering peak performance.

While compensation is important, salespeople are not coin-operated machines: inserting “x” amount of coins will not guarantee “y” results.

In a study on what motivates the salespeople at some of the best companies, the top three motivators – after money – were internal recognition, competition, and learning new skills.

These results align with another study on over 200,000 employees worldwide who, when asked “What motivates you to excel and go the extra mile at our organization?” responded that “camaraderie, peer motivation”, “intrinsic desire to give a good job”, and “feeling encouraged and recognized” were their top motivators. Money and benefits ranked seventh.

What gives?

While salespeople might initially rank money as a higher priority, they are not immune to the appeal of other motivators.

In psychology, intrinsic motivation reflects the desire to do something because it is innately enjoyable or satisfying. In comparison, extrinsic motivation reflects the desire to do something because of external rewards or punishments.

In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues against the old models of motivation dominated by extrinsic factors such as money. Instead, he argues that human motivation is largely intrinsic, and that the aspects of this motivation can be divided into:

  • Autonomy: the desire to be self-directed and direct our own lives.
  • Mastery: the urge to improve our skills.
  • Purpose: the need to contribute to a cause greater and more enduring than ourselves.

While intrinsic motivation is more powerful in the long run, the study on salespeople demonstrates that extrinsic motivation can be useful, too.

Extrinsic motivation is best for tedious tasks, such as completing paperwork, that provide little internal satisfaction. Moreover, the right extrinsic motivators can lead to internal satisfaction. For instance, a more flexible schedule could allow a sales rep to spend more time with their family.

The key is to understand when and how to apply each type of motivation. Therefore, your job is to continually learn and experiment to find out what motivates your team. For some members, it could be a simple pat on the back; for others, it could be more money. Everyone is different, but there are a few techniques you can use to improve motivation on your team, as a whole.

7 steps to help your team get excited, stay motivated, and kick ass at sales

1. Make Motivation a Part of Company Culture

Before you read any further, you must commit to making motivation an innate part of your culture. While there are certain techniques you can employ, they should not be viewed in isolation of one another. Instead, they should be glued together by the fundamental desire to create positive, long-lasting solutions.

Furthermore, creating a motivated workforce is not a solo decision. If you want to motivate your team, you need their input as well. Instead of treating the decision-making process as a one-man operation, involve sales people in the process early on. Listen to, and act on, what they have to say. You hired them because they provide value – treat their opinions the same way.

2. Set Small Goals as Well as Big Ones


I’m sure you have a grand vision for what you and your sales team can achieve. But the truth is, ambitious goals can be as intimidating and demoralizing as they can be inspiring and motivating.

By creating a series of realistic micro-goals along the way, your team can feel a constant and sense of achievement, spurring them on to work even harder.

To get started, work backwards from your end goal. For example, if your goal is to drive $1 million in sales over the next 12 months, break it down into $80,000 per month (or $20,000 per week) to give your sales teams smaller targets to aim for.

Each time you identify a smaller goal, break it down into more micro-goals. So, if you’re aiming for $20,000 in sales per week, how many prospects will your sales team need to reach out to?

Think of it as climbing a mountain. If you were standing at the bottom of Mount Everest, watching the highest peaks disappear into the clouds, it’d feel impossible to climb all the way up. But, if you focused on the first base camp, 200 feet up, then your goal would feel much more achievable and motivating.

Setting goals that incentivize the right behaviors

There’s a caveat: goal settings comes with it’s own risks. Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School pointed out that excessively demanding goals can lead to poor objective-setting. In his 2009 study “Goals Gone Wild”, he showed that employees will often neglect important matters that aren’t included among the goals and engage in more unethical or risky behavior.

In the 1990s, Sears management gave car-repair workers an hourly revenue goal. The result? Systematic overcharging for unnecessary work.

An even more disastrous example occurred when Ford set a fixed deadline for the launch of the Ford Pinto. In order to hit the deadline, Ford employees rushed through, or completely skipped, safety checks that might’ve revealed engineering flaws responsible for dangerous explosions. As a result, an estimated 27 to 180 people died due to rear-impact-related fuel tank fires in the Pinto.

While sales provides few opportunities for matters of life or death, there’s still ample space for sales reps to close bad deals or use deceptive methods to hit the numbers, which will ultimately harm your business in the long run.

A strong company culture and challenging, but attainable, goals are the best way to tap into the motivational power of goals without incentivizing negative behaviors.

3. Foster Healthy Competition in Your Team

Personal Growth Chart

People in sales are naturally competitive, so being able to see where they stand in relation to everyone else and how added effort can help them climb the ladder is good for both your team and your company.

As a result, some sales teams use small prizes, competitions and leaderboards to keep reps motivated. You could have a leaderboard up on a whiteboard in the corner of the office or even use an app to create an online leaderboard to show who’s crushing it on your team.

You could also create smaller, fun competitions for your sales team. For example, whoever can write the best performing email subject line could receive a small prize.

With these competitions, the prize isn’t the main priority. It’s more about nurturing the competitive energy amongst the team and making work more fun. All of this will contribute to motivating your team and to managing the ups and downs of closing deals and handling rejection on a daily basis.


Y Combinator startup Ambition has developed a sales productivity platform that taps into the power of gamification to tickle the competitive streaks of sales people – while also uniting them as a team. Gamification is a buzzword that’s been thrown around a lot, often failing to have a substantial effect within sales organizations.

However, when done right, gamification can lead to sustainable productivity improvements. Clayton Homes (a Berkshire Hathaway company that builds homes in the US) saw a 200% increase in visits to retail stores tracked back to referrals by their inside sales team after implementing Ambition’s platform.

Every sales reps’ most formidable competitor?

Most importantly: sales people shouldn’t just compete against each other but, first and foremost, against their own past performance. If you can get your reps to consistently beat their own top-scores, you’ll eventually end up with a team of top performers.

As such, your sales reps could have a dashboard that shows them their own top scores, as well as their past performance over a rolling date range.

If not managed properly, competition could become a double-edged sword – make sure that the sense of competition fostered is constructive, not destructive.

4. Recognize and Praise Success

One of the easiest, and most overlooked, ways to keep a sales team motivated is by recognizing success and praising progress. Public recognition for success on a sales team can be spontaneous, but it is also possible to build a system for regularly recognizing reps who meet or exceed certain goals.

Sincere, personal praise from a manager or authority figure can be an incredibly motivator for sales reps. While praise is powerful, other low-cost rewards could include selecting certain sales rep to share their lessons with the entire sales team, thus acknowledging their expertise before their co-workers.

>However, praise shouldn’t be reserved solely for the big goals – even the smallest achievements are worth being celebrated. Did you hit your target one day? Find a new email subject line that’s killing it on open rates? Well, it’s time to celebrate.

The road to success consists of thousands of small steps. The most successful teams understand this. At Foursquare, for instance, the inside sales team plays the favorite songs of reps who reached certain milestones or achieved top scores. Celebrating and recognizing achievements doesn’t have to be expensive, but it can pay great dividends.

5. Prioritize the Personal Growth of Your Team

Truly great people have an interest in continuously improving and becoming the best. Help your salespeople become great by consistently giving them detailed, constructive feedback and access to high-quality coaching.

Each team member will have strengths and weaknesses that can be identified and developed for higher levels of success. Share new insights and hold team talks around new topics that can help them grow both personally and professionally.

By investing in your people, you’re investing in the success of your business.

6. Let Your Team Define Their Role

If you want someone to feel valued and give them a sense of belonging within your team, allowing them to define their role is a great way to go.

Rather than simply giving each team member a list of tasks and responsibilities, give them ownership and influence over their role on the team. This will make a huge difference to their motivation, how they perform, and how much fun they have working for you.

Have regular meetings with each of your team members. Look at their roles and think about how you can improve this position together. Maybe they feel the need for a bit more responsibility or they could be more successful if you made a couple of adjustments.

However, letting your team have more involvement in defining their role isn’t a magic button which will instantly boost team morale and motivation. You’ll have to do some heavy lifting and be on hand to provide coaching and advice to your team as they navigate this new-found approach.

7. Adjust Comp Plans According to Talent

Throwing more money at reps won’t help – but adjusting howyou compensate your sales team can have a great impact.

A growing body of research suggests that stars, laggards, and core performers are motivated by different facets of comp plans. Stars seem to knock down any target that stands in their way – but may stop working if a ceiling is imposed.

Laggards need more guidance and prodding to make their numbers. Core performers fall somewhere in the middle; they get the least attention, even though they’re the group most likely to move the needle – if they’re given the proper incentives.

This Harvard Business Review article goes into much greater detail but here’s how to motivate different performers.

  • Core performers: Provide multi-tier targets; offer gifts (not cash) for the lower-level prizes that can be seen as equal, or even superior, to the top-level prizes; and, for core performers near the bottom of their cadre, offer incentives designed to improve the performance of laggards.
  • Laggards: Provide pace-setting goals such as quarterly bonuses and use a combination of natural and carefully designed, program-induced social pressure.
  • Stars: Remove ceilings on commissions, create overachievement commissions, and create contests with multiple winners.

Don’t take on too many changes at once. Instead, focus on a single idea at a time and observe what works for your team.

Your Sales Team Members are Elite Athletes

Motivation isn’t only for salespeople.

If you look at the world of professional sports, they don’t solely focus on their craft – they also focus on keeping each other motivated in order to go out and do their best on a daily basis.

You should think of your startup sales team as an elite sports team and look at how coaches sustain and boost their team’s motivation through long, often grueling, seasons.

For example, ahead of the 2009 Champions League final, coach Pep Guardiola created a seven-minute film and played it in the Barcelona dressing room prior to kick-off.

The film showed all of the squad members, even those who weren’t going to start in the final, performing at their best and ended with a moving quote:

“We are the centre of the pitch, we are precise, we are our effort, we are attackers who defend, we are defenders who attack, we are respected by our rivals, we are recognized by our rivals, we are every goal that we score, we are those who always look for our opponent’s goal, WE ARE ONE.”

>As the film finished, several players were reportedly in tears. Guardiola’s job was done. He didn’t need to say another word to his team before the match started.

Barcelona beat Manchester United 2 – 0, earning the team an historic treble of La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, a feat never before achieved by a Spanish club.

A seven-minute film of your sales team probably isn’t going to work for you.

However, if you want your sales team to create extraordinary results, you have to make sure they feel extraordinary! If you want to get the best from your people, you have to make them feel like the best and inspire them to great performance every day.

Bonus: Daily Motivation in Your Inbox

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Steli Efti is the CEO & co-founder of <a href=""></a>, the inside sales CRM of choice for startups and SMBs. Want to get his best startup sales advice? <a href="">Claim your free Startup Sales Success Course!</a>