The Secrets to Motivating A Highly Successful Sales Team

Written by
Josh Jordan
March 24, 2022

If you’re trying everything to motivate your sales reps but it still isn’t working — you’re not the only one. Basic compensation and benefits packages are essential to secure top talent. But they don’t provide the drive you need to achieve ambitious growth from your reps. Screaming motivational quotes at the top of your lungs won’t do it, either.

Look at a general performance curve for your sales team. You should see a large body of mid-tier performers and equally small numbers of low-tier and top-tier performers at either end. There’s nothing wrong with this dynamic, but there are 2 important things to consider:

  1. How long will this stable performance structure last?
  2. What if you could drive your sales team to better performance at every level?

Motivation isn’t just a problem for slackers. Poor management, problems at home or even world events such as a global pandemic may demotivate even the best employees on your team.

All sales reps are motivated by something. Unless you continue to make strong efforts to keep them motivated, you may have more to worry about than simply not meeting revenue targets. Studies have shown that unmotivated sales teams become prone to counterproductive workplace behaviors. These are things like anger, retaliation, emotional cruelty, bullying and even violence.

So how do you stave off complacency and begin motivating your sales team to meet their true potential? Start by understanding them. Let’s take a deeper look at how motivational psychology can influence strategies you can implement to inspire your own team.

The 5 Sources of Motivation

According to a study published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, motivation in work can be broken down into 5 main sources:

  • Intrinsic Process
  • Instrumental
  • Self-Concept External
  • Self-Concept Internal
  • Goal Internalization

While some people may favor one source of motivation over another, it’s important to note that everyone is motivated by all 5 of these sources in some way. Your first job as a sales manager is to understand the motivational framework of your team (through direct surveys, observations and 1:1 meetings). You can then apply strategies that speak to all team members to varying degrees.

Intrinsic Process

People motivated by an intrinsic process are mainly concerned with having fun or enjoying the work they do. The fact that the task itself is stimulating or engaging is the primary motivational factor. Giving this person a task they enjoy may improve the way they perform when doing it. On the other hand, a task they don’t enjoy may completely demotivate them.

Keep in mind that this task doesn’t have to be easy for the team member to be motivated. It just has to be stimulating, interesting or enjoyable in some way.


Instrumentally motivated people are driven by tangible rewards (money, free time, a prize, etc.). They only give if they can get something in return, and they are motivated to do tasks that help them get what they want. They may also be motivated by the idea of a promotion. But they aren't looking for the prestige or increased responsibility of the promotion itself. Instead, instrumentally motivated people are looking for the tangible reward that comes with it (i.e. a pay raise).

To motivate this person, you’ll need to leverage some kind of transaction or exchange. Think of a carrot on a stick. In order to stay motivated, this type of sales rep always needs to have a prize on the horizon.

Self-Concept (External)

A person with an external self-concept source of motivation is mainly focused on how other people view them. Their goal is to meet or exceed the expectations of others and improve their reputation among peers and superiors alike. They are typically concerned with making other people happy because it can reflect well on them.

Praise, recognition, prestige and status are all good motivators for this type of person. While many of these reps may desire public recognition (such as being praised in front of their peers), it may make others uncomfortable. Private praise from a manager or other leader may serve the same purpose.

Self-Concept (Internal)

People with a self-concept internal source of motivation are driven to use their skills to meet their own internal performance standards. While the task itself doesn't have to be fun, it needs to be challenging in the right way. Tedious, ordinary or routine jobs that require little skill can often be demotivating. Tasks that require the rep’s specific skill set are often very stimulating to this group. They want a challenge that they are qualified to overcome, even if it stretches their abilities to some degree.

Goal Internalization

Sales reps driven by goal internalization are focused on the purpose or morality of a ‌task. To be motivated (or engage with their duties at all), they need to truly believe on a personal level that their actions within the company have a greater meaning. If they sense that what they are doing is pointless (or worse, morally wrong) this will likely demotivate them. In extreme cases, they may quit their position entirely even if it puts them in a bad financial situation.

These reps often put emphasis on their individual place in the bigger picture. At minimum, they need to feel as if their job means more than just earning a paycheck or gaining prestige.

Other Considerations

While this framework can help us understand the psychology of human motivation and work on multiple levels, it’s important to note that the findings were derived from a sample of blue-collar workers. With a team of white-collar inside sales reps, consider how the nature of the job and the work environment may affect the sources of motivation for each team member.

Another study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology reported that workers at lower occupational levels were more likely to be motivated by tangible rewards like job security, cash and prizes. On the other hand, workers at a higher level of occupation were more likely to be motivated by intrinsic factors, such as using their skills, gaining more autonomy or having a greater purpose. The study also found that women showed a higher preference for good coworkers, while men preferred a job that allowed them to use their skills.

That doesn’t mean that people from all different backgrounds won’t make good sales reps. In fact, the opposite is true. Having a diverse group of sales reps with experience in different industries often makes for a stronger team.

However, it is important to consider these motivational sources with some caveats and limitations. How do these sources of motivation uniquely apply to your sales team?

7 Practical Motivational Strategies

In order to motivate your entire sales team, you will need to accommodate for all 5 sources of motivation in some way. You can implement smaller versions of these strategies in 1:1 relationships with each rep. However, you want to focus most of your effort on the sales team as a whole.

Contests / Gamification

Contests and team-wide work-driven games can cater to all 5 sources of motivation.  They are fun, challenging and benefit the whole company if executed correctly. Beyond that, winners get recognized by their peers and often get tangible rewards for good performance.

For sales teams, gamifying multiple parts of the job can turn the most routine day-to-day tasks into engaging events that build teamwork and motivate people toward better performance. You might have a contest where you reward the sales rep that made the most cold calls in one day, generated the most pipeline value, or booked the most meetings. Winning may earn them a tangible prize, a monetary bonus or at least praise and admiration from their teammates.

Types of Prizes

When offering prizes, it’s important to make sure that each tier has a unique appeal that the others do not. For instance, you could offer prize tiers structured like this: 

1st Place - A Beach Vacation

2nd Place - A New Laptop or Gaming System

3rd Place - Extra PTO

This works because each prize level is unique, even though one may be more expensive than the next. A beach vacation may be the most expensive and grand. But a laptop or game system offers the winner a piece of technology that they can continue using for years to come. PTO offers more personal time and the freedom to choose when to use it (without having to worry about pay).

Here’s an example of a prize system that doesn’t work:

1st Place – A gift card to Texas de Brazil (Brazilian Steakhouse)

2nd Place – A gift card to Applebees

3rd Place – A gift card to McDonald's

This structure isn’t as effective as the previous one because there is a clear hierarchy in which each prize has a higher market value than the next. Unless the 2nd or 3rd place winner truly enjoys cheaper food more than a fine dining experience, they will be acutely aware that they didn’t win the first prize. This may end up stifling motivation in the long run as top performers keep taking the best prizes in each contest.


There is a good reason that commissions are used as a motivational strategy in many sales organizations. This model often caters to instrumental motivation because it offers a tangible reward in exchange for good performance. When a sales rep closes a deal, they get a percentage of that deal value added on to their base salary. This creates a perpetual carrot on a stick that the rep can continue chasing to get the reward they want (and deserve).

Most sales teams have commissions attached to every deal. However, some teams have had success with applying a higher commission rate after a rep meets their required quota for the month. This model has the potential to take performance above and beyond what is expected.


Recognition mainly caters to external self-concept motivation, but it can drive good performance with all of your reps. In fact, many sales teams often underestimate the power of praise. Sometimes, being publicly recognized for good performance in front of your peers is enough to reinforce lifetime habits.

Calling out exceptional performance in public team channels, giving out a trophy for a contest or even a simple “good job” can all be effective forms of recognition and praise.

Just make sure you know each team member’s preference when it comes to receiving praise. While some may enjoy public praise, you may end up embarrassing those who would prefer it expressed privately.

Other Incentives

Similar to commissions, you may choose to give out prizes like extra PTO, a free lunch, remote work options or extra breaks. Instead of making this part of a contest, try giving them out directly to reward good work. This strategy often appeals to the instrumental type of motivation. You can also offer prizes as consistent group bonuses to build motivation on a teamwide level.

Job Enablement

Job enablement is more of a good practice than a strategy. When appealing to the internal self-concept source of motivation, a good challenge is fun. But a pointless obstacle is often frustrating and demotivating.

Think of it this way: the challenge of persuading a prospect is stimulating. However, trying to work with CRM software that keeps crashing is just annoying. If you can fix the issue impeding a smoother workflow, you can clear the path to better performance for all of your reps and prevent burnout.

Your process may also cause frustration if your reps have to get managerial approval for many of their daily tasks. Giving your reps greater autonomy and empowering them to make their own decisions (where they are qualified to do so) can help you achieve better productivity and performance overall. The less your team has to work through red tape to get things done, the better.

Flow States

Giving your team members everything they need may help their chances of entering a flow state. A flow state is a condition of being fully immersed in a task so that it creates a smooth, efficient, joyful and energized state of productivity — also called being “in the zone.” While in a flow state, people are less distracted, more efficient and totally engaged with their work. This sensation is often so powerful that it motivates people to come back to the task many times in the future to achieve the same state.

Flow states act on multiple sources of motivation at once. This creates a unique frame of mind where the person enjoys the task purely for the sake of the task itself. For this reason, developing the right environment for flow is difficult. But taking practical measures to cultivate that experience doesn't hurt.

While there are many factors that influence the development of a flow state, some of the main requirements include:

  • Undertaking a task that engages a person’s unique skills but that also presents a challenge to those skills.
  • Having clearly defined goals.
  • Having a sense of personal control over the task.

Enabling your team to achieve a smoother workflow is beneficial not only for the sales rep but also for the company. A flow state makes an employee more efficient and passionate about the work they’re doing. This often leads to better performance and dedication to the job.

Career / Lifestyle Development

Development opportunities can motivate Instrumental types toward a promotion (and more money). They could also motivate a Self-Concept (internal) type to challenge their skills. In other cases, this strategy may motivate a Self-Concept (external) type to work toward a more prestigious position.

To implement this type of strategy, you want to offer time, resources or both. In many cases, companies may provide opportunities for internal career development. This includes things like paid time to take certain online courses or even scholarships for continued education. Providing this kind of resource shows your reps that you value their skills and you want them to continue to become the best they can be.

It’s also no secret that both mental and physical health can have measurable effects on performance and motivation. If not already required by law, it’s always good to encourage (and provide resources for) maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Offering access to a workout facility, healthy food options at work or creating a time-off structure that allows for mental health days are all effective measures.

Motivational Team Meetings

While they may sound cheesy, team meetings can actually be very effective at motivating your sales team when done correctly. The primary goal of this motivational technique is to increase morale by giving your team a clear mission and vision. For this reason, team meetings often cater to goal internalization.

For example, upper-level executives can speak to the sales team about the overall direction and strategy of the company. This can help your team see the bigger picture of what the company is trying to accomplish. It can also illustrate the significance of each rep’s position in the company as a whole.

Other times, well-developed team-building activities (not Two Truths and a Lie) can help your team members develop strong relationships and discover strategies for solving problems together. This‌ can build morale and cultivate an environment for better teamwork and performance.

Motivate Across the Performance Curve

When deciding how to implement motivational strategies, it’s important to consider the overall performance curve of your team. All teams are made up of low-tier, mid-tier and top-tier performers, but no one is more important than the other. To maintain a steady performance from all team members (and motivate them to do better), you’ll want to tailor your strategies to each tier. Here are a few tips to make your efforts more effective.

Apply Social Pressure

Sometimes, you may have sales reps who have fallen into a lower tier after a long streak of high performance. Other times, you may have mid-tier reps who have been at the company for a long time, but never perform above average. In these cases, applying a little social pressure may be enough to push them out of their slump. You can do this by bringing in a steady stream of talented new hires that show real promise to perform well. The pressure of being outranked by a newbie may spur them on to try harder, in order to maintain their social ranking or seniority.

Create Clear Goals at Multiple Levels

Mid-tier performers do moderately well with challenges, but tend to quit once they’ve reached the required performance target. That said, you can sometimes turn these C students into A students by implementing goals at multiple levels.

For instance, you might have a goal structure like this:

  • Goal C: Initial goal that most of the company could reach.
  • Goal B: Secondary goal that a smaller percentage can reach.
  • Goal A: Third goal that only a select few in the department can reach. 

The first goal indicates an acceptable performance, but the possibility of reaching higher goals may motivate mid-tier performers to work beyond their average effort.

But while this may not have much of an effect on low-tier or top-tier performers, creating clear and achievable goals is essential for any effective strategy. Without clear goals at the individual level, you don’t be able to achieve the revenue targets outlined in your sales plan.

Increase the Number of Contest Winners

Many top tier performers are intrinsically motivated to do well, but some of them are motivated by the goal of being “the best.” The downside is that it’s often true — in a competition with only a few prizes, top-tier performers tend to fill up the winning spots. At the same time, performers in the other tiers receive nothing for their efforts. Over time, mid-tier and low-tier performers (the bulk of your sales team) will notice this pattern. If they don't think they can win, contests will gradually become less motivating.

Instead, the number of prizes for a competition should equal (or exceed) the number of top performers on your team. This accomplishes two things:

  1. Low-tier and mid-tier performers now have a better chance of winning and are more apt to try harder for a prize.
  2. It puts pressure on top performers to avoid losing their spot in the winners’ circle.

Give Out Consistent Bonuses

Many low-tier performers are motivated by tangible rewards. Because of this, bonuses are an excellent strategy to improve performance. The motivation of a bonus is transactional (reach a certain number of sales = get a bonus). However, the carrot on a stick method doesn't work if the carrot is a mile off. It only works if it feels like it’s within reach. If you don’t pay out bonuses on a frequent and consistent basis, you may sabotage the “chasing” effect of this strategy.

Be sure to offer bonuses on a consistent basis and shorten the timeline between payouts. The frequency of the reward can help maintain consistently good performance and reinforce desirable habits.

What NOT To Do

When it comes to motivating a sales team, there are plenty of managers who do it wrong. You’ve seen the cheesy motivational videos, team-building exercises and “employee of the month” emails. Let’s not even get started on the Jordan Belfort approach.

You might already be rolling your eyes. If so, you’re in the right mindset.

In order to make the most of your motivational strategies, here are a few common mistakes you should avoid.

Cover Up Your Mistakes

In any organization, someone is bound to make a mistake. But unless it breaches confidentiality, trying to hide your flaws as a manager or the flaws of your department can destroy team morale. Transparency in a sales team is essential to building motivation.

Without transparency at the organizational level, team members are blind to the bigger picture. It also makes people feel like there is no room for error. But that’s exactly what produces growth — learning from your mistakes.

Instead, try being open and honest about your progress as a professional. Why? Because your entire power to build morale within your team relies on one thing: trust. If your team doesn’t trust you, why should they believe you when you tell them they can do better?

Only Pay Attention to Top Performers

Since top-tier performers tend to show a lot of dedication and engagement (and make a lot of sales), you may be tempted to give them the most attention and incentives. After all, they’re the best assets of the team.

This is a dangerous move. Paying too much attention to your top performers can make the rest of your team members feel undervalued. Considering that your mid-tier and low-tier performers make up the bulk of your entire sales team, you would be wise to give them an equal (if not greater) portion of the incentives. What’s more, top-performers often need fewer incentives than the other tiers (they need to be “the best,” remember?). Pumping them with cash and prizes for better performance may turn out to be a waste of resources.

Micromanage Your Sales Reps

If you’ve ever tried to work with a manager who was always breathing down your neck, then you know how frustrating it is to be micromanaged. Micromanaging can often make your sales reps feel like you don’t trust them to do their jobs. This can eventually make your team rely on management too much and destroy productivity altogether. It also wastes time and energy to try to control tasks that the sales team is hired to perform in the first place.

Instead, you want to empower your sales reps to make their own decisions with little oversight. If you can’t do that, it may be time to reexamine your training and onboarding process.

Impose A Ceiling

While commissions are a great motivational strategy, some organizations impose a limit on what each rep can earn. You might see this as a cost-saving measure, but in reality, it often limits your ability to grow as an organization.

Sales reps who know they can only earn a certain amount will often stop once they have no more incentive to keep trying. Think about it: If you get paid the same amount whether you work 40 hours or 50 hours, why work any harder? You’re obviously more incentivized to work less for the same pay.

The math is simple — if you put a cap on your commissions, you put a cap on company revenue. Remove the cap, and you increase the odds of some reps going above and beyond.

Create a Cutthroat Environment

Movies like the Wolf of Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross ‌show sales teams that are absolutely savage about closing deals. Unfortunately, this isn’t always fiction. Too many companies today still try to implement the same adrenaline-filled, ultra-masculine, “Always be Closing” approach to team motivation.

But while it may energize the crowd for a moment, this type of culture can quickly become toxic and hostile. It can also bleed into how your reps talk to prospects. Imagine you get a cold call from some pumped-up sales rep who is aggressively trying to get you to buy a piece of software. What is your response?

Click (you hang up).

No one wants to be pressured into sales. Beyond that, healthy teamwork won’t thrive in an environment that’s built on ruthless competition.

Sales reps who focus on building a relationship with the prospect and making the value proposition as clear as possible often have better numbers than those who push too hard. At Prehired, our Science-Based Sales® methodology is driven by the mindset of Clarity > Closing®. It’s the idea that sales doesn't have to be aggressive or high pressure. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

Final Thoughts

Being an effective sales manager is more than just smiling and saying, “you got this.” It also doesn't mean ruling with an iron fist. The best leaders understand their team members on a deeper level. This allows them to implement strategies that help their reps to become the best versions of themselves.

That said, motivating a diverse team of sales reps can be a challenge. We understand that. At Prehired, we train people from all different backgrounds to join the top 5% of high-performing software salespeople. After completing our rigorous training, we provide continued support for our members to start a new career in software sales.

But before we let these hotshots loose to start interviewing, we grade them on attitude, aptitude, ambition and accountability. In other words, we make sure they’re ready and motivated to hit the sales floor as soon as possible.

Why do we do this? Because we respect our partners — the companies who rely on us to fill their SDR teams.

We know how important it is to build your team with highly motivated and competent salespeople. Otherwise, you’ll spend all of your time training new and unqualified talent, and your company may never reach its true sales potential.

We can help you with that. Start building your SDR team from a curated list of pre-motivated sales talent. Hire a Prehired member today.

Now, go out there and get ‘em!

Josh Jordan

As Prehired's Founder & CEO, Josh Jordan is leading the mission to help 10,000 people launch 6-figure software sales careers by the end of 2024.

How? With Prehired's Science-Based Sales® process -- born from helping dozens of software companies build their sales teams...

...and then consulting with hundreds of Software Sales Managers on exactly what they wanted new hires to know...

...and then helping hundreds of regular folks break into software sales in 12 weeks, on average.

Josh created Science-Based Sales® to help nearly anyone succeed in software sales, because it creates clarity for prospects. No killer closer instincts, charisma or kissing up to decision makers needed.

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