The Art of Sales Compensation: 9 Motivating Pay Structures

Sales Compensation for Sales Teams

In the world of sales, understanding the intricacies of sales compensation is crucial for both businesses and sales professionals. This comprehensive guide delves into the essence of sales compensation, its structure, and the various plans associated with it. Our exploration will provide insights into creating effective compensation strategies that incentivize sales teams and align with organizational goals.

What is Sales Compensation?

Sales compensation refers to the total annual earnings of a salesperson, encompassing a base salary, commission, and additional monetary incentives. These are designed to motivate sales representatives to meet or exceed their quotas.

What is a Sales Compensation Plan?

A sales compensation plan is a structured program outlining a sales representative’s earnings based on performance. It includes components like base salary, commission, bonuses, and benefits, aiming to foster positive behaviors, set compensation standards, and drive results for the team and the organization​​.

Benefits of a Sales Compensation Plan

B2B and B2C Sales Compensation

Create Structure Within the Team

High turnover in sales teams can be mitigated by a well-structured sales compensation plan. Such a plan adds clear differentiation between junior, mid-level, and senior reps, offering a pathway for advancement and reducing the likelihood of reps leaving the team​​.

Incentivize Individual Reps

Sales compensation plans motivate reps by linking their potential earnings to their sales performance. Additional benefits like educational stipends can further incentivize reps to improve their skills and effectiveness​​.

Help You Budget Better

These plans enable better budgeting by providing a clear framework of how much each rep will be paid based on experience and performance, aiding in financial planning and preparedness for various performance outcomes​​.

Sales Compensation Terms

Sales Quota

This is a time-bound revenue target set by sales managers, which can be individual or group-based and measured in various ways like profit, deals closed, or overall activity​​.

Sales Accelerators and Decelerators

Accelerators increase commissions when reps exceed their quotas, while decelerators reduce commissions for underperforming reps​​.


These are implemented when a customer churns before a specific benchmark, causing the rep to lose their commission, commonly used in subscription-based companies​​.

On-Target Earnings (OTE)

OTE provides a realistic view of total compensation when expected goals and quotas are met, typically including base salary and commission from closed deals​​.

Sales Performance Incentive Fund or Sales Contests

These are short-term incentives to boost high performance among salespeople, including both monetary and non-monetary rewards​​.

9 Sales Compensation Plans

1. Base Salary Plus Commission Plan

The Base Salary Plus Commission Plan is a prevalent structure in sales compensation. It provides sales representatives with a fixed annual base salary, offering stability and predictability in earnings. In addition to the base salary, reps earn commissions based on their sales performance. This plan is ideal for most businesses as it balances the security of a steady income with the motivation to excel in sales. The commission portion is usually a percentage of the sales or revenue generated by the rep. The balance between base salary and commission varies, depending on factors like the difficulty of sales, the level of autonomy and experience required, and the complexity of the sales cycle. A typical ratio across industries is 60% fixed to 40% variable, although this can be adjusted based on the product complexity and sales environment​​.

2. Base Salary Plus Bonus Compensation Plan

Sales Compensation Bonus Check

The Base Salary Plus Bonus Compensation Plan is commonly used when sales reps consistently meet their pre-set targets. This plan combines a predictable base salary with a bonus structure based on achieving specific sales goals. Bonuses are predetermined and are paid out when reps meet or exceed their targets. This plan offers a high degree of predictability for both the sales rep and the organization. It’s effective in motivating reps to reach their targets but may not incentivize them to exceed these targets significantly. An example of this could be a base salary of $30,000 with an additional $15,000 bonus for selling a certain amount annually​​.

3. Commission Only Compensation Plan

In a Commission Only Compensation Plan, sales reps are compensated solely based on their sales performance. This plan is straightforward and highly motivating, as a rep’s income is entirely tied to their ability to sell. Under this structure, a sales rep’s earning potential is theoretically unlimited but can also be unstable, as they earn nothing in periods of low sales. The commission rates vary, typically ranging from 5% to 45%, depending on the level of support the rep provides to customers and their involvement in the sales process. While this plan saves on fixed costs for the employer, it requires careful consideration to maintain a motivated and financially stable sales team​​.

4. Gross Margin Commission Plan

The Gross Margin Commission Plan compensates sales reps based on the profit margin of the products they sell rather than the total sales volume. This plan encourages reps to focus on selling higher-margin products and discourages discounting practices that can erode profit margins. It’s particularly effective in promoting the sale of more profitable product lines and ensuring that sales efforts align with the company’s financial goals. However, it requires that reps have control over pricing and that the company can accurately track and manage gross margins. This plan may not be suitable for all business models, especially those focusing on market share or brand presence over immediate profitability​​.

5. Absolute Commission Plan

Salesperson Calling

The Absolute Commission Plan, also known as a set rate commission plan, requires reps to meet specific targets or milestones to earn commissions. For instance, a company might pay a fixed amount for each new customer acquired or a certain percentage of revenue from upselling and cross-selling. This plan is straightforward and easy to understand, which can drive strong performance. It directly ties the rep’s compensation to specific sales achievements, fostering a highly motivated sales environment. However, it doesn’t account for market penetration or the number of opportunities available to each rep, which can lead to disparities in earning potential across the sales team​​.

6. Straight-Line Commission Plan

The Straight-Line Commission Plan offers a direct correlation between the percentage of the sales quota achieved and the commission earned. If a sales rep achieves a certain percentage of their quota, they receive that same percentage of their potential commission. This model is simple and transparent, making it easy to implement and understand. However, it may not adequately incentivize over-performance, as earning 140% of a commission for 140% of a quota achieved may not be as motivating as more aggressive accelerator models. Additionally, it could lead to contentment with lower performance levels if reps are satisfied with earning a proportionate part of their commission​​.

7. Relative Commission Plan

In a Relative Commission Plan, compensation is tied to achieving a predetermined sales quota. This target can be based on revenue or sales volume. When a rep hits 100% of their quota, they earn their On-Target Earnings (OTE), which could be a combination of base salary and commission or solely commission-based. For instance, if a rep’s yearly quota is $60,000 with a commission of $50,000 and a base salary of $80,000, their OTE would amount to $130,000. This plan encourages reps to meet and exceed their quotas, offering a clear benchmark for success and compensation​​.

8. ‘Draw Against’ Commission Plan

The ‘Draw Against’ Commission Plan involves advance payments to sales reps, which are then adjusted against their earned commissions. This model can be either recoverable, where the advance acts as a loan against future commissions, or nonrecoverable, often used for new reps as a form of guaranteed payment during their initial training period. The recoverable draw requires reps to earn a minimum amount in commission to offset the advance. If they fail to meet this threshold, the deficit carries over to the next pay period. This plan offers reps a steady cash flow while still linking their overall compensation to sales performance​​.

9. Territory Volume Commission Plan

Sales Territory Map

With the Territory Volume Commission Plan, sales teams work within specific geographic regions, and compensation is based on the total sales achieved in that territory. At the end of the compensation period, the total sales revenue generated in a territory is divided among the reps who worked in that area. This plan encourages teamwork and a collective effort to boost sales in a particular region. It can be particularly effective in businesses where regional market penetration and coverage are crucial for success​​.

How to Create a Compensation Plan

Use a Sales Compensation Planner

Utilizing a sales compensation planner is the first step in creating an effective compensation plan. This tool helps in structuring, analyzing, and managing different aspects of compensation. It can range from simple spreadsheet templates to sophisticated software solutions. The planner should allow you to model various scenarios, compare compensation costs against sales performance, and ensure that the plan aligns with your business objectives. It’s essential to choose a planner that is flexible and adaptable to the unique requirements of your sales team and business model.

Determine Compensation Plan Goals

Before designing a compensation plan, clearly define its goals. These goals could include motivating high performance, retaining top talent, driving specific sales behaviors, or aligning sales activities with broader business objectives. Each goal should be measurable and attainable, providing a clear direction for the design of the compensation structure. For instance, if the goal is to incentivize new client acquisition, the plan might offer higher rewards for new sales compared to repeat business.

Choose a Type of Compensation Plan

Saleswoman at Work

Selecting the right type of compensation plan is crucial and should be based on your business model, sales cycle, and team structure. Options include base salary plus commission, commission only, salary plus bonus, and more. Consider factors like the predictability of income for sales reps, the level of risk the company is willing to assume, and the nature of the sales process. The chosen plan should motivate the sales team while aligning with the company’s financial capabilities and sales targets.

Decide When to Provide Compensation

Determining the timing of compensation is essential. Will it be paid upon closing a deal, monthly, quarterly, or annually? This decision impacts sales rep motivation and cash flow management. Immediate rewards might spur more aggressive selling, while delayed compensation can encourage long-term customer relationships. The choice should balance the need for instant gratification with sustainable sales practices and financial planning.

Choose a Payroll Software

Implementing efficient payroll software is vital for managing sales compensation. The software should handle various compensation structures, process payments accurately and on time, and comply with legal and tax requirements. It should also offer reporting features to analyze sales performance and compensation expenses. The right software will streamline administrative tasks, reduce errors, and maintain transparency in compensation.

Set Quotas and Expectations for Compensation

Clearly articulated quotas and expectations are the backbone of an effective sales compensation plan. Quotas should be challenging yet achievable, and aligned with market potential and business goals. Establish clear criteria for what constitutes successful performance and how it is measured. Communicate these expectations to the sales team to ensure understanding and alignment. Regularly review and adjust quotas to reflect market changes and business needs.


Navigating the intricacies of sales compensation is key to motivating sales teams and achieving organizational goals. An effective sales compensation plan is not just a pay structure but a strategic tool that aligns with company objectives while incentivizing sales performance.

To develop a successful plan, businesses must focus on setting clear goals, choosing the appropriate compensation model, determining timely payouts, leveraging efficient payroll software, and clearly defining quotas and expectations. It’s crucial to regularly evaluate and adapt the plan to respond to changing business needs and sales environments.

In essence, a well-thought-out sales compensation strategy is instrumental in building a motivated, effective sales force that propels your business toward its objectives.