Motivation or manipulation?

The sales profession needs motivation, sure. But cross the line into manipulation territory and result can be catastrophic.

What is the line between motivating sales staff and manipulating sales staff? How do you make sure you don’t go over the line and place people under extreme pressure to achieve?

Research both here and overseas shows that high performing sales people identified how important it was to their performance that they remain motivated, which they recognised can be influenced by both internal and external factors, with a sense of self satisfaction found to be the most important contributor to their motivation.

The recent 4 Corners program on Telstra staff and a bullying culture that is supposed to be being cultivated in its call centres (transcript in full at was very disturbing indeed.

It highlighted that once top performing sales people where now highly stressed, frightened of not meeting (changing) targets and felt unable to control their own destiny.

Research shows that the ability to control their emotions (ie self regulation) was seen as important in keeping sales people focused on key objectives, issues and working to resolve customers’ problems.

Having clear tangible goals, performance targets, customer segmentation, competitor awareness, a sound USP (unique selling proposition) and transparent pricing model segmented into individual and team sales plans as part of a sound sales and business strategy is what good sales people need and expect to be able to control their own destiny and achieve their personal and professional goals. This autonomy and control is highly motivating for good sales people.

However the 4 Corners program told a different story. It focused on call centre staff having their targets changed and increased to what some people say are unachievable levels with no reason or link to strategy.

This was compounded by a new management culture that encouraged team leaders to use phrases like dragons, savages and submarines to describe their team members if they missed performance targets and encouraging team leaders to “‘shoot ‘em’ if they don’t work out”. This left some team leaders hating and bullying their staff, with some of them hating themselves for becoming this way.

Selling is a relentless job at the best of times. It’s like being an athlete – you set clear goals and workout in rain hail or shine. You are committed to overcoming obstacles and challenges and stepping up when it counts.

Beating the competition is hard enough, but if your coach then starts adding to your load by bullying you, putting you down, changing the rules, setting unrealistic goals and training regimes and even, in some cases, completely changing the game or sport you are playing, then all hell breaks loose.

Locus of control is so important for anyone in times of stress, but especially for sales people, who want to earn bonuses or commissions, to be their best and manage themselves to succeed within the given rules. Changing the goal posts and game rules after people committed to a game plan leaves hard working, dedicated sales people feeling cheated at best. And stressed, disengaged and burnt-out at worst.

Fact or not, the 4 Corners story set back the perception of the sales profession to the draconian days of Henry Ford who said “work is for work”. He had a policy that if anyone smiled, whistled, laughed or showed any signs of enjoyment at work they should be sacked.

Having every keystroke and toilet break monitored implies that no one can be trusted. This is not an example of a healthy sustainable sales culture.

If you are a dedicated hard working person who prides themselves on being able to be trusted to do a good job and management wants to manage you this way, it is very demotivating indeed. I had hoped we had come further than that, given current thinking and research into performance and motivation, but obviously not if this story has any truth to it.

The story was discussed at great length in my circles and many people were troubled by the implication of intense sweat-shop type call centre sales environments. Sadly, it’s not new and many other stories about these draconian call centre practices are in circulation.

One of my colleagues who has worked in telco sales, in both call centre and field sales, for many years had this to say: “My experience in these environments is that the word ‘manipulation’ comes into effect when management have moving targets. In saying this I mean that half way through the game, someone changes the rules.

“The rules usually alter when companies feel that the targets are too easy and they are increased, new products appear, thus the commission plan alters, the compulsory amount of outbound calls doubles. You may achieve your results, however in the 11th hour management decide that commission will only be paid to those that completed their calls in a certain time frame etc.”


So how do we create a climate of motivation? To motivate sales staff is through honesty, loyalty and clear direction; really no different to how you would want your sales staff to treat your customers. To achieve consistent results from your sales staff and have good morale, you need to provide a very clear achievable bonus or commission structure, with no moving goal posts.


The criteria that bounds this bonus or commission (that is, amount of calls made per day/visits, markets penetrated, sales made, profits achieved etc) also needs to be achievable, structured and based on sound strategy and facts. Provide further incentives if you must, to focus on certain products throughout the year, but do not alter the bonus or commission structure.

SHL, a world-renowned psychometric test developer, has identified some key motivating factors. While these can vary from person to person, they give a good indication; money, competition, achievement, pace, social contact, recognition, growth and autonomy.

Management need to act as true mentors and motivators for their staff, especially in sales call centres as this is, or can be, a very mundane job, and staff need to feel comfortable to bounce ideas or frustrations off their manager without feeling like they are being judged or readied for execution.


So if sales targets are continually changing and sales people are finding it increasingly difficult to get bonuses or commissions, ask yourself:


  • What is motivating senior management to do this?
  • Is the sales strategy wrong? Did management make a mistake?
  • Who will benefit financially or career wise from these changing targets
  • Are management’s actions self-serving at the cost of their people?


Remember: A fish always rots from the head down.




Author: Sue Barrett is founder and managing director of BARRETT Pty Ltd, an Australian based sales fitness firm that helps businesses build high performing sales teams and is author of soon-to-be-released book Sell Like a Woman.




For more Sell Like a Woman blogs, click here.

Further reading: Rentz, Shepherd, David, Ladd (2002); Walker, Churchill and Ford (1977); Churchill, Ford & Walker (2001)
Sardo, (2005) EI and Sales Performance, AIM
Deeter,-Schmelz, D.R. & Sojka, J. Z (2003), Developing effective salespeople: Exploring the link between emotional intelligence and sales performance. The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 11(3), 211-220.



Stephen Collins from writes: In my consulting experience the problem is largely a combination of:

  • Management are “widget” focused.
  • Management are ill-equipped as leaders (see my blog post).
  • Business culture is over-focused on bottom line outcomes and under-focused on building an environment where employees are empowered, engaged and enjoying their work (shock!).

Anyone who reads recent leadership and marketing material will quickly realise that the old model no longer works and is doomed to failure. Business and its leaders (I hope they’re leaders and not managers) must make a change and do it soon or they are doomed to failure and repetition of past mistakes.



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