“What goes up must come down,” Sir Isaac Newton famously said. He was, of course, referring to the pull of gravity on objects, but he could just as easily have been talking about the peaks and valleys of sales contests. 

Euro-Tech, an Illinois roofing, siding, and window company, discovered this when it mounted its 45-day selling competition each year. “Guys would put their lives on hold for 45 days to win,” co-owner Fred Finn says. “They would tear it up.” Sales would jump by double digits, but when the contest was over, the salesforce was exhausted and a fall-off would ensue. “We would lose what we had gained,” Finn says. 

All About Attitude

Well-managed contests can put a sales team into overdrive. That’s because “selling is all about attitude,” says Frank Manzare, co-owner and operations manager of Texas home improvement company Statewide Remodeling. Companies often use contests to reach monthly, quarterly, or annual sales goals or a new sales record that might otherwise seem unattainable, or just to buck up a salesforce that daily copes with inevitable homeowner rejection. 

These can be daily spiffs, weekly drawings, or semi-annual contests. General sales manager Jim Zummo, of Renewal by Andersen of Albuquerque, is a big believer. RBA/Albuquerque might offer a $100 gas card to the first salesperson to call in a deal that day. Salespeople, Zummo says, love a challenge, and the more impromptu it is, the better. 

What Works

Here’s what some companies that make contests part of their sales culture find works: 

  • Us vs. Them. Putting a number on the board and rewarding the first salesperson to hit it sounds easy. Sales managers who have done it find that it’s also easy for what Manzare calls “jack rabbits”—salespeople who consistently run far ahead of others—to move so far in front during the first week or two on a one-month contest that the other sales reps stop trying. “They become alienated by the process,” says Castle Windows president Chris Cardullo, whose New Jersey company largely stopped running sales contests for that reason. Some companies solve that problem by dividing the salesforce into groups. That gets everyone charged. “Whoever’s on your team,” says Wayne Winn, owner of Home Town Restyling, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, “your teammates are cheering you on.” The key to team contests, Zummo says, is to know your salespeople. Forget about an all-star team. Mix midlevel performers with top sellers. Euro-Tech divided its 15 (at the time) salespeople into three teams. Everyone on the winning team went on a trip to Las Vegas for a weekend, escorted by Finn.
  • Get everybody in the game. If there’s one big jackpot, only one person can claim it. Contests structured to reward many people are sometimes a more powerful motivator. Marketing and sales consultant Rick Menendez, who has held executive positions at several large home improvement companies, says that one of his best monthly contests involved splitting $10,000 six ways: five $1,000 prizes and a $5,000 prize. Each sale earned a salesperson a ticket in a drawing for the $1,000 prize. “So even if someone made one sale, he could win the money,” Menendez says. The more deals written, the greater the chance of winning. Whoever posted the last sale before the drawing won the $5,000. 
  • Celebrate winners. For some companies, cash is the carrot. Others get more creative. Orange County, Calif., kitchen and bath remodeler Reborn Cabinets recently announced a “special event” bonus for the first salesperson to hit a specified sales target. The company had a limousine pick up the winner and his or her significant other and take them to the airport, where a helicopter whisked them off to a restaurant for dinner with the sales manager, followed by a tour of downtown Los Angeles. “I posted a picture of [the winner] on the sales board for the month with the caption, ‘Be this guy!’” sales manager Chris Lavoie says. Lavoie repeated the offer, giving away two trips the following month.
  • Broaden your base. Statewide Remodeling sends the wives or significant others of its salespeople who hit a certain volume a $250 gift certificate to upscale department stores such as Nordstrom. Along the way, the company dispatches three letters advising spouses on how sales reps are performing. Bringing conjugal pressure to bear has proven to be Statewide’s most effective sales contest during the last two years. 
  • Include marketers. Your salespeople can’t sell anything without a lead, so why not structure the contest to include and reward the people who make the leads? Menendez once worked for a company that set out to have a record sales month. A picture of a race track charting sales results was posted in the phone room, and Menendez says he made sure to recognize and reward those marketing reps whose leads converted to sales. “Every day we were oversupplied with leads, and the salespeople were pumped,” Menendez says. “You forgot that work was work.”