What Motivates the Most Successful Salespeople?

  • SumoMe

Yesterday, I had a discussion with a woman about what drives salespeople. She had asked me what drives me every morning to get up and seek out business when I know that, 9 times out of 10, I’ll be rejected. I responded by saying that the 90% who turn me down are worth the 10% I have an opportunity to make a difference for. While I do need to make a living, what really motivates me is the idea of helping others be successful. That was my answer. Her response stunned me…

“The reason I ask,” she said, “is that the most successful salespeople are financially motivated. They want to earn more and have a higher standard of living. I don’t mean that they’re ‘greedy.’ They just need that carrot to convince them to get up and hit the pavement.  Higher income motivates the most successful salespeople.”

What a base, bleak, and cynical perspective. Naturally, I disagreed.

On Financial Motivation

I understand the importance of holding profit for my company, so that it can continue creating value for customers. I understand that, as the person introducing a value-creating product or service to my customer, I have the right to own a portion of that value I helped create. I need to be clear on this: I have no problem with making a profit. However, in the end, making more money is NOT what drives me.

I don’t want a mansion. I don’t want a Ferrari. I want to leave the world a better place than when I found it. Sound cheesy? Good. I once heard an interview with Daniel Pink, author of Drive, on the subject of this traditional model of motivation. Here’s what he had to say:

 If you don’t pay people enough, you are not going to get motivation. But once you pay people enough–and I would argue pay people more than enough–additional units of money have relatively little impact on additional units of performance or satisfaction.

Pink goes on to argue that, past a certain point, people stop caring about money so much. They start caring about other things. Autonomy. A sense of purpose. Fun. Non-financial motivators. They really do exist.

Why I Think Making a Difference is a Better Motivation

The problem with the notion that “the most successful salespeople are financially-motivated” is that it produces the wrong incentives for the profession. It practically begs the salesperson, at some point, to engage in unethical behavior. You see, I will not sell something to a customer that I believe isn’t right for them…no matter how much money I make. Because, for me, the money is not the end; it is a means to an end. The end is helping my customer become more successful.

I think that most people would probably agree with the woman I had a conversation with yesterday. Most people would agree that most successful salespeople are driven primarily by a higher income. And that may be true. But it shouldn’t be. That’s why so many people are skeptical of salespeople–because they can tell that they are scavenging for their money.

Ask your customers what they prefer: salespeople who are motivated by making more money or sales people who are motivated by improving their customers’ lives and businesses. I think you know what answer you’ll get. Everyone needs to make a living, but the most successful salespeople will be motivated first and foremost by making a difference.

Today’s Recommended Reading: 7 Tips for Facebook Success by Ken Mueller

I have a risque story that so relevantly applies to what you're saying, Doug, about not letting the 90% rejection overshadow the 10% acceptance. When I was in college, way back when, I worked in the school cafeteria with one of the ugliest dudes I ever say. He went up to EVERY woman he met and asked her if she would have sex with him. Now, this was the early 70's a time of "Make Love, Not War," but nonetheless I was horrified by his actions. I asked him, "Why do you do that?" to which he simply replied, "Every now and then - rarely - someone says YES." He didn't let all the outraged looks, hostile replies, or slapped face deter him. Now, THAT is a salesman!



I wholeheartedly agree that at different stages of success within a salesperson's (or any employee for that matter) require different motivations.  Early on in careers, money is typically a motivator.  Think about when a salesperson transitions to being a manager.  More often than not, he/she will now make less than a salesperson, however he/she doesn't care.  His/her motivations have shifted to wanting to make a difference. 


All in all, great post and thanks for getting this out there!

douglaserice moderator

 @BrianZimm1 Thanks, Brain. Good point about the transition from sales into sales management.