The Surprising Psychology of Sales Rewards


One can certainly see why the element of surprise causes the heart to race.  That’s especially true when people are jumping out from behind your couch on your birthday.

But the element of surprise is also a powerful tool in the world of rewards - especially sales rewards.  The surprising psychology of sales rewards and how you can put it to work is the subject of this post.

Didn’t See That Coming!

We want to be clear.  You’re not just dropping out of the sky and throwing unexpected rewards at your people “just because”.  You’re rewarding them for doing what’s required to help you meet sales goals.  You’re also rewarding them for doing the kind of work that bears the unmistakable stamp of your company culture.

That means anything from being there for their colleagues when needed or closing an exceptionally great deal.

The Element of Surprise and Why It Works

Behavioral psychologists have told us for some time that surprise rewards elicit changes in behavior.  Psychologist B.F. Skinner’s tests on mice and their behavioral responses to surprise rewards rendered conclusive data in this area.

His results revealed that mice who consistently received the same reward when pressing a lever didn’t model the same behaviors as those whose treats varied. 

The mice with the varied rewards were more likely to continue pressing the lever.

People Aren’t Mice, But

Pleasure centers in human brains don’t respond all that dissimilarly to rewards delivered in an unpredictable manner.  Even if the rewards involved in any given study (of which more than a few exist) weren’t targeted according to personal preferences, participants still responded to the surprise reward.

And when pivotal information is expressly connected to the reward, the brain sits up and pays attention – meaning that the brain’s pleasure center isn’t the only factor.  It signals that more information is to be incorporated to arrive at an understanding of how meeting goals and modeling productive behavior guides the way forward.

The upshot is that surprise rewards motivate employees on a chemical level, in the structures of the brain.  But how can you make them even more effective than they already are?

Smart Strategies

Making the surprising psychology of sales rewards work can be achieved effectively, using the following strategies:

  • Training:  Training is an ideal venue for springing surprise rewards on your sales force. Rewards signal that the information being imparted is important, engaging employees at a deeper level.  When an employee successfully demonstrates that they’ve mastered the information, they receive a reward.  This has an exemplary effect on all participants.  The element of surprise transforms the mundane.
  • On-the-spot rewards:  This is the age of instant gratification.  In terms of sales rewards, nothing lights up the brain like the instant gratification of a surprise reward for great work.  The element of surprise is enhanced by the rush of instant gratification.
  • Big picture thinking:  Surprise rewards shouldn’t exist in a vacuum.  They work most effectively when part of an overarching incentives program.

Ready to leverage the surprising psychology of sales rewards?  Contact us.

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  • Evan Polin
    Sandler Training

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  • Kevin O'Keefe
    Vice President World Wide Sales, Maginatics, Inc.

    "Beverly arranged and managed the early Envivio Sales incentive trips for us. Each of our events was an outstanding and motivating experience Our Sales team appreciated the attention to detail and to fun. Qualifying for the "trip" was a motivating factor behind many end of year sales pushes. I will use Beverly again in the future."

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    Laird Technologies

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    C& J Energy Services, Inc

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