Two Variants of the Straight Line Sales Commission Plan

In the spirit of keeping a sales commission plan simple, many business owners or sales executives choose to use a straight-line methodology.  In other words, 88% achievement of the sales goal equates to 88% commission payout when compared to the “at plan” (or “on target”) amount.  Seems fair, right?  It’s definitely simple.  But it leaves out features that some sales reps and sales managers are probably looking for.  Let’s explore further while introducing two variants to the straight-line sales commission methodology.  I’ve also included a sales commission calculator for these two variants.

First, restrict your thoughts to the attributes of a relative sales commission plan (see related blog article titled “Absolute Versus Relative Sales Commission Plans“).  Relative commission plans pay based on attainment (performance) against a pre-set target (called a “quota”).  A single sentence summary of a relative commission plan might look like this: “Your quarterly sales quota is $150,000 in new revenue and your at-plan commission amount is $12,500 per quarter.”

There are four common issues with a traditional straight-line commission plan.  Let’s review them before evaluating possible solutions.

  • Upside Reward
    Most sales reps expect to be excessively rewarded if they exceed their targets by large margins.  If they achieve 150% of their quota, they don’t want to just make 150% of the sales commission plan but instead want to make something like 180% or 200%.
  • Making Up for Laggards
    If a sales manager has any sales reps performing below 50% in a given period, it’s really hard for that sales manager to make up for it across the other sales territories.
  • Too Comfortable
    A sales rep that regularly makes 70-80% of their sales commission plan could be too comfortable from a earnings perspective.  It’s never good if a sales rep is financially comfortable with commission payments that come with below-target performance.
  • Leverage for Sales Management
    Depending on the size of the sales team being managed, it’s likely the sales performance at the management level regularly stays within a somewhat narrow range of perhaps 75 – 125%.  And with a large team and multiple layers of sales management, the Sales VP might regularly finish in the 90 – 110% range.  That doesn’t leave much upside or downside in earnings, neither of which are good.  Just imagine if your company misses its revenue target by 10%.  You wouldn’t feel good paying your Sales VP 90% of their commission plan.

The conclusion of the issues above is that it is often better if the sales commission plan instills more “pain” for especially poor performance and more “pleasure” for exceeding the targets.  The good news is that a relative sales commission plan doesn’t need to payout in a straight line starting at 1%.  One variation incorporates accelerators and decelerators and another variation uses a modified straight line payout calculation.  We’ll explore each of these next.

Accelerators and Decelerators

The concept is fairly simple.  Above a certain performance level, “accelerators” are applied.  Below a certain performance level, “decelerators” are applied.  These are nothing more than adjustments made to an otherwise straight line commission calculation.  The accelerator is almost always applied for performance that exceeds 100% and the accelerator only applies to the portion of the performance that is above 100%.  As for the decelerator, it is applied for performance that falls below a stated threshold.  The exact threshold is set by the sales manager or sales executive.  The graph below shows the sales commission payout using a 0.5x decelerator factor for performance below 50% and 1.0x accelerator factor for performance above 100%.

Sales Commission Plan

Here’s a brief explanation of the three sections of the results graphed above:

  • Decelerator – Any performance below 50% is multiplied by 0.5 to determine how much of the commission opportunity should be paid (the commission opportunity is the “at plan” or “on target” amount that equates to exactly meeting the sales targets or quota).  A 40% performance versus the quota equates to a 20% payout against the commission plan (40% x 0.5 = 20%).
  • Straight Line – Notice that in between the thresholds defined for accelerator and decelerator use, the payments follow a straight-line methodology.  So a 90% equates to a 90% payout against the commission plan.
  • Accelerator – The portion of the performance that is above 100% is multiplied by 1.0 to calculate the accelerator amount and that is added to the regular straight-line calculation.  A 120% performance versus the quota equates to a 20% accelerator (20% x 1.0 = 20%).  That is added to the straight line 120% base commission for a total payment at 140% of plan (20% + 120% = 140%).

Modified Straight Line Method

While the accelerator/decelerator method incorporates excess pain for especially good or bad performance, the straight line payout in between the extremes can leave some of the challenges unsolved.

The modified straight line method starts the initial commission payouts at a performance level that is higher than 1%.  Perhaps first line sales managers start at 40% while the sales VP starts at 60%.  Once the minimum performance threshold is set, the slope of the payout line is re-calibrated so that 100% performance equates to 100% payout.  So the higher the minimum performance threshold the steeper the payout line, including above 100%.  So this plan has built-in accelerators and decelerators and I use it all the time.

Sales Commission Plan

The graph above reflects a minimum performance threshold of 50%, which means that each 1% of performance above that equates to 2% commission payout.

Summary

A sales commission plan is a very important but delicate tool to properly motivate the sales team.  Done properly, everyone’s interests will be aligned and magic can happen.  Done poorly and all sorts of chaos and misbehavior can ensue.  Make sure to first understand the 5 Golden Rules for Setting Sales Compensation Plans and then decide if an absolute or relative sales commission plan is best (see related article here).  If it turns out a relative commission plan makes sense, then decide if one of these modified versions of the straight line methodology helps you instill the proper motivation and bonus payment outcomes.

Commission Planning Tool SnapshotClick on the graphic to the right to download a commission planning and payment calculation spreadsheet for the two sales compensation methods described in this blog article.  Feel free to modify it and share it with others.

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Author: Gordon Daugherty

Over the past 15 years Gordon has seen nearly 1,000 startup pitches, advised more than 200 entrepreneurs and been involved with raising over $45M in growth and venture capital. Throughout his 28 year career in high tech, serving twice as President and three times as CMO, Gordon has both an IPO and a $200M acquisition exit under his belt. Now his emphasis is purely focused on helping startups and early stage tech companies. Through his Shockwave Innovations advisory practice and as Managing Director for Austin’s Capital Factory startup accelerator, Gordon is an active angel investor, VC and startup advisor.

5 thoughts on “Two Variants of the Straight Line Sales Commission Plan”

  1. This is very helpful but I am having trouble interpreting the file. I would love some assistance. We have a very narrow range of achievement 50% payout at 98.5% achievement up to 200% payout at 101.5% achievement. How would I use your model with these figures?
    Thank you in advance!

    1. Wow, that’s some massive leverage and in a very narrow range. Here’s how to modify my spreadsheet model for your use:
      1. Scroll down to the section starting on row 58 (modified straight-line method)
      2. Change C66 to 98.5% and click the smart icon at the top to reveal the decimal point
      3. Change cells B73 through B87 to reflect a much narrower range such as 97.0%, 97.5%, 98.0% . . . 100.0%, 100.5%, etc.
      4. With the cells in range B73 through B87 highlighted, click the smart icon at the top to reveal the decimal point

      I just did a quick test and it seems to work fine, assuming your payout calculation continues beyond 101.5%. If not, then just stop there with the graph and make sure to properly explain in the sales compensation plan document (see my article titled “Documenting Your Sales Compensation Plan”).

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