Two Variants of the Straight Line Sales Commission Plan

sales commission compensation plan

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

First, restrict your thoughts to the attributes of a relative sales commission plan (see related 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.”

Side Note: The phrase “on target” is commonly used and is the same as “at-plan” in that both denote the amount of money (commission payment) to be made if the established sales targets are exactly achieved.

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 the net profit impact of missing your top-level revenue target by 10%.  You shouldn’t feel good about paying your Sales VP a full 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 an additional 20% accelerator (20% x 1.0 = 20%).  The accelerator is added to the straight line 120% base commission for a total payment of 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 originally-mentioned challenges unsolved.

The modified straight line method starts the initial commission payouts at some agreed minimal performance level.  Perhaps first line sales managers earn nothing until they reach 40% of their target 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 still equates to 100% payout.  This means the higher the minimum performance threshold the steeper the resulting 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 minimum equates to 2% commission payout.

Side Note:  As suggested before, the volatility and variance of performance at a sales executive’s level is much lower than an individually-contributing sales rep.  This is because the executive’s results are an aggregation of all of the sales professionals (reps and managers) that report to them and that tends to average things out.  In other words, where an individual sales rep might finish at 40% of quota or 200% of quota, that level of variance for a sales executive is almost never seen.  Because of this, you might set the minimum for a sales rep at 40%, a sales manager at 50% and a sales VP at 60%. 


sales compensationA 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 article.  Feel free to modify it and share it with others.

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  • […] A relative commission plan doesn’t need to payout in a straight line (ie – 88% performance = 88% of commission opportunity).  There are usually methods of instilling more “pain” for especially poor performance and more “pleasure” for exceeding the targets.  One way to do this is to implement decelerators and accelerators and another way is to use a modified straight line payout calculation.  These are described further, and with a sales commission calculator available for download, in my blog post titled Two Variants of the Straight Line Sales Commission Plan. […]

  • […] Two Variants of the Straight Line Sales Commission Plan […]

  • Beth says:

    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!

    • 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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  • Lisa A Casey says:

    This is a great spreadsheet and very useful to show charts. I used the straight line method. Is there a way of adding the actual $$ of achievement to show the payout achievment?

    • Thanks for the compliment. I’m thinking what you’re requesting is reflected in rows 45-49 and 95-99 of the spreadsheet. Of course, you can edit the spreadsheet to include any feature that’s appropriate for your business. This is just a conceptual model.

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