April 27, 2015

3 Creative Sales Contest Ideas and Why They Work

The logic behind the sales contest is long overdue for an overhaul. The same could be said of the stereotype of the sales professional.

Contests have long been a go-to tactic for sales managers because when these games work, they work well. Given that simply framing an activity as a game may have a positive effect on motivation and engagement, this logic is sound, if somewhat broad.

What has not stood the test of time is the structure of these contests

However, what has not stood the test of time is the structure of these contests, or the idea that pitting sales reps against one another is the ultimate method for driving results.

The traditional logic is to harness sales people’s “natural” competitive drive by using individual rankings to spur the entire team. In reality, only 25 percent of sales people want to work in a very competitive environment, and a culture of cutthroat competition may actually be pushing the next generation toward different professions.

Case in point: Hiring candidates into technical sales and sales-management positions remains a mission-critical undertaking for many U.S. businesses, especially for software companies that need to navigate complex business-to-business sales cycles.

But young people are choosing other fields, citing too much risk and too much competition as deterrents to a sales job. A 2014 Harvard Business School report showed employers spent an average of 41 days trying to fill technical sales jobs, in contrast to the 33 day average for all jobs.


hbr: sales jobs that are difficult to fill

Technical sales and sales management jobs are difficult to fill, despite a high lifetime value


The sales contest has its place as a motivational tool, whether for driving revenue, encouraging a change in process, or engendering software adoption, as does competition in the workplace. But managers need to look beyond the Glenngary Glen Ross paradigm, and run contests that encourage collaboration and problem solving. These characteristics better define the attitude of the modern sales representative as well as the way modern sales teams are structured.

Sales Contests That Work

To be clear, competition isn’t all bad; it just needs to be structured in a way that encourages team-building and collaboration. The goal should be to engage your entire team, not just the ones who always meet their numbers.

For example, home builder Clayton Homes experienced dramatic performance improvements using the Ambition software platform to create team-based contests styled after fantasy sports competitions. 

Additional elements such as autonomy, surprise, and urgency can make your contest more successful by harnessing other motivational sources than competition.

The following examples were provided by Ben Jackson, VP of sales at Voices.com, and each of his competitions features a mixture of game mechanics other than just competition. Let’s examine how he structured contests for Voices.com and why these sales contest ideas were successful.

1: The Yankee Gift Swap

Perhaps best represented in popular culture by The Office, this type of contest is also typically referred to as “Dirty Santa”. Jackson wanted to rule a contest during the holiday season to counteract the festive season slowdown that had become something of an unwelcome tradition.  

The rules were simple: every time someone made a sale over a certain dollar amount, she could open a gift (no shaking allowed of course). Once the first gift was opened, anyone else who had made a sale over the predetermined amount could either open another package or steal one that had already been unwrapped.

“When designing the contest, we based the dollar amount on historical data and determined that we typically sell 30 deals a month over this determined price point,” explains Jackson.

The contest was so successful that the sales team had opened all 30 of the gifts in the first week, forcing the management team to restock with another 15. The end result was a 50 percent increase in larger than average deals.

 Why This Contest Worked

This contest didn’t hold any particular team-based aspect, but it did allow salespeople a sense of autonomy in choosing which gift to open and whether or not to take someone else’s prize. This freedom of choice is motivating because humans want to control as much of their environment as possible. Not knowing what’s inside the presents is also a strong motivator because it creates a variable rewards scenario. The unpredictability of opening the present is thrilling.

 2: Visualizing Progress

whiteboarding selling contest ideas

 Although large deals can be advantageous, they aren’t always the most profitable in the end. Jackson wanted to change his team’s focus from the pure revenue numbers of each deal to the gross profit they brought in over an extended period.

To help the salespeople visualize this change in strategy, the management team bought a whiteboard, drew a grid on it, and invited each rep to record their sales. “On the board was the rep’s name, company, company or client name, revenue, and gross profit. We set monthly targets and totaled the gross profit column as we went along,” said Jackson.

This helped every rep visualize his gross profit in relation to revenue, creating a culture of accountability. At the end of the contest, the sales team commemorated the event with a photo and everyone celebrated with an off-site activity.

Why This Contest Worked

While this may initially seem strikingly like a leaderboard-style contest, the gross profit whiteboard actually functions as a medium for visualizing progress, rather than ranking participants by their individual achievements. 

It may seem simple, visualizing and emphasizing progress toward meaningful goals is one of the most powerful motivators at your disposal. Because it’s difficult to delineate progress without some type of visual element, charts and graphs that map headway made by salespeople have become common features in sales software.

This contest also reinforced the team aspect of the competition by taking everyone out for an off-site event once the program finished.

3: The Flash Contest

It’s undeniable: Everyone loves to leave early on Fridays. Because this reward is so powerful, Jackson uses it as incentive to intermittently boost his team’s numbers at the end of the month.

The timing of this contest is strategically important as well as motivating. Jackson noticed that inside sales reps had a bad habit of rationing deals in the later stretches of the month to steal a march on their quotas for the next cycle. By spontaneously announcing that meeting a certain quota in the last few days would mean every leaves early on Friday, Jackson was able to significantly increase the team’s output.

Jackson elaborates: “Every time we’ve done this, we’ve seen deals appear out of nowhere, and the entire team come together to get each other to the goal. We have seen reps help each other work through deals and give advice on the best way to create urgency and close deals.”

Why This Contest Worked

The key to this type of contest is the spontaneity and time limit. By surprising the entire team with a very desirable reward that must be achieved within a narrow time frame, Jackson created urgency, which is an excellent motivator. The pressure to reach the goal was so great that it encouraged the sales reps to work together and magnificently eliminated the rationing behavior in order to drive higher numbers and build better team chemistry.


All of these sales contests used mechanics and psychological triggers other than pure competition. If you want to keep your contests fresh and effective, look past competition and add some other dimensions. The results could yield more than better numbers; they could mean better collaboration and a more engaged team culture.

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