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Greg: Welcome everybody this is Greg Alexander CEO of SBI, a sales and marketing consulting company, dedicated to helping you make your number. This is the SBI weekly podcast series, and today I’m joined by Bill Sexton. Bill is the director of sales operations for Zebra Technologies. If you are not familiar with Zebra, they are a 1.7 billion dollar company who employees 7,000 people who build identification and tracking technology that generates actionable insights and information giving companies unprecedented visibility into their business by giving physical things a digital voice.
Bill’s responsibilities include managing a team of 30 sales ops professionals, supporting roughly 420 sales reps, with classic sales ops duties such as sales forecasting, compensation planning, etc.
Prior to Bill’s current duties, he was in a similar role at Motorola and came to Zebra when Zebra bought the Enterprise Division of Motorola Solutions. Bill has a finance degree from Hofstra University. So, Bill, welcome to the show.
Bill: Thank you, pleasure to be here.
Greg: All right, today’s topic is sales compensation. We are going to have Bill answer some big questions such as how to set quotas correctly, how to determine if you are paying too much or too much by role, how to determine the split between base and variable and what to tie the variable to, and several other juicy comp related issues.
The reason why we are going to talk about this is that when this podcasts airs it will be late summer, early fall, and many sales ops leaders will be in the throes of getting the sales comp plan ready for the new year. I thought it would be a perfect topic and this would be helpful during that time period.
The way that we are going to handle our conversation today is we are going to use SBI sales compensation methodology as a discussion guide so we don’t ramble on directionless. If the audience wants to follow along they can do so by going to salebenchmarkindex.com, click on Our Services in the main nav, and click on compensation planning.
Okay, here goes. SBI sale comp framework has three phases. The first phase is performing a benchmark assessment. The objective of this phase is to benchmark the incentive plan to understand if it driving the desired behaviors, and how it compares to the external market. The activities performed in this phase are an analysis of turnover, pay level, traction, distribution of dollars, fairness, plan complexity, etc. The list is rather long. I’m going to try to simplify this.
Bill, I’m going to turn to you now to see how you do some of these things at Zebra and how you have done some of these things in your long successful career. I guess my first question for you is do you perform an annual benchmark of your compensation plans?
Bill: Yes, which has been complicated with Motorola and is probably becoming a little bit more simple with Zebra. With Motorola it was complicated because you had many divisions so when you tried to benchmark Motorola as a total, and the goal for Motorola was to try and have global plans across all their organizations so even when we had Motorola mobility, and the when that merged off and we had Motorola Solutions, which was the radio business and the enterprise business. As much as we tried to build comp plans that supported both, it was definitely different competitors, different market schemes, different ways to go to market, but for sure you try to benchmark against your competition.
That has become easier at Zebra because the combination of Zebra with the enterprise business is the same market, the same set of competition. What changes a little bit is Zebra is definitely more of a channel driven business versus Enterprises more strategic solutions selling with a vast array of products. Legacy Zebra was printer.
Right now as we benchmark, you’re benchmarking against your competition and then when you are starting to look at how you benchmark against the market and market comparables. That’s where things start to differ with Zebra perspective Legacy versus the enterprise organization, but for sure we start with a benchmarking process.
Greg: That was a great answer and I appreciate the fact that you compared and contrast on how you did it at Motorola and the multi-business unit function versus how you are doing it with Zebra. Then the added complexity of selling through a channel.
Obviously the name of our firm, SBI, stands for sales, benchmark, index. We were one of the companies that pioneered the science of benchmarking to the art of sales. We get asked this question all the time about how to do benchmarks.
The question is to what degree of depth do you go? Let me ask you that question on a variety of dimensions, and tell me if you think that the effort is worth or the benefit is worth the effort I should say.
Benchmarking. Do you just benchmark overall or do you benchmark by individual role?
Bill: Well start with overall. There are certain subsets of our sales organizations, specialists roles like we will have a wireless LAN specialists role, so we may look at that specialists role slightly differently from a benchmarking perspective. Other than that … and to an extent where it’s sliced into a vertical kind of account management organization and then a more territorial channel driven business.
We would look at those two segments and then some of those specialists groups when we are benchmarking against our competition. Probably three more broad groups, not necessarily drilling into anything lower than some subgroups.
Greg: Okay, got it. That’s a happy medium, right? I think if it you just did it overall it might be too broad, but if you did by role you could have 50 roles and at some point you reach the point of diminishing returns.
Bill: Yeah. To expand on that a little bit, one of the issues that we had as we rolled into Zebra because at Motorola again you had the multi-tiered level of organizations and different organizations, and you tried to build these plans and you tried to build subsets of those plans as you benchmarking across the organizations and suddenly you end up with 200 and something plans globally. When we came into Zebra we made a real strategic decision to how can we slim this back.
The real goal is how do we get to five global plans as a framework, and then as we look at some of the subsets how can we use those plans and make some changes whether it be whether it be the way we set quota or just the way we treat some of the metrics inside that plan to accommodate for some of these specialty roles.
Greg: That’s a great example of having five common plans versus way too many an then tweaking inside of those frameworks. If you do that you can keep it to a small number of plans versus, as you said, 200 plans. That’s an interesting approach to that. In your answer you mentioned benchmarking against your competitors. Then you talked about benchmarking against the market. Benchmarking is all above coming up with an accurate peer group to compare yourself against. How have you done that?
Bill: We will work with our marketing organization and our economics organization to see how our benchmark is or what’s our success against our success against our competitors, like a Honeywell. Then, we will take that organization inside expecting better performance. Then, we will also work with our HR department and they have a bunch of metrics in terms of what Honeywell’s plans is, leveraging some consulting firm similar to SBI where they have some insight into the Ciscos of the world. How are they building their compensation plan? So we will look at a Honeywell, a Cisco, some more outside but IT organizations like an Oracle. How are they building their sales organizations, and then how do we leverage that and make sure that we are building a plan that is going to attract the right sales associate to our organization and maintain the folks that we have?
We are in an interesting market in that it’s somewhat unique right where we are competing with large organizations like Cisco and Wireless LAN. We are competing with Honeywell against their enterprise organization, but they are obviously a much larger conglomerate of companies, right? It’s trying to figure out this is the Honeywell plan, but is this the Enterprise Honeywell plan. A lot of it gets back to some of that market intelligence from consulting firms who have talked to associates that work in those divisions, right?
Bill: That’s really what we are getting to. Then we will look internally. We have hired folks from our competitors and we will get a feeling from those folks. What was the plan that you were on? What do you think are the positives of that plan and the negative of that plan? Then, we can work that into our building.
Greg: That’s what makes it hard. You are right. I’m please to hear you are going outside of just your traditional competitors, like a Honeywell or a Cisco, and maybe considering others like an Oracle because individual sales rep … he or she has multiple employment opportunities. He is a participant in the labor market as you are, therefore, compensation plans in companies are competing for that individual piece of human capital. I could be talking to you and I could be talking to IBM. You might say well IBM is not a competitor of ours, well in this sense they really are because you are competing for that person. You are trying to have a competitive compensation plan so they choose to come to work for you, correct?
Bill: Yeah, you nailed that. One of the things we have been noticing is as we have lost some A players you want to know why. That is one of the questions. What could we have done better as you go through that exit interview process. If you will share, where are you going? A lot of people that we’ve seen leave are leaving for software firms, right?
Bill: A software compensation plan in many instances very different than a hardware solutions company, but as we evolve one we are competing against those software companies, and two we are trying to become more of a service and software company. How do you make sure that your comp plan stays competitive with those markets so that one you are retaining the people, and two you are attracting that new talent to help you sell in those new markets where you haven’t played before.
Greg: Yeah, no question. On benchmarking, is it just dollars or are you also benchmarking things like turnover percentages and the distribution of the dollars, and how many people are participating in the incentive portion of the plan? Is it comprehensive or is it just dollars and cents?
Bill: No, it’s comprehensive, yeah. We will get into what metrics are being used by various firms. What’s the difference between base and variable. What is the benchmark there. How many metrics do you go after. Is it 5? Is it 4? We have seen what best in class looks like it’s about three different metrics; a primary, a secondary, and maybe a third type of challenge metric, is what we ended up moving towards at Zebra as we refined it this year. The variable plan. Again, you looking at that. So it’s not just dollars and cents. It’s really dollars and cents to me is probably the least important.
Is it how you’re structuring the comp plan to drive the business your desire. That really is what a comp plan is. It’s the one tool you have directly to drive your sales force to act the way you desire. You are creating their behaviors. They’re going to act upon the dollars they get paid and how they can make those dollars. It’s very important to look all of the metrics inside your competitor’s comp plans and understand what market they are going after, and if that’s the same market then you want to look at that organization and understand how they are successful.
A lot of that success is going to be because of a comp plan. Sales guys who will learn how to make money your plan, and they will take advantage of that.
Greg: No question.
You know your answer remind me of a friend of mind, a gentleman by the name of Kelly Tate, and Kelly is the CFO of Cummings. He recently wrote an article for us and in the Q2 Edition of the SBI Magazine. The title of that article was tearing down walls between finance and sales. He as the CFO wrote it from the perspective of the CFO’s office. The phrase that he said to me during that interview is, “The comp plan signals to the sales team what’s important in management.” I thought that was such a wonderful statement. It was so concise and so to the point and really expressed the purpose of a comp plan.
Let’s do this. Let’s make the listener of the podcast, who might not be readers of the magazine, aware of the SBI Magazine and give the some instruction on how they could get a copy of the SBI magazine. Let’s pause for a brief break and we will be right back.
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Greg: Okay, welcome back everybody. This is Greg Alexander CEO of SBI. I’m joined today by Bill Sexton who runs sales ops for Zebra Technology, and we are talking about sales compensation planning heading into the new year. Let’s pick up where we left off in progressing to phase two of SBi’s sales compensation methodology, which we call design; and this followed phase one, which was the benchmark assessment.
The objective of this phase is to design a compensation program for sales that says within the corporate budget, attracts and retains the best talent, and motivates the desired behavior. In the output of this phase is typically things like compensation plans by role, the financial models that support these comp plans, and comp committee approval from legal, HR, and finance.
Bill, as I mentioned in the intro, you and your team of 30 sales ops people that support the field you are in the thick of this and have done this several times. For the purpose of illustrating and putting context around your comments, how many types of roles are on the org chart and how did you reconcile that into these five global plans?
Bill: That is a great question. We have four front facing roles is what I will call them. Where they are driving direct revenue and directly responsible revenue whether it’s a territory or whether it’s a vertical approach and a focused account approach. Then, we have four groups now of what we call specialists. Where they are an overlay to the direct roles helping to drive whether it be a specific product set or a specific strategy. Typically specific product set so around the printing business on the Zebra side, of the Legacy Zebra side, the W LAN organization that we inherited from the enterprise organization. So you will have those overlays. We have four of those overlay teams plus about four direct revenue roles, and tack one more role on there, sorry, for our distribution channel account.
Greg: Plus all the sales management team, right?
Bill: Then you have your … Good point. I’m skipping the sales managers. Then, you have your sales managers, which we do this year we have our sales manager all in one type of plan. It’s a little bit of an experiment. We are going to see how it goes, but it fits for what we had to accomplish this year with merger of two organizations.
Greg: So call that 10 roles. Four, four, one and one, right?
Greg: That’s the role count. Now you mentioned earlier that you kind of have these five global frameworks. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. So you have 10 roles and each one of those roles has one of the five plans?
Bill: You got it. There I three, four very specific plan. The one for vertical account managers or what’s called high-touch account managers. It’s not fair to say veritical because it’s global and veritical is only North America. So it’s called high-touch account managers for channel/territory managers. Then, you have a manager plan. Then, we have a more open couple when … We have a technical plan for our technical architects. Let’s not leave them out either because they are on a variable plan as well.
Greg: See how this can add up? Now we are at 11. By the time, we get off the call we will be at 37.
Bill: Isn’t it amazing? So that’s four. Then, the fifth one is pretty open so you have some flexibility. It’s simply a specialist role so that’s to layer on all those different specialists roles that I discussed. Even though here are four of those roles they all fit within that one plan and there is flexibility within that plan to adjust it to the type of role.
Greg: Got it. That’s quiet an accomplishment. You have a large sales force. You guys are doing a billion seven in revenue and you got it down to …
Bill: We are out about 3.5 billion combined.
Greg: Oh, I’m sorry. Did something change?
Bill: That’s all right, that’s all right.
Greg: Well, okay, so even more. I mean that’s a small number of plans for a fairly large organization. I’m pointing that out because the people that are listening to this podcast right now are salivating. They are fighting plan complexity and some of them have 50, 60, 70 comp plans and they are dying to get to what you’ve accomplished. So that is why I’m highlighting that.
Let me ask you another question on this? Do you and your team handle the financial modeling as it relates to the managing the incentive budget or is that something that is handled by finance?
Bill: It’s in conjunction with. It’s an interesting questions because Motorola for sure leaned much more towards the finance side. So the finance side had a lot more control over that, although there was a gap because although they would have a more insight into the actual dollars and cents into a budget and to an extent the quota setting process, they didn’t have a lot of say in the plans setting process. So you can imagine that can put finance organization in if you can’t control the plan, but you have to put a budget together, it can become more complicated than you probably like.
One of the best practices I think we are inheriting from Zebra is sales ops is falling more into the ownership of that total package. The budget portion as well as the plan. You can kind of put those two together and you are feeding that information to finance. Finance still has to have a say as whether it fits into the overall picture, but at at least the people who are closest to the plan are now putting the numbers together.
Greg: That makes sense to keep those two things together. On that quota setting obviously, it probably has as big an impact on whether you stay within budget or go over budget. What we see out there as a rule of thumb, and I want to get your reaction to this, is that people aim to have about 66% of their sales team at plan. The reason why they do that is that the people that misplan get underpaid and then those dollars are funding over performance, so the people that are over goal, so you can penalize poor performance and reward over performance and still be neutral from a budget perspective. That seems to be kind of the general rule of thumb. Do you agree with that? Disagree with that? What are you guys doing?
Bill: I agree with that. The caveat to that is the key is on the over performance because our plan as in most you are starting to pay accelerators on the over performance. The under performance will not offset your over performance. You are going to pay more for over performance than you are on the savings you get for under.
The key is I want a significant portion of the field and 66% is about right at plan, and then a chunk above plan. That piece that is over plan you don’t … the finance mind, everyone wants misplan to be successful. It would be great if everybody hit 200% and we are skyrocketing, but I don’t want a ton of people at 150, 200%. I want 105, 110, 115 or else I’m paying out a ton of extra dollars that I wasn’t planning for for over performance that may have just gotten me above my corporate plan because of the under achievers don’t fully offset that over achievement.
You want over achievement, but you don’t want extreme over achievement. How do you set the quotas to avoid that is probably the hardest part of the quota setting process.
Greg: That requires understanding the potential in the market and what percentage of the potential you can capture all the way down to the account level and the individual rep level …
Greg: I see a lot of companies struggling with that one.
Bill: It’s the hardest one because you can put a plan together at aggregate level that looks great, and even when you get into some of the sub regions or for us verticals, but especially from a solutions down perspective we can have one account manager with a large account that if you are not aware opportunities in that account or you haven’t quotaed correctly for the visibility that they have, they will have a blow quarter for an expectation that you already had baked into your fiscal plan.
Greg: I will tell you a funny story. Literally engaged in a project right now with a company that has a staggered fiscal year so they start July, and we are having this conversation and they’re top performing sales territory – the sales territory has like over 200% at goal – doesn’t even have a sales rep.
Bill: Isn’t that an amazing thing?
Greg: It’s been open for 8 months. I’m talking to this CFO and he is like, “Well why am I paying these sales people anything. We are going to get the business whether they’re in the job or not.”
Bill: We had a similar situation, and I had a similar conversation. We had a role that was open for 5 or 6 months and the specific account that it was open with we closed the largest deal with them than we have in probably the last four years. Sometimes it works out that way. It gets into a very interesting situation of how much is the sale manager taking on those duties and how much is that impacting the rest of the organization. That’s usually where you see, which is hard to make tangible, right?
Greg: It is.
Bill: You will see where the management’s duties are waning because they’re trying to cover that account. Because at the end of the day, if they need that account to close that’s part of their quota, but is it taking away from their ability to manage the rest of their team. An interesting situation when that happens though.
Greg: No question. I recently had Tim Hoffmeyer who is the CFO of Blackbox, which is a billion dollar IT infrastructure provider on the SBI podcast. He and I spoke about how a CFO analyzes the affordability of a sales comp program. This interview might be valuable to those listening today. So let’s take a quick break and inform the audience on how to subscribe to the SBI podcast so they can get this easily. We will be right back.
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Greg: Okay, welcome back everybody. We should now shift our attention to the final piece of our sales compensation planning methodology, which is called implementation. The objective of this phase is to make sure the new plans are understood by the team, drives ongoing organizational performance, and balances the sales expenses. The outputs of this phase are things such as comp calculators for each plan, a communication plan, automation technology so the checks are accurate and they go out on time, and probably most importantly a quarterly review process that monitors that the plan is working or not.
Bill, let me ask you a few questions on this. Have you gone through the trouble of providing the individual sales reps compensation calculators?
Bill: I’ll say yes to that. Have we have been successful? At Motorola we definitely weren’t successful and a lot of that I think had to do with the number of plans we had so it was very hard to create that generic calculator that was easy enough for them to enter the information they understood and come out the other end with an accurate compensation number. That is the danger with compensation calculators, and I do want one out there and we do … we are putting one out there for our new plan, but we haven’t finalized it yet, and Q1 over.
The issue you have is if you get it wrong, it causes more pain than help because their expectation is that calculator is correct and if over calculates, under calculates, then it’s not tying to what is being set out of … We use Exactly. Then you are causing yourself a whole bunch of questions.
We still very much handle it on a individual basis, unfortunately. The goal is to get a comprehensive comp calculator, but it’s the conversation of having a comprehensive calculator that can also be easily used by the field. We have a calculator now but really my comp team is using that as they get a question because it’s too complicated to push out and give an accurate picture when an account manager is using it themselves.
Greg: I hear the risk. If somebody enters something into a calculator and they say, “Hey I am supposed to make 10,000,” and then they check and it’s 2000. Then, they say, “Hey what happened here, ” and that can be problematic. However, if it’s done right it’s so powerful because now I’m a sales rep, I’m working a deal, and before I even put a proposal on the table I can play around with the calculator and if it’s orchestrated correctly then maybe I’m selling the right bundle of products, or maybe I’m discounting correctly. The company is controlling my behavior with the comp calculator. So it has a lot of pluses to it.
You mentioned that you are using Exactly. That was my next question, which is have you implemented comp automation technology? Which one did you choose and how did the implementation go? Tell us why you chose Exactly and how’s it going.
Bill: Two good questions. Exactly was a tool that were using on the Motorola side. When we came and joined Zebra they weren’t using a tool, they were using spreadsheets.
Why we chose Exactly? I can tell you why I chose Exactly, I think it’s a fairly simple cloud-based tool and it’s not that expensive and we had a lot of comfort level using it. My account managers implemented it a couple of times. From my perspective and coming from the Motorola environment it was a very comfortable tool that we have use successfully in the past. When we shared that information with the Zebra team they had felt the same. So that is why we moved forward.
How the implementation went. The implementation for Exactly went well. One of the issues that you have to be careful about with any compensation tool tough is the data you are putting into it. We deal with a lot of channel data, a lot of point-of-sale data. You have to get your Exactly and you have Exactly as your vendor and you are using [inaudible 00:28:35] but you also need to choose the correct point-of-sale vendor. Having that clean data that you can credit appropriately and apply to Exactly is just as important as the tool and how it calculates. So very happy with the tool, but you also have to make sure that you are doing a lot of back end work to get the data in correctly.
You are not going to be using Exactly for point-of-sale data cleansing, but you can use it for named relationships and territorial relationships and things of that nature.
Very happy with the tool. The implementation has gone very well considering that we merged with Zebra in October. Really built a combined comp plan and implemented that plan over what’s called a four-month period, which typically it’s a one-year period, something like that.
Have we had some hiccups? For sure, but considering what we got done in four months it’s been phenomenal.
Greg: Some of my sales ops buddies say, “Hey we don’t need that. I can stay spreadsheets.” What do you say to those guys?
Bill: All depends on the size of your organization. Some of the struggles we had is in North America we rely heavily on it because we have 418 sales associates. So to manager 418 sales associates by hand on a spreadsheet with the complexities [crosstalk 00:29:53] …
Greg: It’s a nightmare.
Bill: … of our sales compensation plan with multiple metrics and how those metrics are designed and some of the nuances for different organizations, to try to do that manually the level of accuracy just isn’t there. You need a system to manager it, and to push it out to the field and then being able to go into the system rather than sending individual spreadsheets. You write the ability to push out a sales plan and then have it signed in the system rather than having some word document pushed or a PDF or something like that. For a larger organization, I think it’s needed.
If you look at Latin America as a subset, they are more hesitant when we first implemented it. When you looked a Zebra because there is 100 sales associates, 90 to 100 sales associates in Latin America, so it’s more from a regional perspective the ability to manage it on a spreadsheet is definitely more feasible. It all depends on size and complexity. I don’t see how we could survive with the complexity and size of our organization and the type of plan that we build to work the process manually. Not at an accurate level at least.
Greg: Any rule of thumb in terms of a tripwire. At what size may be measured in number of reps where it’s appropriate?
Bill: That’s a great question. I think I would use our European organization as he tripwire. They are just over like 250 folks, and I think they are at a point where they really, really need it. They were struggling to do some largely manual processes that more and more were implemented in Exactly. I think that has made it a much more accurate process for them and a much easier process to maintain. My gut is somewhere somewhere around that the 200-250 range. Again, it depends on the complexity of your organization. If you are a direct sale only organization and your sale isn’t that complex, you may not need it. F you have a more complex organization, I don’t know how you live without out it.
Greg: That’s a good rule of thumb. My colleague and your friend actually, John Staples.
Bill: Ah, John, yes.
Greg: He writes for our blog and his articles about sales comp are pretty interesting and they have done very well measured in number of reads. One recent article titled “Measuring the Success of Sales Compensation Programs,” talks about how to set quotas correctly, which we briefly talked about today and it’s a very rich subject I think we can dedicate an entire show to. As we have talked about, this is a key piece of the puzzle and the listeners of this show should read this blog post.
So, let’s take a short break and tell everybody how to get a free subscription to the SBI blog so they can get this post. Stick around after the break for … We are going to wrap this show up with some actionable summaries, and Bill and I are going to give you some direct advice on what to do as you head into the new year.
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Greg: Okay, welcome back everybody. This is Greg Alexander CEO of SBI. This is the weekly SBI podcast. Today we are talking about sales compensation with Bill Sexton, who leads a sales op team at Zebra technology. Bill let’s bring this thing home and wrap this up. If you would speak directly audience and give them two to three things that they should do as they enter and complete the annual sales comp planning process, what would they be?
Bill: Yes, so I would start with start early and engage your sales management team often. Make them feel that they are a part of the plan building process. If you cut them out they have nothing but an opportunity to complain about the plan you put together so you make sure you engage them.
My second point of advice is start with the benchmarking and follow all the phases appropriately and diligently. Benchmark, build, understand how you are going to move forward with your sales organization. Are you making any changes to the organization that is going to affect the plan that you have currently. Make those adjustments to the plan then start building out more of the design features. How are you going to develop quota. It’s very important to follow those sequences. So if you miss those steps, and I think what you guys ave on your webpage is very helpful … If you miss steps you can certainly pay for it later. It’s not something you want to skip on. It’s one of those measure twice, cut once situations. Once you end up with a mistake in your comp plan you pay for it for the rest of the year.
Three, and I think you brought up and we didn’t get to a change about, is checking yourself at least on a quarterly basis. How is the plan working. You might not be able to make a change to that plan in the current year but at least you are learning for the next year. Because really by the time you get into the second half of the year point you are rolling close into the fall and you are going to be building that plan for next year so you can learn upon your mistakes. Those would be my points of advice.
Greg: Great advice so you are right the quarterly review process is key and unfortunately we are out of time right now so maybe we can have you back on the show in the future, and we will talk about that specifically. All great suggestions. Hey, listen, on behalf of everybody listening to this show and just the broader SBI community, I want to thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today. I think it’s going to help all of us build better comp plans for the fiscal year in 2016. So thanks Bill.
Bill: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Greg: Okay, bye-bye.