The Surprising Psychology of Sales Rewards

by: Luke Kreitner April 15, 2019

The element of surprise is incredibly effective when it comes to sales rewards. And it’s not just because surprise incentive rewards are fun. Scientific studies have shown that unexpected incentives and rewards tap into parts of the brain connected to learning and motivation. If you’re running a sales incentive program, you should definitely use this fact to your advantage. Let’s take a look at ways you can use surprise as a powerful sales motivation strategy.

First of all, let’s define what we mean by “unexpected rewards.”

No, we don’t mean just walking up to sales employees and handing them a gift for no reason. For the purposes of this article, “unexpected rewards” are incentive rewards salespeople earn by displaying behaviors that drive your sales goals and align with your company culture. These behaviors could range from closing a serendipitous deal using quick thinking to helping a colleague out.

What makes unexpected rewards so effective?

It’s been well-known in the behavioral psychology field for many years that animal brains respond well to unexpected rewards. In famous experiments on mice, psychologist B.F. Skinner observed that, when he tested mice’s behavior response to rewards, random rewards triggered the most dramatic changes in their actions.

The mice would press a lever and sometimes they’d get a small treat, other times a large treat, and other times nothing at all. Unlike the mice that received the same treat every time, the mice that received variable rewards seemed to press the lever compulsively.

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More recent studies have revealed that humans have similar reactions to surprise rewards. A pleasure center of the brain called the nucleus accumbens is much more active when study subjects receive unpredictable patterns of rewards, regardless of the subjects’ personal preferences for rewards.

Pleasure isn’t the only part of the brain that perks up when unexpected rewards are involved. An unexpected reward tells the brain to pay attention when important information is connected to the reward outcome.

In theories of basic learning, this degree of unexpectedness or surprise is important because it represents the new, unforeseen information that the brain must somehow incorporate into its model of “what happens next.”

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In short, surprise incentive rewards are so powerful because they’re universal. They’re chemical. They transcend gender, age, preference and background. You can use them as a tool of instant engagement to make the reward experience more meaningful, motivating sales teams more effectively.

OK, interesting, but how can you put these concepts to use when motivating sales teams?

Unexpected rewards aren’t a blanket sales incentive solution. Like many sales tools, if not used in the right way at the right times, unexpected rewards can fail to achieve their goal, or even have an adverse effect. Here are some ways you can use unexpected sales rewards wisely:

  • Combine unexpected sales rewards with training.

    Because unexpected rewards make people pay more attention to what happens next, combining them with training incentives can have a tremendous effect on how well salespeople are motivated to learn and whether they retain that learning. The reward tells the brain, “Hey, this is important! Pay attention,” and that’s a great time impart some crucial knowledge. During a training session, for example, you might call on randomly selected salespeople to regurgitate information and give them an unexpected incentive reward if they’re able to.

    The human brain seems to be wired in a rational manner -- tuned to learn whenever anything unexpected happens but not when things are predictable.

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  • Motivate sales employees with unexpected, on the spot rewards.

    Use unexpected on-the-spot sales incentive rewards to recognize sales employees when they go above and beyond. Not only are you leveraging the power of surprise, but you’re also solidifying the brain’s connection between action and reward. Immediately rewarding behavior has a much stronger impact—and is more likely to motivate sales people to repeat that behavior—than delayed rewards.

    The subjective value of reward decreases with increasing delay to its receipt.

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  • Avoid “overjustifying” work with rewards.

    Many of today’s employers and managers are struggling with the idea that employees are more motivated by meaning than money. Milliennials brought the concept into the limelight, but studies have found it’s not necessarily exclusive to them. Everyone is more motivated by meaningful work. And, if not used wisely, rewards can sometimes detract meaning from work.

    This is demonstrated by an experiment psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene conducted on children’s motivation to draw. The study found that children who were told beforehand they’d be rewarded for drawing were less inclined to draw—even when they already enjoyed drawing.

    Even children understand that, when they’re told they’ll be rewarded for something, it’s usually something they wouldn’t normally do or enjoy. When someone hears that they’ll get a reward for something they already like to do, they question whether they should enjoy that activity on its own, without the reward.

    A powerful influencer like unexpected rewards can lead participants to finding meaning and satisfaction in what they do. But don’t try to lead them like Skinner’s lab rats to mechanically perform behaviors. Rather, tie unexpected rewards to inner fulfillment. Sales employee rewards shouldn’t be about manipulating salespeople, but making stronger connections between work and intrinsic motivations.

  • Make sure unexpected rewards are just an element of the bigger incentives strategy.

    Spontaneous rewards are excellent as a small sales incentive plan or an element of a larger program. But if you plan on investing in an incentive program that acts as a long-term sales and marketing tool, you have to be transparent about the program and your intentions. While you should definitely leave some room for program participants to be surprised by spontaneous rewards, make sure they understand the overall, bigger picture and purpose of the incentive program and how it ties in to your company and sales goals.

There’s a whole world of interesting elements to incentive psychology and the impact that rewards have on how people think, feel and act. Unexpected rewards are just a piece of the picture. The more you observe how your team responds to sales rewards and motivation strategies, the more you’ll learn about how to incentivize them.


About Luke Kreitner

Luke Kreitner is the VP of Sales at Incentive Solutions, an Atlanta-based incentive company that specializes in helping B2B businesses accelerate growth, increase sales, motivate channel partners and retain B2B customers.