How to Build a Strong Business Development Rep Commission Plan

Business Development Rep Commission Plan
Jason Rothbaum
Jason Rothbaum
In Comp Planning, Sales Comp
Jason Rothbaum has over 15 years of sales compensation/effectiveness experience as a consultant (big 3 firms) and running sales operations departments for multinational firms. He has an MBA from Yale and an MA from NYU.

There’s one role in sales that seems to face all of the sales compensation issues that keep the compensation plan design team awake at night–the business development rep (BDR). These highly-skilled sales reps can be difficult to recruit and require high pay because they face infrequent (lumpy) sales with long, complex sales cycles and uncertain sales levels.

No single plan design seems to capture as much attention as it is difficult to pay someone a high dollar amount for infrequent sales (or sales that may not materialize until down the road) on uncertain goals. This makes designing compensation plans for these reps more difficult for sales operations teams. To help you design stronger incentive plans for BDRs, here is how to handle each of the compensation difficulties for this sales role.

Highly-Skilled Reps

Business development reps are often tasked with cultivating C-suite relationships, which in some cases, requires highly-skilled ‘super-reps’. With their high skill level, these reps often demand a higher total pay. Asking a rep to wait through a long sales cycle (6-12 months +) with this type of investment will push company leadership to make the plan incentive heavy, but reps may resist because they may feel they are being asked to wait for the high payout that their skills warrant. In most cases, they will push for a higher base salary.

What is the magic percent of target pay that should be base? The answer is… it depends. Compensation often varies for different sales roles, and the right base pay depends on the cadence of sales. Let’s say that the BDR is a new role with the expectation that they will eventually be closing five strategic sales per year.

You may start the role off with 80 percent of pay in base during the first year with the agreement that once the role is more established by year two and there is a steady cadence of closed deals the base rate will fall to 65 percent of pay (often companies will use guarantees instead). If there is not a steady flow of business by year two the role would be reassessed (you are paying a high amount with the expectation of a return after all).

Download our "Ultimate Guide to Sales Compensation Planning," for everything you need for a sales comp plan design project. Or, keep reading for more sales plan ideas.

Uncertain Production

We have extolled the merits of annual quotas when production is uncertain in past blogs, and the same logic applies here. The BDR role will often have 4-5 large sales that they are trying to close, and the timing of the close is often uncertain or lumpy. Stretching out the quota measurement period will avoid a situation where a paycheck is zero, or conversely, a situation where a BDR makes their total annual pay in a single quarterly paycheck.

If there is a need to meet more frequent quota goals and it makes sense for shorter pay periods, consider paying quarterly with a maximum payout of 100 percent. The quarterly goals can be cumulative (i.e., each quarter would essentially be a checkpoint on the year-to-date sales). Any overachievement would be banked against the next quarter, and at the end of the year, overachievement pay would be released.

Long Sales Cycles

What happens if a sales cycle is very long? The BDR can do everything a company has asked of them, but their activities may not generate revenue for years. Leadership will often want to pay a BDR for increasing the probability of a sale. A handy tool to accomplish this is milestone pay.

Many companies abuse this type of measure (pay on number of meetings is a particularly bad measure), which is why many sales compensation professionals advise against using them, but when designed properly milestone pay can be very effective. Good milestone measures are directly linked to a specific sale and reflect an increase in the probability of a sale. For example, milestones may include initial contract signing, trials, or transfer of a percent of business to your company.

I worked with a finance company where the BDRs targeted the top trusts. We instituted a milestone measure that paid on the initial funding of an account and increased pay as the BDR pushed for an increase in the funding level of the trust over time. Any milestone pay would cumulatively add up to the total pay expected for a sale.

No Direct Sales

What if there are no sales that are directly attributable to a BDR? BDR roles are often responsible for establishing C-suite relationships or getting a “license to hunt” for the field reps. For example, a BDR establishes a pricing agreement with a customer that in turn allows the territory reps to sell into individual stores.

The gut reaction of most companies is to pay a commission override as a percent of any sale made by a territory rep at the targeted account. These sales usually take time and this creates a “tail,” where the BDR gets payments over a long period of time. This trickle of payments can be a lengthy process, so the BDR may feel that they are not getting properly paid for their effort (or worse, they get involved with managing the territory reps).

At this point, the sales incentive plan (SIP) loses its motivational traction. A more effective alternative is to pay an upfront bonus. I worked with a manufacturing firm where the BDR was tasked with making high-level relationships at strategic accounts. We worked with the company to create a mechanic that classified each strategic account into three tiers by an estimate of their future sales potential based on their revenue size.

If a “license to hunt” was established at a target account, a bonus was paid based on their tier. Once a territory rep made a sale to a local office of the strategic account another smaller bonus was paid. A final bonus was paid after the total territory sales made to the client exceeded a specific amount in revenue.

Final Thoughts

While there may only be a few BDRs in a sales organization, they can take the lion’s share of compensation plan design time because of the number of common incentive plan design issues associated with their sales process. However, when these issues are looked at individually, each has a set of best practices that can be applied to create a fair, motivating plan.

Want help designing and managing your compensation plan? Schedule your strategic services consultation today.


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