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Managers Need to Understand Their Sales Reps’ Cultural Values

Employees who push innovative products have a tough job, but can be encouraged by managers who grasp their motivations to succeed.

Bottom Line: Employees who push innovative products have a tough job, but can be encouraged by managers who grasp their motivations to succeed.

Seeing their innovative products fly off the shelves is a top priority and a key growth strategy for many companies. But the commercialization of breakthrough items is anything but easy. Whereas selling established products is fairly straightforward — consumers are familiar with them and can place a value on their relative importance — newfangled gadgets or novel offerings can be as complex and difficult to fathom for sales reps as they are for prospective customers.

Researchers have suggested that the relationship between the in-the-field sales force and those who manage and motivate that group is often crucial to a successful product launch. But steering sales reps toward what a manager believes to be the most-effective sales strategy takes many forms: words of encouragement, financial incentives, and public recognition among them. And not every rep responds to the same type of managerial input.

There is widespread acknowledgment of the importance of managerial encouragement. However, insights on how, exactly, supervisors should motivate their sales force remain few and far between. And what few studies do exist have largely stuck to a single country, leaving open the question of how to steer sales reps to sell innovations in different parts of the world.

A new study seeks to provide managers with some concrete guidance. The authors conducted surveys of more than 400 sales reps in 38 countries across four continents who were charged with selling innovative products. It represents one of the largest analyses of international sales to date.

The surveys gathered information about the reps’ personal and cultural backgrounds as well as their sales performance. The study also examined the role several specific steering techniques played. Employees were asked about whether they got monetary compensation for attaining sales goals or if they received more intangible recognition, such as praise or awards, from their direct bosses — two of the more common mechanisms supervisors used to attempt to boost sales. The authors also assessed how much training or education the reps received in selling innovative products. Finally, participants provided feedback on how much informal support they got from their direct bosses, which has been shown to play an important role in shaping work-related attitudes and behavior.

In line with previous international research, the authors grouped the countries into English-speaking, European, Asian, and Latin American groups. This enabled generalization among the 38 nations in the study and kept countries with similar cultural and economic backgrounds together.

The authors also analyzed four different societal factors in the surveyed countries that have been shown to influence how employees interact with supervisors and consumers. These cultural dimensions include power distance (the degree to which people in a given country accept that authority is unequally distributed in an organization or society), individualism (the importance placed on people acting on behalf of themselves, rather than the group), uncertainty avoidance (whether a society embraces or shuns ambiguity), and long-term outlook (the value placed by a society on future goals).

After controlling for individual reps’ selling experience and job satisfaction, as indicated in the surveys, and the societies’ differences in economic wealth and education levels, the authors arrived at several findings.

Overall, the authors say, cultural differences play a subtle and complex role in how people are motivated. For sales reps in power-distant cultures (such as Brazil, China, and India), managers can have the most positive effect by using steering measures like formal awards, which bring employees into direct contact with supervisors. Indeed, the study showed that sales were 300 percent higher when formal supervisor appreciation is used in countries where the power distance is large.

Cultural differences play a subtle and complex role in the ways people are motivated.

On the other hand, people in highly individualistic countries (the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and the United States, for example) respond better to plans that financially reward their achievements. The authors calculated that the sales of innovative products are 350 percent higher when compensation-related bonuses are applied in highly individualistic versus less individualistic cultures. However, financial incentives are not automatically the best play in individualistic societies. The authors found that these employees are just as likely to benefit from advanced training that heightens their individual skill sets.

Appreciation and support from supervisors, the authors found, works best in smaller economies that don’t like uncertainty (such as Belgium, Portugal, and Romania) and in countries with a predominantly long-term viewpoint (such as Slovakia, South Korea, and Taiwan). Presumably, sales reps in these two cultural categories would rather have positive feedback and reassurance from their boss — which engenders a stable, upbeat working environment — than the immediate gratification of a financial bonus for meeting a short-term sales goal.

What is clear from these findings is that what works in one place might fail in another. Although the trend is for multinational firms to try to standardize their approach to sales across all regions so it dovetails with their corporate strategy, the authors warn against this leveling of motivational techniques.

In addition, many firms divvy up the responsibilities for designing sales force steering mechanisms. For example, the compensation department might draw up the financial-incentive schemes, individual managers focus on nonmonetary rewards, and the HR team sees to off-site managerial training and employee-education programs. The authors advise firms to bring these disparate activities under one umbrella so that firms can take a wider view of how they match motivational techniques to reps with particular cultural values. 

Source:Motivating Sales Reps for Innovation Selling in Different Cultures,” by Sebastian Hohenberg and Christian Homburg (University of Mannheim), Journal of Marketing, March 2016, vol. 80, no. 2

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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