I headed up the training department of a sales division of a major corporation so I got to observe first-hand how a large company tries to motivate their sales staff.

The company would hand out flat screen TVs galor, iPads, MacBook Airs, Kindle Fires, and any other broad assortment of incentives for sales. Finally, with sales barely moving the needle, the company pulled out all the stops. At each of their sales centers around the country, they were going to give away a new car for the salesperson at that site who had the highest sales at the end of the coming quarter. They announced it at a quarterly sales meeting with 300 salespeople in attendance and there was virtually no response. Nothing. There was no expected whooping and hollering at the possibility of winning a new car. Instead, there was grumbling at this or that during the Q&A session with the Senior V.P. of Sales who had announced the incentive earlier.

I was dumbfounded at the lack of energy surrounding this announcement. The executives expressed confusion afterward that there was no excitement for it because coming into the meeting they were thinking that the announcement would create a high level of buzz.

This event was on the heels of a conversation I had with a salesperson at the same location only a few days earlier. I noted that the sales department was giving away a 65″ flat screen TV at the end of the week and wouldn’t it be awesome if he won it? His response was quite a surprise. “I don’t want that TV,” he said. “I’ve already won four TVs from this company over the past 2 years. What do I need another TV for? I’d just get more taxes taken out of my paycheck for it.”

This was a gorgeous top-of-the-line TV that most of us would love to see sitting in our family room or man-cave. But he had absolutely no interest. It didn’t motivate him at all.

I considered both of these reactions for a few days after the sales meeting and realized that the sales operations side was lacking one critical thing that we in training had been doing all along during our month-long sales new hire training process; throwing down a challenge.

Think about this. Salespeople, by their very nature, have highly competitive personalities. They love to compete! Competing represents the chance to win for them and even mediocre salespeople rise up when they are given a challenge. When they have to compete to get to a goal before one of their competitors, that challenge creates the two things salespeople and sales organizations need most of all; energy and enthusiasm.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with giving away incentives for reaching this goal or that goal. But after a while, incentives get stale. Even when it’s a new car for a top salesperson, if there’s no excitement created up front by throwing out a challenge, it can easily fall flat. Incentives pale when stacked against a challenge.

Test this argument out some time. Split your sales staff into two equally productive groups and meet with each group separately. With one group, offer them incentives for reaching certain sales goals. For the other group, throw down challenges. Create competitions. At the end of a week, see for yourself which team is more productive. See which team has more energy and enthusiasm. If done correctly, I promise you it will be the group that was given the challenge or competition.

When I first began working for the corporation mentioned above and established expectations for my sales trainers, one of the things I told them they needed to do every day with new hires during our month-long sales training was to throw out challenges and then have a reward for the challenge. The problem was sales operations got all the budget for their incentives and the only thing the training department was left with were t-shirts, pens, and mousepads from company vendors. Several of my trainers complained that these cheap products weren’t enough to motivate new hires.

I explained to the trainers that the value of the reward wasn’t what would motivate our new hires, it was what the reward represented. Winning! It didn’t matter if all they won was a $2 pen, it was what the pen represented. The pen represented winning a challenge that had been thrown out to them.

Throughout my tenure with the company I would occasionally slip into the back of our sales training classes to observe the training being done. My trainers had become so used to me doing this that many times they hardly realized I was there. (Good for them!) Every once in a while when I saw an opportunity to inject energy into the class, I would let my instructor finish making his or her point, then I would jump to the front of the class.

This is an actual example which I’ve repeated more times than I can remember. I got in front of the class and said, “Everybody close your books. I’m going to ask twenty questions about what was just covered over the past 30 minutes. Now the person who gets the most answers right is going to win this pen (excitedly holding up a pen). Let me ask you all a question, ‘Who’s going to win this pen?'” Immediately, every hand in the class shot up. I followed up with, “That’s great! Every hand went up. If you’re a true salesperson, you should expect to win the competition. But I want to hear it. Who’s going to win this pen?” In unison, every voice yelled, “I am!” Even though the sound shook the tables, I feigned disappointment. “That’s not conviction! Salespeople need to have conviction! Let me ask you again, who’s going to win this pen?” In a deafening chorus they yelled, “I am!”

Do you think that from that moment forward there was energy and excitement as I asked my questions? You bet there was. And when it came down to a tie between two people at the end, half that class was rooting for one person and half the class was rooting for the other. The tension and energy was palpable. When we had our winner, half the class roared and clapped and the other half groaned and slumped in their chairs. The winner excitedly bounded up to the front with a giant smile to be presented with her prize; a $2 pen. Every time I’ve done this in a training class and gone back subsequent times to check in, the winner wasn’t making notes with just any pen. They were taking notes with THAT PEN.

Why all this furor and excitement for a $2 pen. Because it wasn’t the value of the pen that motivated them, it was what the pen represented: a prize to be won against all other competitors. It represented a challenge that included a pursuit. The challenge created the excitement of the chase.

Want to get the best of your sales people? Do what Dale Carnegie recommended doing 80 years go and still applies today. Throw down a challenge. Give your salespeople daily challenges and have daily sales meetings that recognize the previous day’s winner. That will keep the challenges current. Change up the challenges you throw out. That will keep the challenges fresh. Have a trophy that’s passed around that everyone on the staff wants but only the top dog gets when they win. That will keep them hungry.

If you have salespeople who don’t rise up to your challenges, they’re in the wrong profession. There are plenty of openings for $45k per year accountants.

True salespeople love a challenge and will create a laser-like focus and intensity to meet the challenge. Given the opportunity, true salespeople will work hard to win.

Do salespeople love to make money? Sure they do. That’s one of the main reasons they’re salespeople. Because they have confidence in their ability to make a lot of money through sales. But alongside the ability to make money, true salespeople love competition. They need to be challenged.

To get the best out of your salespeople, throw down a challenge.

Happy selling!