Our research and recommendations support the use of game mechanics in driving occasional, short-term selling behaviors among B2B sales professionals but not long-term learning behaviors.

What salesperson doesn’t love a great contest? Who among us could pass up the opportunity to outwit, outplay, and outlast our peers (or is the word “competitors”?) on a public leaderboard? Or to get called out by leadership for being the best at accomplishing the one thing we sales types most enjoy — WINNING! — especially when being the best means cash in our pocket or frequent flyer miles added to our travel accounts?

B2B sales leaders have long used money, tropical destinations, and other perks to motivate their team members to exhibit new, desirable, short-term behavior via sales contests. Typically, these involve some kind of shiny-object business sprint for which the outcome is considered worth the extra corporate investment: selling a whole lot of a brand-new product to assist with the launch of a new offering; rescuing a marketing event that has been severely undersubscribed; generating more top-of-funnel pipeline content that can waterfall down into better eventual revenue results; or even promoting short-term discounts designed to influence key results within a publicly held company.

Do such incentives work? Since companies continue to use them, from one-day SPIFs to year-long winner’s circle attainment, it’s safe to assume so, but note that there are good and bad examples of competitive programs. To be candid, the first time I visited Hawaii, it was on my employer’s dime. I leveraged my particular set of skills, winning a poorly designed sales contest that rewarded quantity, rather than quality, pipeline building. The company’s results from that competition were iffy, but we sure enjoyed the luau. In reality, I guess I gamed the gamification, right?

Today, our sales enablement research team is regularly asked to provide customers with insights into gamification, a concept invented by software vendors to co-opt the more appropriate “game mechanics” term in the service of delivering ROI on financial investments made in such companies. Although game mechanics are effective in peaks and valleys used as occasional motivators, the business model for these providers was predicated on a monthly recurring-revenue approach — which forced them to promote gamification as an always-on, dollars-per-seat-per-month panacea for a whole host of sales productivity issues. The most commonly advertised use case is for learning and development to the tune of “drive increased participation in sales readiness activities by gamifying sales training.” They infer that a salesperson’s innate sense of competition will motivate them to prioritize learning over selling, because the chance to beat their peers to the top of the point/badge leaderboard is too irresistible.

The problem with this notion is that it just doesn’t work. Forrester conducts biannual surveys of individual-contributor B2B sales professionals asking about their learning and career activities, and in each one — 2016, 2018, 2020 — the choice of gamification as a preferred learning modality ranks near or at the bottom of all options. Whether we cut the data around all respondents, high performers, or low performers, by age or industry or geography, the only sales readiness approach that’s consistently less popular than gamification is podcasts. Most recently, in late 2021, we asked Sales Enablement Society members — enablement leaders — to weigh in on the same learning modalities question, and only 4% deployed game mechanics to support learning and development activities. Again, this was a last-place showing; for the record, first place (77%) was “self-paced — formal e-learning, video observation, reading, sales aides, etc.”

We’re not saying that learning opportunities are unimportant to great B2B sellers, nor that game mechanics are not effective drivers of short-term employee behavioral change; plenty of Forrester research supports both assertions. But linking the two concepts is beyond what the data tells us. Your sales professionals are definitely interested in acquiring new skills and knowledge. But just because the shiny object pitch of gamification software is alluring doesn’t mean they are apt to gain them through competitive leaderboards. Unfortunately, driving new competencies for a B2B sales force isn’t accomplished via a shortcut; it takes significant insight, planning, hard work, and analysis to build and sustain a culture of ongoing learning and development excellence. Fortunately, great sales enablers are all around us, ready to deliver on the challenge.