We’re on a continual search with our financial services clients for new ways to elevate sales performance through means other than incentives. These efforts take many forms, from the traditional—such as training, coaching and territory management—to newer ideas, like data-directed selling. Often, efforts in the latter category come in the form of “nudges”: discreet attempts to change behavior, such as approaching one conversation differently, making one more sales call, or pursuing one more lead.


We recently had an opportunity to put this idea of a behavioral “nudge” to the test, to find out how—if at all—a simple notice or suggestion could impact sales behavior. What we found was both disappointing and exciting.

We worked with a Fortune 500 financial services company to change the way that it managed and communicated performance to its thousands of salespeople. A big part of this work included converting static reports—like those used for sales compensation and contests—into more engaging, digital tools. In one such example, we built a custom mobile application for the company’s incentive programs. With this application, salespeople could check their performance quickly and easily, compare themselves to their peers and perform a number of other functions. We also created functionality that allowed the company to send updates to users through notifications.


The mobile application probably warrants a whole blog on its own, but my interest here is in the notifications because that’s where we were able to run a live experiment with “digital nudges.” First, we devised a framework for notifications based on the salesperson’s standing in a quarterly sales contest: a user who was close to qualifying might get a notice to “push to the finish” with detail about how far they were from the sales goal; a user who was deficient in some goal would get messages that focused on that gap (“Don’t forget about Product A in order to qualify”); and so on. These notifications followed an established structure, but the specific messages were individually customized based on up-to-the-moment performance.


After developing the messages and targeting plan, we deployed the notifications to hundreds of users over a one-month period. In addition, we ran a controlled experiment and held out a comparable set of users from receiving any notifications at all. What we wanted to learn was, Could these notifications alone improve sales performance?

Our first finding was very simple: No, the notifications on their own did not drive people to sell more. Our test and control groups generated nearly identical amounts of total sales during the period of study. While that finding was disappointing, the story doesn’t end there.


Although our notification program didn’t hit its biggest goal, we discovered three very valuable things relating to digital pushes with this sales organization:

  1. Mobile app users performed exceptionally well. Not all salespeople downloaded the mobile app or used it during the period of study. Because of this, we were able to compare non-users and users, controlling for all other variables (like past sales, tenure and geography). We found that mobile app users had far greater sales during the period than non-users. While the app didn’t cause greater success, it was very predictive of success. This finding was consistent with other studies we’ve done, which reinforces the idea that digital engagement can be a useful gauge of overall engagement and a predictor of future production.
  2. Notifications didn’t drive volume, but did drive the mix. The quarterly contest was focused on total production, but it was also concerned with how that production was generated—emphasizing, say, specific products. What we found was that users who received notifications were more likely to achieve success with the specific product mix encouraged by the contest. So while the digital nudges didn’t necessarily expand total productivity, they appear to have shaped the form of that activity: They didn’t cause salespeople to work harder, but they changed what the salesperson worked on.
  3. First-line sales managers can be deeply influential. When we looked at salesperson adoption and use of the mobile application, we found some striking correlations with sales manager usage. For example, if a sales manager was an active user of the mobile application, it was more than five times as likely that their salespeople would be active users. When the manager engaged mattered, too: If the manager registered before her salesperson, the salesperson was 30% more likely to be an active user than not. In this age of individual choice and direct, targeted outreach, it turns out that the manager still has an outsized influence on sales behaviors. The next time we run notification campaigns, we are likely to focus more attention on the first-line sales managers.

While next-best-action planning and digital engagement are all the rage these days, the truth is that very few organizations have actually applied these models to salespeople or other stakeholders in complex distribution environments, such as B-to-B or B-to-B-to-C. We had the luxury of working with an organization that was not only bold enough to do so, but also brave enough to create a true experiment with a hold-out population. Experiments like these help refine and improve these techniques to make them viable for the real world—while also showing us that we still have a lot to learn.