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The power of points vs. cash

Written by: Neil Helgeson and Barry Danielson
(View Author Bio)

For decades, companies have used sales incentive programs to maximize performance. These incentive programs leverage many types of awards. While cash compensation is used as an award, non-cash, inspirational rewards — such as merchandise or experiences — have many advantages.

A few of these include:


Recipients are more likely to remember the trip or big screen tv they received than cash, which can get folded into the daily budget and used for buying gas or groceries.


Recipients re-live the positive emotions associated with earning the award each time they use it or talk about it.

Avoiding entitlement:

Monetary awards often become viewed as part of regular compensation and lead the recipient to expect the same or more cash in the future, an expectation that may not be sustainable.


Despite these advantages, questions persist about whether non-monetary awards are more effective in motivating behaviour. Prior research has indicated this is the case, and current research conducted by BI WORLDWIDE (BIW) Canada examines this in the context of a sales incentive program or contest.

Case study


Salespeople from a leading hard goods manufacturer participated in a BIW GoalQuest: Sales Incentive Program. The GoalQuest approach asks each salesperson to select one of three increasingly challenging sales goals with incremental awards. This award structure leverages ‘risk-reward’ dynamics to drive salesperson performance—the greater the risk, the bigger the reward.

In this client’s situation, tangible awards are the primary reward (participants receive points that can be redeemed for merchandise or experiences). However, participants in California were offered cash rewards, which were slightly higher at each goal level than the monetary equivalent of the inspirational points award.

A total of 1311 salespeople participated in the program, 116 from California and 1195 from the rest of the United States. To compare California’s results to the rest of the U.S. a robust statistical approach was used (Propensity Score Matching) to select a matching control group of 116 salespeople from the 1195 participants outside of California. This approach reduced potential bias between the test and control groups by matching on several factors including:

- Goal level selected

- Historical performance

- Years of experience

The GoalQuest program operated for five weeks starting on 8/28/22 through 10/1/22. At the end of the program, their performance was determined relative to their chosen goal.


Two specific measures were used to evaluate success: the percentage of a group achieving their goal and average performance relative to the goal. The inspiration (points) control group performed better than the cash compensation group on both measures.


% Achieved Goal

Avg. Goal Performance

Inspiration (Points) Control Group



Cash Compensation






The points control group performed 6 percentage points better at sales relative to meeting their goal — a 7% increase, while they performed 7 percentage points better at achieving their goal — a 28% increase.


In this sales incentive program, inspirational awards proved to be more effective than cash in motivating salesperson behaviour—even when the cash rewards were slightly larger. This finding supports the view that increased motivational effectiveness should be added to the list of experiences and merchandise award advantages.


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Neil Helgeson

Neil Helgeson

Director, Insights Lab

Neil Helgeson has over 30 years of experience as a statistician and methodologist in both business and academia where he has been involved in the design and analysis of hundreds of research projects. He has written papers and taught courses on data use and interpretation utilizing a broad range of multi-variate and univariate techniques. He is currently a Director of the Insights Lab at BI WORLDWIDE and heads its thought leadership function.
Barry Danielson

Barry Danielson

Vice President, Decision Sciences

Barry Danielson is a 25-year veteran social researcher, analyst and consultant. He is an expert in determining how an organization’s performance metrics relate to its strategic plans. Danielson routinely oversees the design, execution, reporting and ongoing consulting for large-scale client engagements, resulting in significant business improvement.