This Seems Complicated

In fact, all of these items are likely to affect the performance of your sales force. A recent Scientific American article by Wray Herbert describes a concept related to our brains’ processing. Herbert discusses the possibility that how a task is described may affect our willingness to do the task and, if we decide to do it, how difficult we expect it to be. Herbert notes that psychologists are interested in “the complex interplay of effort, motivation and cognitive crunching” and cites a study conducted by two University of Michigan psychologists, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz that investigates the notion.

In the study, Song and Schwarz presented all test subjects identically worded instructions for a task. Some subjects received the instructions printed in the easy to read Arial typeface while others were printed in an elaborate difficult to read font called Brush. Herbert’s article comments that “there are many ways to make something mentally palatable – or not. You can use clear, straightforward language or arcane vocabulary words; simple sentences or convoluted sentences with lots of clauses.” To simplify the experiment’s execution and provide a scientifically sound apples-to-apples comparison, the psychologists chose to simply vary the font.

The findings were quite interesting. One of the tasks used in the test was the making of a sushi roll. Those given the Brush font instructions estimated that the task would take longer and be more difficult to accomplish and, most importantly, that they would be less motivated to attempt it than those given the same instructions in the easy to read Arial font.

Your sales compensation plan is in many ways an instruction set for your sales force. This study demonstrates that something as seemingly inconsequential as a font choice (albeit Brush font is hideous) can have a measurable statistically significant effect on the perception of a task’s complexity. Compensation plan designers and comp administrators should certainly not underestimate the potentially negative impact of very complicated plan component calculations. In fact, most experienced plan designers are well aware of this. We get a lot of requests from clients asking for help in “simplifying” their plans. Perhaps less obvious are the potential impacts of the clarity of the compensation plan documentation and even the document’s font. Don’t underestimate the impact of even small changes to your compensation program. If there is a choice of comparable options, opt for the simpler. If you can’t tell which option is simpler, present plan communication options to a test group and ask for feedback. Ask them what they’d be motivated to do after reviewing the plan. Be careful not to confuse your sales force; selling is complicated enough.

-Michael Stus