How to Motivate Sales Teams with Octalysis Gamification

If you could quantify what workplace motivation costs your company each year, how much would you guess it would be? Whatever number pops into your head first, it’s probably a gross underestimation. According to a study, the US economy loses a whopping $500 billion dollars annually. And sales teams – the front-facing part of your business that directly influences profit-generation – are unfortunately one of the most prone to disengagement.

But before you break out the whip and start cracking their backs, read ahead! While businesses are catching on to the power of gamification and human-focused design, they still need some guidance. With our unique framework, you’ll not only keep your sales team motivated, but you’ll be able to hit uncharted records!

What Is the Octalysis Framework?

Before we diagnose the overarching issue with sales companies, we’re going to give you a high-level overview of what the Octalysis Framework is all about. We’ve discovered that there are certain “stimuli” that activate human motivation. We call these stimuli “core drives”, and we’ve discovered 8 of them.

  1. Epic Meaning & Calling
  2. Development & Accomplishment
  3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback
  4. Ownership & Possession
  5. Social Influence & Relatedness
  6. Scarcity & Impatience
  7. Unpredictability & Curiosity
  8. Loss & Avoidance

Half of these core drives can be placed in the “extrinsic motivation” category, wherein external rewards drive your sales team’s behavior. Whereas the other half can be placed in the intrinsic category, where the activity itself is the reward.

Our framework also differentiates between White Hat and Black Hat gamification. In gist:

  • White Hat core drives inspire positive feelings in your sales team from a sense of control, and thus, accomplishment (i.e., Core Drives 1-3).
  • Black Hat core drives inspire darker feelings that come from a sense of urgency, fear, and thus, a lack of control (i.e., Core Drives 6-8).

Interestingly enough, extrinsic motivators, while seemingly positive at the outset (since who doesn’t like rewards?), often lend themselves to Black Hat gamification. It seems that the potential loss of these external rewards can inspire fear due to the unpredictable potential of losing control. And therein lies the problem with many sales companies – they place too much emphasis on extrinsic motivation, which pairs nicely with the darker feelings that Black Hat techniques play upon.

The thing is, motivation is more complex than that. In order to remain true to the tenets of
human-focused design – which prioritizes human motivation, feelings, insecurities, and personal reasons for wanting to do or avoid things – you also need to play to both sides of the intrinsic-extrinsic and White Hat-Black Hat spectra.


The Problem: Overemphasis on Wrong Gamification

Humans aren’t naturally endowed with an infinite well of motivation. Like car fuel, motivation is a finite resource that needs to be replenished. That said, there’s standard gas and premium gas. And while both are effective at keeping the car on the road, premium gas is more energy efficient, lasts longer, and will therefore take you further.

Now, let’s bring it back to your sales team. Many businesses have the right idea – they need to make the workplace fun and engaging. But their well-intentioned efforts at applying gamification to “fun-it-up” are somewhat misplaced. Like standard versus premium gas, they fixate on extrinsic motivation to the neglect of intrinsic motivation.

The Overreliance on Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation, which is based on rewards and competition, gets old pretty quickly. Since it doesn’t seem to support any other goal besides making more money and beating the competition, it can quickly lead to higher rates of burnout and turnover. As a matter of fact, in many sales companies, employee churn is nearly 50%. Like the proverbial donkey chasing a dangling carrot, too much competition (Core Drive 6, 8 and 5) gets exhausting over time.

To maintain momentum, your sales team needs to feel a sense of development and accomplishment (Core Drive 2) and feeling of agency (Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback). But because sales involves so many external factors (e.g., the product’s perceived value, customer preferences and fickle moods, etc.), sales personnel often become drained by the seeming lack of control. It’s the proverbial donkey and carrot. The dangling carrot always seems within reach. But because it’s suspended from behind the donkey, then as the donkey moves, the carrot will remain at a constant distance, rendering it forever unreachable. Just the thought alone can be jading.

The Overreliance on Black Hat Gamification

And therein lies the problem with extrinsic motivation. Rather than human-focused design, it usually leads to function-focused game mechanics like leaderboards, points, and progress bars… all carrots! Not to mention, the notion of external rewards pairs nicely with Black Hat gamification, which is used to create a sense of urgency that further enhances the perceived lack of control… another tiring tactic. Even for the top 3 or 5 “players” on a 20+ sized sales team, though they have extra motivation to stay at the top of the leaderboard, their true motivation is avoiding loss (Core Drive 8), be it a loss of ranking, points, or social standing within the company.

Again, the ultimate problem doesn’t inherently lie with Black Hat gamification and extrinsic motivation. Rather, it is the overreliance on such simple yet poorly-deliberated designs. The more you rely on extrinsic motivation, the more you will rely on Black Hat techniques. While these techniques are great for lighting a flame under your sales team’s butts, it won’t keep their engines running for long. Thus, the solution isn’t striking a match, it’s striking a balance between the dichotomies.

The Lack of Control

One of the biggest misconceptions we see in sales teams is the assumption that it’s the big boss who faces all of the pressure. The more control, the more responsibility, and thus the more blame for any of the team’s shortcomings. While this is true to a certain extent, a 2012 Harvard study determined that being the top dog or the big boss (e.g., CEOs, managers, leaders, etc.) is actually associated with lower levels of stress.

So, is control as insidious as it’s made out to be? Clearly not. And our Framework supports these facts. Look at our first 3, White-Hat core drives:

  1. Epic Meaning & Calling
  2. Development & Accomplishment
  3. Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

In one form or another, control is a necessary part of all three of these core drives. That’s why they’re White Hat, because when we feel in control, then we feel free, autonomous, and like we have a special ability, place, and purpose. But this feeling is particularly important when it comes to our professional lives – a sphere in which most of our time is spent. As such, when your profession enables this feeling, it’s intrinsically motivating.

The fact of the matter is, lack of control is associated with lack of autonomy and freedom. If your sales company doesn’t enable such empowering feelings, then your sales team will experience:

  • Lower motivation
  • Stagnating sales
  • Lack of team spirit
  • Lack of sales ideas

From your sales team’s perspective, what’s the point in all that effort? Whenever you lack control, it likens you to a robot. Thusly, your sales team will feel like they’re just following instructions without any freedom of personal input… like they’re programmable and you’re simply pressing the required buttons or inputting the required code. But that’s the last thing you want them to feel. It just makes them feel replaceable, and their roles… dispensable and automatable. The effect? Decreased productivity to quantifiably staggering degrees.

Not only can you program a robot to sell more and more. But you can easily program it to receive progress results from their fellow robots (ahem, “colleagues”) for competition purposes. Moreover, to perform its role, you can program (ahem, “train”) the robot to conduct the sales process through pre-made scripts and strict KPI audits.

Do you see where we’re going with all of this? Robots aren’t motivated, they’re simply programmed. Yet the issue that sales companies experience with stagnating sales numbers all comes back to their gamification implementation, which simply follows function-focused versus human-focused design. As you might’ve guessed intuitively, robots are programmed and thus function-focused.
You can “program” a robot’s success using certain metrics like points, badges, progress bars, and leaderboard rankings… all of which are quantifiable. But human-motivation isn’t quantitative, it’s qualitative, just like the 8 core drives of the Octalysis Framework that we introduced earlier.

So, to bring it back, it’s hard to infuse meaning into or feel special (Core Drive 1) about that which you have no control over, or that which you’re “programmed” to do. And with no control, how can you feel a sense of development, much less accomplishment? If sales companies control the environment using function-focused bells and whistles (like a button you press on a robot), how can your team feel empowered? Without opportunities for creativity and feedback on their decisions (Core Drive 3), you’ll only empower them to leave.

Lack of control is one of the most widespread and damaging aspects of many sales-team environments. But let’s not harp on these problems for much longer. Let’s get to the solution!


The Solution: Finding Balance with More Intrinsic, White Hat Gamification

Now that you see how disengaging it can be for sales companies to fixate on extrinsic rewards and Black Hat gamification, how can you balance it with more intrinsic motivation and White Hat techniques? Well, first you’ll have to pave the way for human-focused design by getting rid of the typical sales scripts, sales steps, and to-do lists.

It’s all about trusting your team by empowering them with more freedom, autonomy, control, and creativity. We also recommend over reliance of  leaderboard rankings, which merely cater to Black Hat motivators like competition (Core Drive 5). The threat of losing your ranking (Core Drive 8), especially when many factors in successful sales are beyond one’s control, can be a real energy sap. That said, the more White Hat side of Social Influence & Relatedness is collaboration. So, find ways to ensure social cohesion by creating opportunities for teamwork, especially when creating strategies and solving problems.

To really drive these points home and place things into context, let’s look at an Octalysis case study.

In 2016 we were approached by a European, Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company called Navo Orbico, which was facing a range of issues with their sales team, from low motivation, low sales, lack of new ideas, and as a result, high turnover. They came to us to diagnose and treat the problem.

The unique challenge they faced is that, despite being on the scene for decades, they couldn’t bring themselves to the next level. Sales were stagnating and they couldn’t, for the life of them, figure out why. After some analysis, we realized that it all came down to their sales processes, which inevitably affected their team’s engagement and productivity.

For one, rather than human-focused design, their gamification was highly function-focused. In other words, they assumed that their sales team would want to interact with simple extrinsic gamified features like points, badges, leaderboards and the like. The problem is that this would not have solved their issues, as sales teams already have extrinsic incentives (bonuses), recognition (sales person of the month) and leaderboards (function titles). Instead, the mechanics deployed should also be a button you press to activate, ideally, intrinsic motivation.

Enter Octalysis! By the time we finished implementing our strategy, Navo Orbico increased their sales by 28.6% and their activity KPIs by over 60%. But what was our secret? Well, we had many but one thing we did is create a storyline that enabled human-focused design and incorporated a wide variety of key, White-Hat core drives. By creating a story, it’s easy to create a narrative that evokes epic meaning and calling (Core Drive 1).

The storyline is set in a city-state called Nabicopolis (clever, huh?). It’s all about setting “sail” to your sales! Through this narrative, each of your employees becomes a “seafarer” who must sail/travel to different cities to “trade” (ahem, sell) with clients for profit. In this story, the profit you make not only benefits you, but your city-state (Core Drives 2 & 5). As such, the more profit you make, the more your city grows and develops. Therefore, your actions have a direct impact on everyone in Nabicopolis (Core 5). Each sales “player” is being called to the epic duty of both maintaining and developing the city-state (Core Drive 1). The less profit it makes, the more prone it becomes to takeovers by pirates and whatnot, resulting in degradation (Core Drive 8).

This narrative also created an awesome opportunity for extrinsic functions like “progress bars” – one representing the health and the other representing the wealth of the city (Core Drive 2). That is, the higher your KPIs, the healthier Nabicopolis becomes. The more you sell, the wealthier. Not only does this allow everyone on your team to take ownership of the city-state’s status (Core Drive 4), but it encourages collaboration (Core Drive 5).

And, like any other RPG (role-playing game), these sailing sellers had up to 3 different paths to choose from. Each path is full of unexpected challenges and rewards to shake things up a bit (e.g., secret codes). People are naturally inclined to ask themselves, “What’s next?”. Unpredictability breeds curiosity, and curiosity is an intrinsic motivator that not only engages players/employees, but keeps them on their toes (Core Drive 7). Not to mention, unpredictability gives rise to long-term motivation… the ultimate goal of any sales company.

But another benefit of multiple paths is that it gives the user a sense of control, another key aspect of intrinsic motivation. If every player had to go down the same, linear pathway, it would take away from their sense of accomplishment (Core Drive 2). After all, how could they take credit for something that they had no choice in? When your sales team can see the fruits of their labor/unique choices, it’s empowering (Core Drive 3).

Here’s a thought. If you gave half of your team sales-scripts to read verbatim, and told the other half to write their own, who do you think would be more invested in success? Who’d be more interested in their results? Surely, the half that was given the control to write their own scripts. Because if the sales results or feedback is positive, it’s a reflection of who they are, their choices, and their own creativity (Core Drive 3). It’s a personal accomplishment (Core Drive 2).

Conversely, the team that simply rehearsed your prewritten scripts would still be happy to receive positive feedback, but it wouldn’t feel so personal. They were robbed of control, and therefore, any success could be chalked up to luck. As such, they might not feel like they fully own (Core Drive 4) their success. Likewise, if the feedback/their sales numbers were low from reading the script, they also wouldn’t fully own their failures. They’d dismiss it as poor scriptwriting, throw their hands in the air, and say, “Well, what could I do? I had to follow the script”. This would ultimately lower their motivation to improve their sales game.

Nabicopolis is one of our greatest gamification successes. As you can see, we kept much of the extrinsic elements (e.g., progress bars and points/profit), but we didn’t just throw them at the wall! We used our framework to carefully and lovingly place them within the context of human-focused design. That said, none of this could’ve been achieved without the 99.5% voluntary participation rate that our strategy garnered. Who wouldn’t want to participate in a strategy that turns their daily work life into an RPG?

Final Points

Imagine a sales team that excels without you lurking over their heads or threatening their livelihoods. What if you could get your team to voluntarily go above and beyond, without having to reward them every step of the way? Your business and the world at large would be completely different, completely unrecognizable. For one, businesses won’t only save, but with $500 billion back in the bank, consumers are bound to save too.

This isn’t a mere pipe dream! Gamification works if it’s implemented properly – that is, in accordance with human-focused design. That’s where Octalysis comes in! Give us a shout to find out how we can transform your team!




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