Do Activity-Based Incentive Plans Work? Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Intervention

Raghunath Singh Rao, Madhu Viswanathan, George John, Sunil Kishore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Many firms incorporate activity-based incentive (ABI) compensation into their pay plans. These ABIs are based on salespeople’s activity measures derived from their call reports. Despite their prevalence and theory-based expectations, there is a distinct lack of empirical work studying the sales productivity effects of ABI pay. With the cooperation of a large pharmaceutical firm, the authors conducted a three-year-long intervention based on a “treatment-removal” design. Their first intervention added modest ABI pay for frontline salespeople and their supervisors across 305 sales territories; the second intervention removed ABI pay from the salespeople; and the third intervention removed ABI pay from the supervisors as well, returning to the status quo. Using detailed territory-level data from the intervention in conjunction with syndicated market-level data and employing synthetic control procedures, the authors find sales gains of around 6%–9% from each of the two ABI interventions relative to the no-ABI baseline. These effects are moderated by the number of salespeople in a territory, with territories with more salespeople showing larger effects. Analyses of activity effects show that when supervisors are paid ABIs, they exert behavior control downward on salespeople. Managerially, both ABI schemes improve performance over an output-only pay plan. Between the two, a rudimentary gross profit impact calculation shows that ABIs targeted at supervisors alone are more efficient than ABIs targeted at both salespeople and their supervisors. The results support tying compensation to call reports despite the potential for self-serving biases in these measures because supervisors are able to exercise more behavior control with ABIs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)686-704
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Marketing Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 8 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors sincerely appreciate the cooperation of the firm that enabled the intervention reported in this study and respect its desire to remain anonymous. Feedback from numerous participants at seminars and conferences is also appreciated. The authors are especially grateful to Kathy Li and Andreas Kraft for their extensive help, and to the entire JMR review team for their incredibly constructive comments. All errors and omissions are the responsibility of the authors. The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© American Marketing Association 2021.


  • activity-based incentives
  • field experiments
  • principal-agent theory
  • sales compensation
  • synthetic control


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