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How to sell incentive programmes

Veteran providers share insights on how to sell incentive programmes to the powers that be.

Veteran providers share insights on how to sell incentive programmes to the powers that be. By Janet White Bardwell, Illustration by Antony Hare, July/August 2007

Perry Kendall, general manager of Delta Hotels Global Reservation Services, in Fredericton, N.B., knows what it feels like to want an employee reward programme that hits the mark. His group of 150 call-centre professionals provides 24-hour reservation services to more than one-million Delta guests each year, in addition to providing marketing and database support to the brand. They are literally the first voice of the entire corporation – and for potential guests to have a positive initial experience, it’s crucial that his people be at the top of their game and feel inspired to do their jobs well.

That’s where corporate rewards can make their mark. Indeed, corporate incentive programmes provide large and small corporations with a plethora of solutions to encourage employees, dealers and buyers to go above and beyond expectations. The choices are endless: From luxurious (or merely impressive) incentive trips and fully stocked merchandise and gift-card catalogues, to priceless time with company executives or access to training programmes, flex time or more vacation days.

These days, however, tight budgets and hectic schedules prevent even the most proactive companies from considering the tools that could help their people happily reach their full work potential. Others, however, choose to tackle performance issues and investigate how an incentive programme could pump up the staff – and the bottom line.

Are you one of these people? Whether you are a manager looking for a solution, a corporate event planner hoping to convince your employer that incentives are the way, or a CEO striving to change the corporate culture in your company and increase profits, read on to get a taste of why and how it’s entirely possible and definitely painless to make an effective incentive programme part of your toolkit.

After 24 years in the incentive business, Robert Thorsteinson, president of Cascadia Motivation Inc., in Red Deer, Alta., knows it’s hard for many companies to jump outside their day-to-day grind and plan long-term. “For first timers, it is daunting,” he says. “It can be a major implementation of a marketing strategy that can have a huge upside if designed properly, and a downside if you miss the mark. But the upside is way, way up.”

Thorsteinson, who also works out of Cascadia’s Toronto office, says there are a variety of reasons companies shy away from incentive programmes. “Many cite costs, without really understanding there rarely is a bottom-line cost. Some cite lack of time as another reason,” he says. Taxation, too, is a concern. “Many do not know how to deal with the taxable-benefit issue,” he says. “We assist in that.”

Many companies also suffer from once-burned-twice-shy syndrome. “Many firms may have attempted to run a programme internally, only to have it fail, due to several reasons,” says Thorsteinson. “Hence, they never saw the gains available to them if their programme had been better organized.”

But would all organizations benefit from some sort of incentive programme? According to Parbudyal Singh, PhD, associate professor of human resource management at York University, in Toronto, it’s a valid question that should be contemplated before making your case. He says if the incentives are strategic in nature and valued by employees, then, yes, it’s a prudent and useful business choice. But if you are jumping to implement an incentive programme because the folks next door are doing so, you could be wasting precious corporate time and dollars.  “Improperly conceptualized and structured incentives, such as those that are not transparent or too tough to achieve, may even have detrimental effects, and can damage employee morale, motivation and effort,” says Singh. “Successful incentives require some level of trust in the organization. Employees must be assured that doing the required tasks will result in them getting, or at least being eligible, for the incentives. Incentives may not work for those organizations with a history of broken promises.”

Not the case with Kendall, however. Up until now, Kendall had been using an internal, brand-wide incentive reward solution that allowed managers to issue “Delta Dollars” based on location-specific criteria that employees could redeem for gift certificates of their choice. But it was labour-intensive (Kendall’s leadership group was required to go out and purchase the required gift certificates) and lacked the options needed to make it meaningful and effective for his hard-working employees. Kendall decided to take matters into his own hands and pursue a fully structured incentive reward programme.

After getting the thumbs-up from employees through surveys and staff meetings, and pitching the powers-that-be with a persuasive cost/benefit analysis, Kendall got the go-ahead, and connected with Halifax-based Fraser & Hoyt Incentives to help with the programme.

Kathleen Jones, business solutions manager at Fraser & Hoyt, says money is one of the most frequent reasons to shun incentives. But is it really that expensive to start up a programme? For those barely given enough in the budget to host a holiday party, how can a cherished incentive programme be in the cards? Jones is quick to point out that companies don’t have to have a full-blown, over-the-top programme to create something meaningful. “We customize our programmes to meet our clients’ unique needs by offering different tiers to different-sized companies,” she says. “For smaller companies, we offer a number of economical options. We have a new Myreward catalogue programme, whereby employers pay only on point issuance, so in that regard, they only pay if it’s working for them, and there are no minimums, setup or administration fees. This works well for our smaller clients who are new to incentives and uncertain about the results their programme will achieve. Once results are proven, it provides a great catalyst to transition into a more structured programme.”

It’s a solution that worked well for Kendall’s group and budget. “Currently, we are using [Fraser & Hoyt’s] generic catalogue, but we may very well move into doing a customized catalogue,” he says. “But the generic catalogue is fantastic. It’s very well organized and focused on the user. We’ve gotten very good feedback from it so far.”

Dean Dacko, vice-president of travel solutions at Mississauga, Ont.-based Carlson Marketing Group Canada, says one of the key mistakes people make when they start thinking about an incentive programme is just focusing on the prize. “They’ll focus on what great idea they can come up with to sell to senior executives as the next best thing. But the most amount of work should go into really understanding the key objectives of the organization and what you really want to achieve with the programme and qualifying the audience to a very high degree and the character of that audience. It should start with that kind of approach, rather than what great prize we are going to offer.”

This type of from-the-trenches guidance can be expected if you choose to use an incentive house to help you with your programme. While some corporations choose to plan and execute their own incentive strategies, others choose to work with incentive firms, which can provide the contacts, experience and technology to make the process easier on many levels.

Hiring an outside firm to organize and facilitate your incent
e, however, does not render the current in-house planner obsolete. Dacko says the in-house planning team is crucial to the success of an incentive programme, but at a strategic, rather than detailed, level. “If they can get themselves out of the day-to-day clutter of the programme, their real value is in making sure that the programme is on target to maximize the return on investment, which is most important to their executives. If they use us, we can not only do the job faster, quicker and smarter using better technology, we will also deliver more return on the investment than if they were doing it all themselves and getting wrapped up in the bows and boxes, or whether the mashed potatoes were whipped or not.”

Jones says many companies also don’t realize that the cost benefits of using an incentive house can be quite compelling. “When you look at the discounts we receive from our suppliers, in the end, it may not cost you any more to work with an incentive house. Plus, you get our experts working on your behalf. It can be a win-win situation.

– Janet White Bardwell is a Guelph, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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