Feature Article - March/April 2017

Creating a 'Wow' Experience

The Emotional & Tangible Benefits of a Peak Reward Program

By Rick Dandes


When implementing memorable reward programs, organizations sometimes get caught up in the transactional—or rational—elements of the design. But concentrating too much on the process and the reward ignores the emotional aspects of being recognized, and the positive impact that it can have on future employee performance or customer loyalty.

"In many programs, we've seen a focus on the behaviors we're trying to incent, such as selling more products, recognizing co-workers or increasing hotel stays," said Mary Luckey, director of Client Rewards and Global Strategy, Maritz Motivation Solutions, Fenton, Mo. "It's easy to forget that reward programs are really all about creating experiences that evoke positive emotions in people. We are all emotional beings. If people have a great experience in a program and really enjoy their reward, the behaviors will follow, and there will be a positive reflection on the sponsor company's brand."

The reward itself can and should have enormous intrinsic value, said Ira Ozer, president and CEO, Engagement Partners, of Chappaqua, N.Y. "And if personally chosen by the recipient, from a gift selection or a catalog of choices redeemable with award points, or selected on behalf of the recipient by someone who knows their wishes, such as a caring and attentive manager, or is a symbolic item that has real meaning, tradition and authenticity at the company, such as a president's ring, then they will be appreciated and enjoyed."

But if you dig deeper into the reward experience itself, you find psychological principles and factors at work that motivate people, and one of the most significant is the need for social reinforcement.

Scott Jeffrey, a psychologist at Monmouth University in New Jersey has studied those workforce factors, and in his white paper, "The Benefits of Tangible Non-Monetary Incentives," he explains that the ability for people to share their award achievement provides powerful social reinforcement. In effect, it lets management shine the spotlight on people who are being recognized and allows the recipients to show off in a good way.

Of course, the entire reward experience matters, agreed Brian Rivolta, senior vice president, Sales and Marketing, Incentive Concepts, St. Louis. It's about making memories and reinforcing positive connections. One way some incentive suppliers have been creating such memories and connections is via on-site gifting experiences, where meeting or travel participants get to "shop" for an item of their choice, usually within a specific category, such as headphones, sunglasses or watches, for example.

"Onsite gifting is more than just handing out product," Rivolta said. You're trying to create a memory for your recipients. To create excitement and trust within the organization. When you have the right team, what in reality is very complicated, looks easy, is fun and creates an environment of reward, which is the ultimate goal.

Creating the Experience

Any successful reward experience needs to be well thought out and flawlessly executed, explained Chad Glamann, marketing manager, Top Brands Inc., Oshkosh, Wis. "An organization needs to identify opportunities to reward and engage their personnel, and build the experience around these goals. Choosing a reward that shows an understanding of the recipient's personality and interests is an opportunity to build a positive connection."

"There are a couple of other things to be mindful of," noted Melissa Van Dyke, president, Incentive Research Foundation, McLean, Va., "including who is giving the reward. Certainly, be mindful of what the relationship is between that person who is giving the award and who is receiving it. This can have a huge impact and either make or break the experience. Whenever that gift is used or viewed, it serves as a reminder and helps to reinforce relationships and build new ones.

It's easy to forget that reward programs are really all about creating experiences that evoke positive emotions in people.

"How it is communicated is important. Bringing family members and social circles in always makes the event more memorable. But we also found that having a tie to someone's career track … maybe offering someone additional internal training to help their careers is a very good, personal reward. You have to be thoughtful about what the award is, who is giving it, how it is communicated and how that relates to their overall career within the organization."

Reward experiences vary depending on many factors, such as the reward itself, the reason for the reward, the budget, the associated event if any, and timing, Ozer said. "Impressive experiences are often created at meetings and group incentive travel events, such as President's Clubs, in which recipients are awarded and honored on stage with drama, music and glamour—literally spotlighted on the red carpet. But less dramatic yet still authentic experiences can be done in small informal settings, such as in the office or at a local restaurant. The key to creating an impressive experience is understanding how the company and individual define and value it and making the experience authentic for them and the company. Impressive experiences can be achieved in low-key and cost-effective ways, too, not just by creating extravaganzas."

Exactly how to do this is key. At Maritz, Luckey said, program designers use a process called design thinking, which is important in business today. Design thinking helps programmers create experiences for the individual being rewarded.

"You put yourself into the shoes of the employee, the person in the sales incentive program or the consumer," she said. "Maritz has a design lab, where we work with our clients and try to imagine what it's like to be a person in the program. It's a very targeted approach, but what we end up doing is to create a journey map."

Bottom line: creating an impressive experience begins and ends with staff, Rivolta summed up. You must have the right people to set the tone. Equally important is having brand names people want. Finally, the onsite event emphasizes an environment of reward. "The more time we have for set-up and execution," he said, "the better you can create an amazing experience. We love working with clients to create WOW experiences: dance parties, underwater experiences, luxury watch events in Switzerland … things that people will remember as much as the gift itself."