Feature Article - November/December 2018

Right the First Time

Avoid Common Mistakes in Incentive Program Planning

By Rick Dandes


The best strategy for dealing with mistakes when implementing a rewards and incentive program is to avoid making them in the first place.

So, what are the most common mistakes people make with their incentive programs? "That depends on which area of an incentive or recognition program you are focusing on," said Mike Donnelly, CEO of Hinda Incentives in Chicago.

Common mistakes are different depending on whether you're talking planning, program design, the award selection or communication, he said, "but there are three that always stand out to me: too little focus on initial engagement, enrollment and commitment; too few ongoing communications; and finally, what I call 'Launch and Leave.' What I mean by that is no ongoing plan to monitor program performance. The client launches the program and leaves it to its own devices. Then, they are surprised when it doesn't work as well as they would like."

When someone works hard to get a program launched without an ongoing way to track and monitor how the program is doing, that can be a problem. Just about every program needs some adjustments at some point, Donnelly said. "Unexpected things occur and you have to deal with them. Creating a way to monitor how a program is performing and then monitoring it regularly alerts you of problems and helps make adjustments to maximize your program results."

Most programs spend lots of time in design or looking to select the right awards to engage their participants or estimating budgets based on potential results scenarios, Donnelly explained. "There can be months of intense planning to launch an all-employee engagement program. Now, they're all set to go and there is no focus on how to get people engaged in the program. The assumption is, 'If we build it, they will come.'"

Organizations need to step back and look at the behaviors that they want to influence and incorporate that into the design of the program, versus focusing solely on the end result that they want to gain, said Theresa Thomas, vice president, strategic solutions, Hinda Incentives. "Because if people don't know what activities and behaviors they need to do on a day-to-day basis in order to get that end result, your program is not going to drive whatever it is you are trying to drive."

"The worst response an audience can have to a rewards program is indifference," said Dana LaSalvia, vice president of corporate communications and business development. Rymax Marketing Services, of Pine Brook, N.J. "Incentive, rewards and recognition programs are intended to engage and motivate audiences. If audiences are apathetic to them, that means you've missed the mark. Their indifference is a sign that the rewards offered neither interest nor inspire them."

Programs that don't take the time to think about how they will initially engage participants and gain their commitment early on will have trouble reaching their goals, Donnelly said. "It's worth looking at what activities and behaviors need to be reinforced in order to get to that organizational goal," he added. "Oftentimes, programmers don't want to take the time to do that. Finance managers, for example, might only care about that end metric and so don't incorporate those activities into the program design."

Communications is the lifeblood of any program, Donnelly continued. "You have to plan a communications campaign to regularly remind people about your program and the importance of their role in succeeding," he said. "Sometimes programs will leave it up to the managers to communicate the program to their people. That's especially true of employee engagement and recognition programs."

But think about the numerous roles managers must fill in today's organizations, which are always trying to increase efficiency and do more with less. "There's nothing wrong with engaging managers in the communications," Donnelly said, "but you need to give them tools to communicate your program and make sure they understand why it's important to support the program, too."

The best strategy for dealing with mistakes when implementing a rewards and incentive program is to avoid making them in the first place.

A well-executed communications plan should encompass all organizational influencers, the people who are running the program or influencing success in the program. That could be managers or field staff, added Thomas. "But also be aware that a communications plan could be poorly executed at the participant level as well. Poorly executed means communications that are not clear and don't drive a direct call to action, meaning the participant knows clearly what they are supposed to do to be successful in the program and when they are supposed to do it."

Ira Ozer, president and CEO, Engagement Partners, of Chappaqua, N.Y., said that two common mistakes he runs into concern business objectives and ROI. "Participants in a program earn and spend a lot of award points," he noted, "but it's a problem when there is not a connection to the objectives achieving measureable business results and a return on investment, as they are not well defined. This is especially common in recognition programs, because managers, and in some cases employees, are given budgets to issue recognition certificates with award points, but there is no way to prove that these recognition awards are achieving business objectives or measuring value that can help calculate an ROI."

Many companies spend far too much time thinking about the rewards they want to use and the costs, without determining the return they will receive from the program, Ozer said. "While it is important to manage costs and pay a fair price for goods, there are many factors that incentive companies typically include in their award prices that retailers do not, such as program design consultation, inventorying of the goods, a liberal returns policy, VIP customer service and more," he said.