Feature Article - May/June 2019

Be Proactive to Avoid Program Pitfalls

How to Recognize & Avoid Problems in Incentives & Rewards

By Rick Dandes

Launching an effective incentive program that actually works requires an organization to develop a strategic reward system for participants that covers multiple areas. After all, incentives and rewards these days are much more than your standard benefits package.

There is an art and science to crafting an effective program. The art lies in developing a program that addresses real-world complexities and psychological nuances that will positively affect and engage participants day-to-day within any programmatic system; the science involves analytics, measuring the effectiveness of the program at every stage of usage, and return on investment.

Proactive engagement by program planners can do much to alleviate potential issues. "There are a few problems that can arise when planning and implementing a rewards program," said Dana LaSalvia, vice president of corporate communications and business development, Rymax, Pine Brook, N.J.

"One that immediately comes to mind," LaSalvia said, "is not offering rewards that your participants desire. Gift-giving and rewards can quickly become stale, so it's important to keep an eye on what's trending and what your program participants are motivated by. Keep things fresh for them so that they continue to be re-inspired and set new goals for themselves.

"Another common problem is lack of communication surrounding the program and what it entails. If participants do not clearly understand all guidelines and objectives or all the ways that they are able to earn rewards, they will not be motivated to participate, and your program will fall flat."

The key takeaway here, added Mary Luckey, sales engineer, Rewards & Fulfillment, Maritz Motivation Solutions, Fenton, Mo., is about planning, and how some companies don't systematically plan; they just launch a program.

When companies finally realize an incentive program will help their business, Luckey said, "They typically move too fast. The boss says we need to do it, so we need to launch in six weeks! Make sure you take the time to work with your incentive partner to identify the problem you're trying to solve, develop the right rule structure to change the behaviors, and offer rewards that will be motivating."

Not understanding that communicating the program is critical to the success of the program can be another problem, Luckey said. "Sometimes we work with clients who don't understand why their program isn't working. When we dive in, many times we find that the participants in the program don't even know there's a program. One email announcing a program isn't communicating. You need to make sure people know what they need to do and how they're doing throughout the program. If you don't tell people what they should do, how can you expect them to change their behaviors to achieve your goals? And if you're not tracking performance and providing feedback to keep them engaged, they're going to lose focus on your goals. Often people don't spend enough time on these two areas to engage their people and maintain their attention throughout the program."

Here's an idea: Work to develop a communication strategy that includes ongoing communications with various touchpoints and vehicles.

Email is great, Luckey said, but social media channels should also be considered. And don't rule out print. Sometimes it's the best way to get attention because we don't get much in our physical mailboxes anymore. Luckey also suggested segmenting and personalizing communications. "If you want me to improve my performance," she said, "a general message that goes to everyone only goes so far. But, if you tell me exactly where I stand in the program and what I need to do to earn a reward, I'll be much more likely to do what you want. We call this 'progress feedback'—giving people feedback on their behavior on an ongoing basis so they know what to do to reach a goal. A comprehensive communications plan cannot be overemphasized. And ironically, when budgets get tight, it's one of the first things to go."

Not having a clear view of the ROI that the program is generating is a critical shortcoming. "I've worked with many clients over the years that don't really measure the success of their program—which can be very dangerous," Luckey said.

At some point, a C-suite member is going to ask the question, how is this program helping our business? If you can't answer that question, it won't be good. Maritz, for example, has a full team of decision scientists that helps clients analyze program data and develop strategies to improve performance and business results.

"At the least," she said, "when you launch a program, make sure you and your incentive provider have a clear understanding of what success looks like, even if you start with very basic metrics such as number of enrollments or other basic key performance indicators (KPIs). It's better to start with something and build on it over time."

It's important that there is true support for a program at the highest levels of the organization. If it's not supported by the top, it won't get the attention it deserves.