Feature Article - July/August 2019

Build Your Team — Build Your Program

Partner With Experienced Pros to Ensure Successful Incentives & Rewards

By Rick Dandes


When you're embarking on an incentive or reward program, the fastest route to success is to find experienced professionals to partner with—experts who have extensive industry and premium brand expertise.

"It's always best to have a guide that knows what he or she is doing," said Jeffrey Brenner, director, special markets, Seiko U.S.A., and president of the board of directors, IMRA (Incentive Manufacturers and Representatives Alliance). "An experienced partner is someone who has gone through the good, the bad and the ugly in the business, and allows you to not fall into the pitfalls that can happen. By working directly with an association member you have instant credibility, which is important."


It is all part of your due diligence, Brenner continued. The company doing the program needs to understand what their end results need to be, what goals they are trying to set. What is it they are trying to achieve? Have you set forth your budget parameters? Have you discussed internally with the decision-makers within your company who is going to be recognized and how they are going to be recognized? After that, a key part of the program is knowing that the products that are selected will arrive as required. All those components are critical in having a discussion with a professional, perhaps someone from IMRA or the IMA (Incentive Marketing Association), so they can come up with a solution for you that works.

Becky Sawicki, director of special markets, Jura Inc. (and an IMRA board member) said, "At Jura, we believe in working with experienced professionals who are the best in their class. Not only is it the best way to achieve your goals, but in the long run, it's also the most economical—because you don't waste time and resources on a lengthy learning curve filled with trial and error."

To the degree that some executives might hope for an off-the-shelf solution, there is no "magic bullet" for building a successful program that is guaranteed to result in motivated employees, satis?ed customers and long-term pro?ts.

Every company, explained Richard Blabolil, president, Marketing Innovators International, of Rosemont, Ill., "has its own unique circumstances, dynamics and motivational drivers. Because of the considerable research being done in this area, however, there is a variety of documented best practices that can enable companies to build a tailored program that is most likely to engage, equip and inspire their employees to satisfy customers in terms of service or product quality, or both."

A key reason to partner with a professional to help with your incentive program, Blabolil said, is to access the collective experience within their organization to assist in the design and execution of your program. Find a partner that complements your corporate culture and business philosophy and style. If you know the operations aspect, find someone that can handle marketing. This will allow you to focus on your strengths and what you enjoy doing.

David Gould, CEO, CR Worldwide (also a board member of IMA and of the Incentive and Engagement Solution Providers, or IESP, a strategic industry group within the IMA) gave three reasons why any organization, company or public-sector institution would come to an incentive and recognition solution provider. First, he said, is "know-how, which incorporates the qualifications within our industry. Our people are essentially learning different methods, which give rise to building out a toolkit for different methodologies for being able to scope, fill, launch and manage programs."

The second reason, Gould said, is expertise. The mere fact that it's your job, that certified individuals are experiencing multiple programs on an ongoing basis, gives people both the knowledge and the confidence to be able to suggest things that they know work. For example, picking up on trends of certain functionality, or certain promotions, or certain methods of being able to influence desired behaviors, which is essentially what most organizations are looking for in terms of an objective for an incentive or recognition program.

The third element is more of a financial one for most organizations, but it is also a time-bound one as well, and that is regarding technology. In order to make these programs administratively non-burdensome and also to ensure that there is functionality and features that positively engage the audience, Gould said, it is important that you have technology that is robust and can assist in fully automating the administration of the program. "That is not an onerous task," he said. "It takes time and money to build such infrastructural platforms in order to facilitate that and the majority of the solution providers with the IESP understand that. Systems can be built and then customized in order to meet the requirements for clients."

Finding the Right Partner

In today's corporate world it is more important than ever to have a business plan with a defined mission statement and to execute against that plan. Doing so means focusing on what your company does best and constantly answering the question: What value do we deliver?

That type of focus, said Brian Galonek, president and owner, All Star Incentive Marketing, "does more than just give the company direction—it is a vital part of having engaged employees that understand how they fit into the overall picture, which gives them greater purpose. And having engaged employees is one of, if not the most essential element for any program to succeed."

With that in mind, Galonek continued, deploying a "best in class" employee recognition/rewards (incentive) program is a huge strategic advantage. "Ask yourself, how much do you, and your company, really know about the business of human capital management? For virtually every company out there the honest answer is, not nearly as much as a company whose mission statement is to help other companies engage, motivate and reward the people behind their success. This is why you need the right strategic partner."

The fastest route to success is to find experienced professionals to partner with.

When you're looking for a partner, it's a good idea to seek out an entity that knows the ropes, agreed Mike Landry, vice president, special markets, TUMI, who sits on the board of directors, IMRA. "It can be a daunting task to make supplier connections and effectively construct the program with amateurs or people that have little experience in the field. If you're working with an IMA or IMRA professional, you are assured that that individual constructs and supplies these programs for a living. Their livelihood depends on your success and they have a vested interest in making sure that the program is executed with maximum results for your organization."

Initially, look at who they are currently doing business with, and look for a strong track record. Ask for and check references. This will narrow your search. All of this will give you some insight on their relevance and abilities within the industry. It will provide insight on who they are and what brands they represent in your market territory. Then, make a decision based on commitment, character and chemistry. Are they excited about the opportunity of working with you? Are they reliable? Is this partnership a good fit?

In determining which partner to choose, Galonek explained, it's important to have a process, to define your criteria, and to begin with the end in mind. "Many companies," he said, "set goals built around safety, wellness, team building, training, customer service, sales or any number of other initiatives." Some companies come to realize that it will be more cost-effective to combine synergistic goals like safety and wellness, or training and team building. In the end, the most sophisticated programs evolve into company-wide total recognition solutions.

Regardless of how your program starts, you will want to find a partner that can deliver optimum results in the beginning and as the program evolves. Galonek suggested a few key things to look for:

  • Experience in your industry: Gravitate toward companies that have worked in your industry, even if (or perhaps especially if) they have worked with your competitors in the past. That knowledge can be invaluable. Just make sure to have an NDA in place.
  • Breadth of skills: Look for a partner that can deliver on all aspects of the program. You need a partner that will take responsibility for the overall program's success and not just one aspect of it. Some companies have a good web solution, others do award fulfillment well, and still others are good at the marketing. Avoid trying to piece it together yourself and instead find a partner that can do all of that and more and deliver end-to-end.
  • Results driven: You and your partner should have a plan to measure everything and to use that data to continually improve the program. Look for a partner that purposefully espouses measuring not just the obvious results, like safety improvement and sales increase, but also the indirect results, like reduced turnover and morale.

Eric Thiegs, chief revenue officer, partner, NGC, suggested flexibility is important in a partner. Other factors, Thiegs said, include: Is the partner willing to work with you on particular customization aspects of your program? Does the partner have the right mix of incentives and rewards that best fits your program and its audience?

And technology is crucial these days: Does your partner support the latest in mobile app integration, API deployment, and other real-time capabilities to service the 21st century user? Security is a key critical factor these days, given all the news about hacking, Thiegs noted. Is your potential partner PCI DSS-certified to ensure that your data is safe?

Avoiding Pitfalls

The partner you choose must deliver everything they promise and should find ways to go "above and beyond" themselves, said Galonek. After all, you are asking them to build a program that does the same for your workforce, and so you should be pleasantly surprised when they over-deliver. "To know if they are delivering on their promises you must first be clear on what those promises are," he said. Clearly defined goals are essential, as is a firm timeline, which should be used as a measuring stick.

Blabolil agreed. "A common mistake is for companies to presume that developing a strategic plan is the same as creating a laundry list of tactics. Rather, your plan should contain speci?c goals and objectives, strategies for achieving those goals and objectives, and measurable tactics for gauging results. For example, are your actions and behaviors driving customer satisfaction? How do you know?"

Equally crucial, Galonek said, is what your team will do when they achieve those goals. Your team must deliver on their promises in order for your chosen partner to deliver on theirs. Many program launches are hindered not by the vendor partner, but by the customer's inability to call together the correct resources.

"Have a plan for the possibility that things may go wrong," he said, "whether it is an internal failure or a partner failure. It may be costly to exit after the process has begun but it can be far less costly than launching an ineffective solution. Most importantly, deploy a 'walk, jog, run' mentality. Your first program should be more limited in scope but still large enough to prove the concept. Once you are sure you are on the right path, expand the program geographically and then add new features to drive continued success."

Pitfalls may include a partner who does not have the technology or logistics expertise that you require, Brenner noted. "See if a potential partner handles aspects of their program internally, or outsources services. If they do it internally, ask to see other work that they have produced. If outsourced, ask for the same data. Do not be fooled by flashy or impressive artwork, as there may not be anything behind the façade. Ask questions. Speak to current customers."

Many incentive and recognition companies, small, medium and large, Brenner said, can have an impressive façade. But it is critical to understand what powers and drives that façade. Because at the end of the day they are entrusting a program that could be critical to your organization's success. "It is OK, and it is not inappropriate in this industry to ask for references. You are looking to spend X amount of dollars and that is significant. Ask for at least two references; if a company is reluctant to give you any references that is a time to take pause."

Consider this due diligence period almost like an RFP, except not in an RFP format, Brenner said.

As Thiegs suggested, your comfort level is important in an initial conversation. Are you getting "canned" answers to your questions? One major red flag is if someone is really concerned about your budget, asking how much you want to spend, right up front, versus them trying to find out what your goals are. The early conversations should be about what a company can do for you to be successful and not so much about how much you are going to spend with them.

Budgeting is probably the most obvious and least enjoyed part of any strategic planning process, Blabolil noted. But it's also an essential component, for equally obvious reasons. As with any business initiative, it's important to project and plan for all costs in advance and to determine how initiatives will be funded, via HR, sales and marketing.

Oftentimes when you are choosing a partner, added Landry, a buyer or organizer of a program will rely on brands that either they personally like or perceive that the recipients will be attracted to. These brands may have little to no experience in incentive programs and may be focused on their retail business only. Sometimes drop-shipping to a recipient or the simple understanding of the need to ship the actual item that was originally promised in the program is a foreign concept to these brands.

At a minimum, Sawicki summarized, choosing the wrong partner will waste your time—and the consequences can go downhill from there. Due diligence is a smart move, and IMA and IMRA affiliations simplify the process and provide a ready-made network of expertise that you can draw on to maximize your premium and incentive business.