Creating a 'Wow' Experience
The Emotional & Tangible Benefits of a Peak Reward Program
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."
One Size Does Not Fit All
Make sure you understand the personality styles of the recipients and how they prefer to be recognized, Ozer said. "Low-key people who might be more introverted are generally not interested and often may even be mortified by the prospect of getting on stage and being recognized in a loud public way, but social, outgoing people live for public recognition and the spotlight of attention. Also, if teamwork is involved, everyone should be recognized and not just the leader or client-facing person such as the sales rep."
The biggest thing to avoid is lack of personalization, Van Dyke said, following up on Ozer's point. "And that does not mean the award itself has to have a person's name on it. That can be manifested in who gives the award. Receiving an award from a manager that is three levels up or does not have a personal relationship with the recipient is not impactful. If the reward is given but no one really communicates why the award was given out, or what the reward performance is, that can be an issue. The more you can be distinct about who is giving it, why it is being given and then personalizing the reward itself, all this will make the reward that much more memorable and that much more powerful."
If you segment and personalize the people in the program and you 'journey map' based on those people, the reward experience is much more successful.
For all these reasons, it is clear that one size does not fit all when it comes to crafting a reward experience, Luckey explained. "In many cases people come up with a program, an experience, and leave it at that. What we've found is that if you segment and personalize the people in the program and you 'journey map' based on those people, the reward experience is much more successful. Meaning, if you have some really top performers you do need to think through their experience a little differently from someone who is performing at a base level."
You need to individualize the experience, because the reward itself is just a piece of the puzzle. Try personalizing the entire experience. If the award is handed out by someone who is meaningful to the recipient, if the communications are thoughtful, and include personal information or something that is meaningful to a recipient—those kinds of things are just as important as personalizing the reward itself.
Watch out for poor communications. "In many cases," Luckey said, "you might devise a wonderful reward experience, think you can send one e-mail and everyone is going to be on the bandwagon. But the reality is that most people will forget about it after the first couple of weeks."
Communication is critical throughout the entire experience. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? is an adage that really applies here. This is an opportunity to bring everybody within an organization together and share in the excitement, Glamann said. "The sense of accomplishment that award winners will feel when receiving the gift will be magnified tenfold when shared with their peers. You may have found the perfect gift that matches the recipients tastes and interests to a 'T', but if the gift is just left wordlessly on a desk or delivered by an assistant that has no connection with the recipient, the experience has been squandered."
Meanwhile, if the reward includes travel, and "assuming the recipients are traveling from various places," Rivolta added, "you want to avoid gifts and products that are too large to carry home or might not be allowed through airport security. You don't want the recipient to feel like their gift has become a burden. Logistically, to properly execute a great experience you must have everything planned out. Of course, you need to have contingency plans if things change, which they inevitably do, but, you should know every program detail before arriving onsite. Avoid trying to execute a program with too few staff. Lines are the worst for creating a positive experience. If you have enough skilled staff, you can handle almost any variable."
Taking the Extra Steps
Some of the most powerful event experiences you can execute could take place right in your corporate headquarters. The element of surprise when employees are called into a room to select a gift as a thank you for being part of the team is something that you can't replicate. These programs are particularly impactful around holiday time when people are stressed and their employer takes the opportunity to express their appreciation for them.
Dramatic President's Club Group Incentive Travel programs are some of the most impressive ways to incent, reward and recognize top performances, Ozer said. "Many companies hand out engraved crystal plaques or sculptures or rings to top performers and those who hit defined milestones. For example, Proforma, a large promotional products and print supplier, recognizes top performers at the company trip with company jackets that have pocket crests identifying high levels of million dollar sales achievement, much like the golf Master's green jackets." Very symbolic, impressive and meaningful.
But often it's those little touches that count just as much, particularly when the reward recipient sees that real thought has been given to the moment. "One thing I've noticed," Van Dyke said, "is when the potential recipients are asked a series of very personal questions. There are so many great stories of organizations that have asked the recipients or employees what their favorite colors are, or what their favorite treats are, their favorite movies, where they like to shop, who their heroes are. All that can be incorporated into the reward experience presentation, and it's meaningful in quite an extraordinary, lasting way."
It's not rocket science, Van Dyke continued, when you ask what a person's favorite food is, and then it shows up at a ceremony. If your personal hero is Michael Jordan, being rewarded as the company's Michael Jordan of sales is something cool to say, and it is a fantastic touch. But to do this, you have to know more about the recipient than just what his or her performance was. You need to know about the person themselves.
Another program that comes to mind, Glamann said, "is a yearly health and wellness program that we assist with. The participants have opportunities throughout the year to earn points for completing various lifestyle events and at the end of the year are rewarded for their efforts. The program starts off in a clever way by giving the participants the list of event information as well as a kickoff gift. One year it was infuser bottles, another it was fitness monitors."
The gift is not only useful for the participants, but also ties in thematically with the program, he said. "Throughout the duration of the program, participants can earn extra points from their peers for offering helpful exercise tips or healthy recipes, reinforcing the teamwork aspect and building bonds between co-workers. How cool is that?"
The element of surprise when employees are called into a room to select a gift as a thank you for being part of the team is something that you can't replicate.
Surprise and delight your reward winner to optimize the experience, Luckey suggested. "Maritz put together a Barclay Loyalty credit card program, where three different gift cards were mailed out that said, 'Look, you are a valued customer and we just want to give you a gift, the coffee is on us. They were simple gifts, but people got excited because they didn't expect it. And wow, the credit card company did something neat," she said.
Go the extra mile with superb customer service. You can have the best reward experience planned and if you have someone who is not so great on the phone or something is broken and you have poor customer service, the thrill will be gone. Extend the experience with great customer service. Also make sure everything you do, particularly online, is secure. People are wary of fraud and identity theft.
And finally, Luckey said, you must show continuous improvement. "You can have a program. It can be really great, but you have to keep it fresh and alive. We are working now with a professor from Harvard Business School on our new reward site and doing experiments on how people interact with the site, one image versus another, and then making improvements to our reward site based on that. So just little things that you can do to continually make sure that the experience stays fresh and relevant can add to the surprise and excitement."