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How to design an effective incentive programme

How to design an effective incentive programme

Director of Strategic Partnerships at Ovation Global DMC, and former SITE President, Hugo Slimbrouck, offers a guide to building the most informed perspective for designing and delivering effective incentive programmes.


Designing an incentive programme begins with understanding the customer, his or her business, the company’s leadership and a profile of the programme participants. 

Knowing your customer and your customer’s customer should be the basis for this motivational management tool. 

Experts can help determine whether an incentive programme is a good fit for the business goals of the client. Then they can explore how to build the programme to meet these goals.

Maybe Mauritius?

Let’s start by exploring a typical customer situation: your client is thinking Mauritius is the right destination for an incentive trip to reward the top salespeople of the company. 

It may or may not be a great incentive travel programme, but before you move to the design stage, you first need to analyse your audience, not only the client’s company and circumstances, but also the potential participants to the trip. 

Your questions should include research into the business context; this may include product quality, distribution channels, marketing campaigns, company growth and competition. 

Find out how stable the company is and how they built success. What is their competitive position? 

They could have a mediocre product that cannot keep up with demand. An incentive programme will not address that.

Analyse any previous programmes. Were they deployed by in-house staff or an outside provider? Important, because it is harder to position an incentive programme when a past programme was expensive or ineffective. 

Asking questions about past experiences will also help you understand whether the incentive programmes were designed and deployed to change behaviours.

Top management buy-in

Find out how the commitment of senior leadership contributed to the changed behaviour and whether they were involved in the programme design and implementation fazes – something that is critical for success. 

Every person in the company from the CEO on down must be vested in the programme. 

The VP of Sales may be responsible for a sales incentive programme, but if his or her superior isn’t behind it then it will have limited success. 

Ideally, you may want to get in front of the executive committee.

Questions to explore could include: Does the company culture acknowledge successes and reward innovation? Is reward and recognition part of its everyday fabric? 

If the incentive programme is a new business strategy, you will need to provide more support (and communication) throughout the programme. 

You will need to find out who the company want to target specifically and what type of programme do they have in mind? Reward, recognition or both? 

Is it to be a programme to boost sales teams, non-sales teams, distributors, channel partners or consumers? 

Target audiences may also have different types and levels of motivation. 

You would be wise to ask whether the organisation can afford such a performance solution, while examining what’s achievable in terms of profitability and productivity. 

In summary, you need to thoroughly research the business before you start discussing the design of the qualification rules or even considering any destination. 

What motivates?

Once you understand the customer in terms of business context, you will need to look at their customers or participants to understand what will motivate the potential qualifiers in the incentive programme. And this can be very different from generation to generation or from country to country.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to motivation. 

What appeals to a 26-year-old from Belgium may have little appeal to a 45-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio. 

Generational differences also come into play when motivation and engagement are involved. 

Traditionalists grew up in a ‘do without’ era, believing in hard work and sacrifice. They want their actions to connect with the good of the company. What is important to them is reward, service and loyalty. 

Baby Boomers grew up in a healthy economic era and need to see how their actions make a difference. What’s important to them are rewards to promote and recognise performance. They are motivated by a sense of achievement. 

Generation X grew up in an era of distrust for national institutions and want flexibility and rewards to recognise personal needs and goals. 

Generation Y workers are now starting to outnumber Gen X and Baby Boomers. This generation grew up in an era of financial boom. 

Gen Y connects responsibility with personal goals. Important to them are rewards that bring tangible evidence of credibility. Gen Y are motivated by a sense of greater good and in that sense they reconnect with the traditionalists.

Understanding generational difference can help you to adapt the incentive programme, but make sure that you don’t make judgments based on your own personal experiences. 

Also, two individuals of the same age, working in the same industry, with the same educational background may be motivated by entirely different goals. Generalisations can be made about the audience characteristics but you will need to ask questions to confirm. 

These elements are relevant in designing an incentive programme in order to determine the motivation behind each characteristic. 

They may cover age range, average income, experience, education, lifestyle, where they live and what industry they work in.

In order to engage incentive participants and truly “wow” the qualifiers, you will need to understand what appeals and motivates the audience. 

Do try to talk with the potential qualifiers about what they would like or expect as part of an incentive programme. Surveys can also be used to gather information quickly from the target audience.

Culture club

Culture is not a characteristic of individuals; it encompasses a number of people who share the same experiences – a group, a tribe, a geographic region, a national minority, or a nation. It is always important to understand the cultural influence of the audience and be sensitive to your own assumptions and background when trying to understand others. 

While all the categories above are useful seams, never stereotype. 

Most Dutch men are taller than Asian men: this is a generalisation that informative when you’re designing doorways or cars, but not all Dutch men and women are 1.90m tall. 

Some businesses operate in multiple countries so you could be exposed to more differences in your audience. 

Cultural backgrounds influence our communication – take for example, a typical cocktail party question: ‘What do you do?’ Americans tend to respond initially in terms of occupation and then identify the company in which they work. The more collectivistic Japanese would reverse this order. 

Some cultures will err on the side of deferring gratification to achieve long-term success.

Whatever the case, provide more communication rather than assume clarity. Spell out expectations because communication also relates to the degree of emotion and assertiveness. 

Some cultures avoid uncertainty by establishing formal rules and frowning on behaviours and ideas that deviate from the accepted.

People in an individualistic society tend to view themselves in terms of their self-interests and accomplishments; typically, they do not associate with those outside their group. 

People in a collectivist society on the other hand tend to align their personal goals and interests to those of the group or organisation as a whole. 

The US, Belgium and France, for instance are individualistic cultures, whereas Japan, Korea and Taiwan are predominantly collectivist. 

When working in incentive travel one needs to realise that we’re all motivated differently. For example, by achievement, affiliation, or power. 

Your incentive programmes may need levels and options so individuals have alternatives. 

So, first understand the characteristics, qualities and needs of your audience, and then create a programme that will produce the most success within that environment.

Stuart Wood is a news reporter across the Mash Media editorial portfolio. He writes for CMW alongside sister publications Conference News, Exhibition News, Access All Areas and Exhibition World.