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December 01, 2016

Working Smart

Does Your Incentive Program Need an Extreme Makeover?

by Dave Minnelli


Click here to order the December 2016 issue in which this article appeared or click here to download it to your mobile device.


If you are like me, you may have a soft spot in your heart for the show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a heartwarming show that aired from 2003 to 2012. The premise: A family that suffered a devastating hardship or showed astounding heroics was surprised with a total rebuild of their home—completely shifting it from one in disrepair to a luxurious, yet incredibly personalized, family-centric home in a matter of a week.

Now remember, what was the most pivotal moment of the show… the emotional climax?

Move That Bus!

The family returns from their unplanned and unexpected weeklong vacation with a large bus blocking the view of their new home. The community is gathered all around, cheering. Excitement continues to build. And just when you can’t take it anymore, host Ty Pennington yells “Bus driver, Move That Bus!” Now this is the point where you need your tissues at the ready, as the family screams in delight, cries or faints when they see the transformation of their home. 

Everything is perfectly curated for each family member and the family as a whole. Little Abby runs into her mermaid room, looking like an underwater playground. Teenage Tanner struts into his extreme mountain activity room, replete with snowboard equipment, a zipline and a mountain bike. Mom, Jamie, is thrilled with her backyard Zen garden, looking forward to enjoying the peace and quiet of a calm, fall evening. And the game room is perfect for the whole family to gather and have fun together. At the end of the show, you’ve had your good cry and feel great about the world. 

So what does this have anything to do with your incentive program?

Can I Get That “Move That Bus!” Feeling from My Salesforce?

Sure you can! But first, you have to know who they are and what gets them excited. 

Let’s go back to Extreme Makeover. Would Ty and team know that little Abby loved mermaids if they didn’t talk to and observe her first? Before the family left on their fun-filled vacation, the designers interviewed the family. They got to know each one as individuals—their likes, dislikes, hopes and dreams. They didn’t stop there. Once the family was gone, they talked to the community, friends, neighbors, schoolmates, co-workers. They gathered critical data points in order to optimize their design. Then they executed that design—flawlessly.

Now wait, you ask. They are dealing with a family of five. I have a salesforce of 50,000. I can’t just interview and observe everyone. 

As a sales executive, you are investing multimillions of dollars and lots of people’s time to develop an incentive program that helps you reach your goals and corporate objectives. However, you need to achieve these goals through other people—your distributors. For your program to generate superior results, your participants must get what they want in the context of your business. Are you asking your participants what they want and will work hard to achieve? Or are you designing a program that reflects what you (or your senior leaders) want? If the latter, you could be wasting your investment.

This is where big data comes in.

How Big Data Can Help

You are likely sitting on transactional data… a lot of it. Data that is seemingly unconnected. However, that data should be leveraged to connect the dots at the distributor level across all touch points. Look at the sales activity, sales transactions, CRM information, incentive program engagement, etc. This is the behavioral data that you are typically collecting in your systems. However, you also may have unstructured data, like survey verbatims and social media data (Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) that can uncover patterns in attitudes and emotions. Machine learning algorithms and predictive tools are becoming so robust that what seemed impossible a few years back—gathering actionable insights from all of these sources—is now very doable in short order. Leveraging these tools to make better design decisions that drive your results is the goal. 

Applying these new tools to distributor behavior is your next step. Here’s an example. Typical incentive programs reward and recognize the top-performing distributors. They have high sales volume and nine times out of 10 are repeat winners. However, do you know what are the common traits and behavioral patterns of a top performer? Who in the rest of the distributor population has similar traits? 

Once you’ve identified these budding stars, you can design interventions that may nurture and grow their potential to “move the middle.” You likely want to communicate differently, in a more personalized way. Perhaps they have dedicated opportunities for coaching and mentoring. Even one-on-one time with senior leaders could make a difference. Or an incentive to motivate specific behavior change. 

Use People Principles to Design “Move That Bus!” Experiences

The science of human behavior can come together with the art of great design to create program experiences that not only enrich the lives of the people who participate in them but also make businesses better. Good design is built not only on data insights, but also on core people principles, which serve as a foundation for understanding human behavior:

  • People are rational and emotional.
  • People are driven by multiple motivators.
  • People are individual and social.

When you are designing your program, consider some of these design elements (to name a few) steeped in people principles:

  • Perspective-Taking: Put yourself into the shoes of your participants using empathy and insights to identify what they need and want from the experience.
  • Novelty: Introduce elements of surprise and delight to capture attention and create memories.
  • Autonomy: Give people a distinct set of attractive goal-setting options from which to choose.
  • Progress Feedback: Provide feedback throughout the process, shifting from the starting to ending point so your participants don’t get stuck in the middle.
  • Status: Use status as a reward, both competition- and collaboration-based.

At one client, we identified that their sales incentive program was stagnating. Sales were flat or down across the majority of the field. Interviews with distributors identified a motivation problem; there was a significant gap between the time of sales and the receipt of the reward. The program wasn’t motivating and needed to change, fast.

Within three weeks, we helped the client design and launch a Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory-themed sales competition, using principles of scarcity, novelty, social proof and emotional contagion. A few days prior to the competition, a selection of merchandise was presented to the distributors without much explanation, generating excitement and anticipation. During the competition, sellers who reached their goal would get a customized chocolate bar that could be their “Golden Ticket” to a prize. Some candy bars were the reward itself—no ticket inside—but some, like the contest in the Willy Wonka movie, had Golden Tickets. Tickets were awarded with a monetary value and could be immediately exchanged for a merchandise item offered, driving both quick gratification and a mental tie-back of the reward to the behavior exhibited. For maximum impact, this campaign was followed up by more frequent planned and unexpected competitions, including “surprise and delight” e-gift cards and personalized high-quality headphones as rewards.

The outcome of this program is easily summed up by the Director of Sales Operations. “This was the most successful sales incentive in over five years.”

Everyone came out a winner for this program. Program participants had immediate satisfaction for achieving a clearly set goal. Two of the four regions broke their all-time sales records. The overall results was an 80 percent lift during the contest compared to pre-campaign.

A Win for Everyone

Take a proactive approach to program design. Unleash the power of your data, and your people, by looking through the lens of behavior. You can unlock distinct participant behaviors, attitudes and perceptions, as well as unmet participant needs and wants by analyzing transactional, survey, social media and ethnographic research data.

So the moral of the story: Just like Ty Pennington is the hero of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, so can you be the hero of your organization. To your distributors, you’ve created a program that generates excitement, positive emotion and motivation. To your boss, you’ve created a program that generates remarkable results—growth, loyalty and ROI. 

Now, go out there and “Move That Bus!”


Dave Minnelli is Senior Director, Decision Sciences for Maritz Motivation Solutions, within the family of Maritz Holdings, a sales and marketing company that designs and operates programs for recognition and rewards, incentives and customer loyalty.