The Soul of An Incentive Program – Why Debit Cards Don’t Deliver Rewards Impact…

Paul Hebert Compensation/Cash Money, Paul Hebert, Performance, Recognition, Total Rewards

I ended up tripping down memory lane this past week after watching "Across the Universe" – if you’re a Beatles fan – it’s a must see.  While it is hard to improve on the original songs, the soundtrack is great!  The movie traces the activities, of a group of characters, roughly mirroring the time of the Beatles.   

Watching that time line unfold made me think about historical perspectives on my own industry.  The incentive industry started out simple – sell something and get an award – and has grown to include online catalogs, group travel to luxurious and exotic destinations, individual trips designed specifically for a participant, and debit cards that now blur the line between "reward" and compensation. 

But I’ve always felt that over time we lost something.  The programs I see being implemented today seem empty – as if they are missing something. 

I then saw this post on Psyblog and I think I’ve discovered what we’re missing – and it’s the soul of an incentive program. 

Experience is the Soul of a Program

The Psyblog article highlights how people think, remember, and value their purchases of "experiences" versus their purchases of "material" items.  They found that experiential purchases were more often remembered and remembered more fondly.  They believe it is because:

  • Experiences improve with time (possessions don’t) 
  • Experiences are resistant to unfavorable comparisons 
  • Experiences have more social value

While there is a distinct difference between "purchasing" an experience or item versus earning it – many programs treat incentive earnings as if they were cash and even promote "shopping" for awards, so I think you can draw some parallels between this study and incentive activities.

As an example, group travel is by definition an experience, but how often do we remind the participants of the trip?  How many tools do we give them to share that experience, before, during or after the experience?  We need to ensure that those awards have social value – highlight the seemingly impossible things they did on the trip and remind them (for years if necessary) about the award they earned.

Merchandise awards have a different issue – they’ve been outsourced to the lowest fulfillment vendor in order to drive costs down – effectively eliminating the experience of the award by eliminating the follow-up traditionally provided by incentive companies.  But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to ask a person to describe their first Superbowl party with the big-screen they earned to connect the material item to the experience.  Why not convert the "material" to the "experiential?"

And Debit Cards have their own problems.  Without digging into the purchase history on a card (can you say "privacy issues?") how could a company help a participant connect their award to their experience with the card?  In case you’re interested – the majority of purchases on debit cards in award programs are for convenience stores – gasoline – and grocery stores – not really the experience you wanted them to have.

Don’t go soulless – find a way to make ANY award an experience – from start to finish.

Is it any wonder that participants treat incentive points as an entitlement when the sponsor isn’t treating them different either?