No Pit of Disparity

By Malcolm Fleschner

A well-run sales-incentive program should purr along like a high-performance sports car. Unfortunately, just like Ferraris, incentive programs tend to break down a lot. According to Doug Press, president of The Incentive Group, a White Plains, New York-based consulting firm, one way many inexperienced program designers undermine their own efforts is by neglecting to consider fairness as a key sales-incentive motivator. “The biggest flaw comes in the improper structure of a campaign,” he says. “Your company only has a few minutes to grab reps’ attention with the program announcement. Either they think, ‘this is the program for me; I can definitely get there from here’ or you lose them completely and it goes in the trash. The key ingredient is not that it’s the most exciting trip or the absolute top-of-the-line digital camera – it’s that the program offers attainable, realistic goals and that it’s fair to all the participants.”

With an eye to a prospective program’s fairness, Press says he always opens conversations with customers by asking how much effort is going to be required of the different participants. “I want to know about the sacrifice you’re asking each individual to make,” he says, “as well as the distribution of that effort across individuals to understand any potential disparity. If there is a disparity – say one person gives 98 percent to another person’s 2 percent – and both people are in line for the same reward, the harder worker is going to feel shortchanged and won’t buy in from the start.”

While reconciling such disparities may have been the source of many managerial headaches in the past, Press says the modern-day incentive world offers an ideal solution: the point system. “A system that allows you to accumulate points against your effort and energy expended during the contest period,” he says, “the person earning $10,000 to my $1,000 could work, for example, toward the BMW motorcycle while I’m chasing the foldaway bicycle.”

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