The challenge of finding the right partner to help design and implement your incentive programs is that incentive companies provide a service that you can't try before you buy. Since failure is not an option, how do you select the right partner? Here's a guide to the process.

Step 1: Decide What You Need Establish what services you need. Some companies only want help with specialized activities such as promotion and award fulfillment, while retaining design (e.g., rules structure) and administration (measurement, tracking, and reporting). On the other hand, companies with limited resources or incentive expertise may opt to outsource the entire process from incentive design through award delivery.

Step 2: Identify the Candidates The New York-based Society of Incentive and Travel Executives can provide membership lists of incentive service providers. Call them at (212) 575-0910, visit their Web site at www.site-intl.org, or try www.supplierfinder.com, another industry-specific site. Perhaps most important, get referrals from industry contacts.

Step 3: Screen the Candidates Many companies ask a half dozen or more candidates for detailed proposals before they have culled the field. A better approach is to circulate a Request for Information, a brief document that asks about the candidates' abilities. The RFI should focus on credentials, services, processes, and experience. Ask for a revenue breakdown (at least on a percentage basis) of a candidate's business (e.g. incentive travel, merchandise awards, communications). Also request a breakdown of employees by department and position. The answers will tell you what business a company is really in. Other ideas for the RFI:

* Ask if the company is willing to guarantee its service performance. What about the program's results?

* Write a half-page description of your incentive challenge and ask respondents for ideas.

Step 4: Interview the Short List When you buy a service, you buy knowledge, experience, and processes. The cultural compatibility and trust that is critical to a long-term partnership can only be determined face-to-face. A good candidate will also help you be clearer about your requirements. Meet early in the process. You'll save yourself hours in the long run. Some topics for discussion:

* How would you measure Return on Investment?

* How do you keep awards from being institutionalized and perceived as entitlements?

* Would you recommend a fixed or variable budgeting approach?

Step 5: Request for Proposal Once you have a short-list of candidates, invite their proposals. Remember, the quality of the proposals will be a direct result of the information you provide. Your RFP should include specifics on objectives, expectations, audience size, demographics, past programs, and timing. If you have a budget, disclose it. You want to see who can provide the most value for your money, not who is cheapest.

Step 6: The Evaluation In addition to comparing service and price, consider operating processes, technology, and vendor relationships. How a company does things is as important as what it does: Does a single person manage your program from start to finish? Is the company flexible? Does it retain clients and employees?

The best way to understand the intangibles is to visit each company. What you observe will tell you more than anything else. Even so, don't forget to check references.