There’s nothing like a fresh set of eyes to prompt questions about the traditional way of doing things. So when Pete Adkins joined Transamerica’s Agency Group as president in April 2008, he had some questions about the reward and recognition programs targeted at one of the division’s sales channels, Life Investors Financial Group. First, there were 14 different programs. That seemed like a lot when Adkins considered his experience at other companies. He wanted to know: Were those programs delivering a big enough bang for the buck?

Shawn Davis, vice president, marketing, was on the receiving end of the question. His first thought: Of course they were. “As a salesperson you think you know what motivates salespeople,” Davis says. Besides, he’d grown up in the business. He’d seen his dad work hard to earn trips and rewards. But Adkins was looking for hard data and insight, so he proposed hiring meetings and incentives company Maritz Travel to assess the current programs. “Some of us were not sure about a third party coming in,” Davis recounts. But he went into the project with an open mind and came out a believer.

After meeting with all stakeholders, Maritz designed an online survey to measure participants’ level of engagement with the 14 reward programs. These included group travel, award galas, bonuses, merchandise, logoed items, and more. “We did every type of reward and recognition you can think of,” Davis says. And then there was the “sales idea of the month, where we’d throw another sales incentive out there.” But the study showed that fewer than half of respondents found any of the programs motivating. One program was so complicated that most people didn’t understand how to participate. “It was rather enlightening,” Davis deadpans. “When we got the results, we immediately took them to our field advisory board.” Some longtime board members said they already knew what motivated their people. But the numbers told a compelling story—and took emotion out of the discussion. The message from Davis was, “We are trying to improve this for you, your agents, your clients, and the company. We want to help everyone.”

Deep Dive
Sent to the 800-plus sales reps who actively produce with Life Investors Financial Group, the survey garnered an impressive 30 percent response rate. Agents were asked about the 14 existing programs plus four others that had worked well for other Maritz clients. One of those turned up in the Transamerica respondents’ top-five choices—a program where participants earn points to spend on merchandise, travel, or other awards. Transamerica is now building such a program “to move the middle,” says Davis—that is, to motivate the middle-producing (and largest) segment of the agent population.

A type of statistical analysis referred to by its acronym TURF (total unduplicated reach and frequency) was used to make judgments on which programs would stay and which had to go. “TURF shows you what is most appealing and what is least appealing,” explains Chris Gaia, vice president, marketing, for Maritz. For Transamerica, group incentive travel is most preferred, with 42 percent of respondents putting it at the top. “Then you take out those 42 percent and find out, for the people who are left, what is the next highest. You can create a strategy by adjusting so that a majority of respondents names one of your programs as their No. 1 or No. 2 choice. That allows you to optimize your spend by offering as few programs as possible to reach the highest number of people.”

Data to Action
For Transamerica, it meant cutting lots of programs. “Transamerica was able to take the same amount of money and do six programs that meet the needs of 95 percent of participants, versus 14 programs that didn’t meet the needs of even half,” says Gaia. “It’s stunning.”

Davis emphasizes that the project was not a cost-cutting measure. “We were able to redirect the dollars to programs that offer more potential for lift and value,” he says. For example, Transamerica previously held a regional family incentive trip. Family travel was highly rated by some respondents, but Transamerica wanted to allocate more budget to its most highly rated program, the group trip, as well as add an educational component to that experience. The solution was to shift the regional trips to the branch level—a move that helped branches offer more value, and enhanced the annual trip. One of those enhancements: Transamerica books only all-inclusive resorts now, the type of property respondents prefer. “They worked so hard to earn this escape,” Davis says, “then they’d check out and receive a large bill” for ancillary spending. The trip’s tremendous high was replaced by negative feelings at departure.

The New Mix
The group trip, family trips, and points program are three rewards in Transamerica’s new mix. The others are agent association memberships paid by the company, experiential rewards (such as Ryder Cup tickets), and the “run through the warehouse” 60-second shopping spree.

Association membership especially appealed to top producers with 15+ years of experience. Says Davis, “Not only did we learn what truly motivates our agents, we retooled our training strategy. This year, Transamerica offered programs with the American College and GAMA in order to raise participation in industry education and allow our field force to receive certified designations. This allows our agents to help more [clients] and builds their confidence on more advanced cases.”

Big Results
Not all of the programs are in place, but results already are evident: A higher number of first-time attendees joined the group incentive trip in 2011, and the trend is continuing for 2012—a good indicator of increased engagement overall. “By increasing first-time attendees and participants in total, we know that we are expanding our distribution footprint,” says Davis. And sales growth is the ultimate measurement of ROI from the reward mix, he adds, “especially when you keep expenses level.”

What Will Move Your People?

Maritz Travel just patented its Meetings Effectiveness tool, which helps companies design individual incentive conferences that participants find engaging, and create overall reward and recognition strategies that move participants to act. While it is survey-based, it’s much richer than a standard survey. “We are looking to understand how people will make decisions on whether to engage with you or not,” Gaia explains. “Someone might say, ‘I want to go on an African safari. But if it means I have to sell 16 times more, well, maybe I don’t want to go.’ We are connecting what people desire to what you want them to do.”

Beyond the effort required to earn a travel reward, participants weigh the guest policy, content, who else will be there, location, duration, and more. “You can’t just ask about these as linear questions. You have to know how your participants are ‘trading them off’ against each other. A conjoint study shows you the most valuable program options, from the participant’s view, of the overall experience, so you can invest in those trip attributes that deliver the best return.”