Keeping in touch with a huge worldwide workforce got a whole lot easier when NCR Corp. consolidated its incentive programs and began motivating online.

So you think your travel incentive program is unwieldy? How about being in charge of a program for 32,000 employees around the world? Just thinking about postage could make your head - and your accounting department - reel. When Dayton, Ohio-based NCR Corp. smacked up against the problem, it turned - where else? - to the World Wide Web.

It was a natural progression for the company, which dishes out hardware, software, and transactional and data warehousing solutions to customers around the planet. Says NCR Events Manager Julie Steible, CMP, CMM, "It was time to take the recognition program to the next level."

All for One, One for All NCR began by combining its long-running sales incentive program, Century Point Club, with programs in areas like R&D and consulting. It also merged the U.S. and international components. The result: a companywide, worldwide, Web-based Global Recognition Event.

"It takes everyone to make the company successful," says Steible. "We couldn't do it without our pre-sales, consulting, or R&D people. We wanted to focus on every person in the company." Now all 32,000 NCR employees, known as "associates," can participate in the GRE.

While it does bring a certain sense of unity, the sheer size of the program also made the decision to go online more urgent: The fewer than 3,000 people eligible for CPC pre-consolidation have ballooned to 32,000 for the companywide GRE, with approximately 1,700 winners last year.

Steible, who as the new chairperson of Meeting Professionals International's Information Technology Committee can be considered a bit of a technophile, says that going online was a great way to connect with the huge number of potential winners. "People now have access to information in real time, whenever they need it," she says. "It's far easier and more cost-effective to update a Web site monthly, weekly, or even daily than to mail one four-color marketing piece that's out of date as soon as you print it. We have fewer mistakes because people don't need to rekey information. And we have more timely information, so our rooming lists are cleaner than ever and we have less - or no! - attrition."

Going Postal No More While the decision to go online seems natural, NCR kept the implementation gradual.

"We took baby steps" moving the program online, says Steible. The first toddler shuffle came with the 1998 CPC-only trip, when the U.S. associates could register online. Non-U.S. winners continued to register with their local coordinators, who e-mailed the information to headquarters.

For 1999, when GRE was launched, all information was communicated over the Web, and winners worldwide could register online and receive e-mail confirmation. The site also included pre-trip information, program rules, agenda, NCR policies, and a list of winners. While some thought employees might not make the switch to online registration, their fears were groundless. Only three of last year's winners couldn't register online and had to fax their forms.

Enhancements for 2000 include notification e-mails to each winner (with a link to the GRE registration page), expanded pre-trip information, a FAQ section, and a recap of the previous year's trip to Singapore.

For all its progress, the company's walk on the Web side isn't finished yet. NCR is working on an element that would allow participants to track their progress online. "Our systems don't currently allow us to pull companywide, worldwide sales data," Steible explains. "We're definitely working toward this; however, we're still a few years away."

As one would expect of this employee-centric outfit, the evolution of the GRE Web site depends in large part on employee input. "Each year, they provide feedback on what worked and what didn't, and what else they want to see," says Steible. "We go from there and enhance the site."

People complained, for example, when the site was initially behind the corporate firewall. "Associates couldn't use their home PCs to show their spouse or guest the site," says Steible. "They asked that we move it outside the firewall, which we did."

Logistics, Logistics ... Like so many companies, NCR now does more with less. So outsourcing the development and maintenance of the GRE Web site was really the only option. The logical choice: NCR's relationship marketing partner, Carlson Marketing Group, Minneapolis, Minn. Says Steible, "They assist with marketing communications, the Web site, registration, ticketing, and program implementation." That also includes site selection, contract negotiation, and agenda development. That doesn't mean that Steible isn't still in the thick of things, though: "Bottom line is, nothing goes on the Web without going through me."

In such a relationship, says Kim Streeter, director of planning and operations, CMG, "The client usually manages participant data until the winners are identified and begin to register. Then CMG manages the data. For NCR, Julie is our main contact. She helps us understand the demographics and the timing, and eventually provides us with the winners' lists. Then our creative and travel people bring the solutions forward."

When it's time for winners to register, "Information is keyed in by the participant and immediately fed into the database," says Streeter. "There's no rekeying, there's no lag time, and the integrity of the data is greater. The client can go online and view the program as it develops. And we can manage the program on-site."

The data are also more complete. "We can code parts of the form for mandatory response," says Streeter. If the mandatory fields aren't filled in, the form won't transmit, so there's no need for follow-up.

A key benefit for program participants, says Streeter, is that "we can build the site in stages. As decisions are made, we can add a component, then send an e-mail letting people know we've updated the site."

... and More Logistics As important as CMG is to the site's health and well-being, NCR learned the hard way not to leave out the inside folks. "A big oops! on our part," says Steible of the initial exclusion of NCR's internal IT group. The site initially was programmed under the assumption that all employees used Internet Explorer version 4.0 or higher. But it turned out that many people used Netscape or Internet Explorer 3.0. "We had to do some fast reprogramming so everyone could access the system," says Steible.

"We now have IT people on our team working as `consultants' to make sure we don't make any big mistakes," she adds.

Another challenge has been getting correct e-mail addresses. For every hit, two or three bounced. Says Steible, "This will be a real focus for us this year."

Rolling Out the Site Most marketing experts agree that "if-you-build-it-they-will-come" thinking is a formula for online failure. That's why NCR promotes its Web site online and off.

"In 1998, we still sent our four-color flier with the congratulations message and the pre-trip information," says Steible. "But for U.S. winners, there was a large sticker on the envelope announcing the new Web address. We also put the site's address in the body of the letter and told them how to register online.

"In 1999, we started to market the new GRE Web site heavily," she says. "We communicated through NCR's intranet home page and the Employee Resources section of our intranet, and in the NCR online newsletter."

In years past, it was up to the NCR associates to check the site for new information. This year, "There will be three or four major rollouts of the site," says Steible. "For each rollout, associates will receive an e-mail with a marketing message and a link to the site."

But Does It Motivate? This is a critical question. Regardless of how great the reward might be, it can still be a challenge to keep participants pumped throughout a program, especially one that runs for a full year. A time-honored re-motivator is to do a mailing to the participant's home, which gets the family equally pumped when they see a mailer that contains something cutesy, like beach sand or seashells. But NCR doesn't do much with cutesy. With 32,000 employees around the world, says Steible, "That is a huge mailing expense!"

CMG's Streeter concurs. "We still do some teaser mailings, but we don't have to do many," she says. "We can use e-mail flashes - motion and sound on the Web can be enticing and exciting. And for an international audience, that eliminates mailing complexities and challenges."

Motivators can also be built into the site. The page for last spring's destination, Paradise Island, included a link to information on Blackbeard the Pirate, who sailed the Caribbean in the 17th century.

The Bottom Line Managing GRE online benefits the managers who administer the four program components worldwide. "The program managers for each business unit need to know when individuals are arriving if, for example, they're going to videotape them. We have tools that enable them to pull information themselves, and the information is fresh that day," says Steible.

But faster and better does not necessarily translate into cheaper. When asked if she can estimate how much money NCR might be saving by managing GRE online, Steible shoots back, "Haven't even tried!" True, printing and mailing costs are down, but "the dollars spent in this area have simply been shifted into Web development and other electronic means of communicating."

But cost wasn't the primary concern, anyway. "The shift is 1 percent a cost issue and 99 percent communication," she says. "The ability to communicate to 32,000 associates around the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week - and, most importantly, for them to receive the message when they have the time - is the real driver." Besides, she says, "It is becoming the normal way to conduct business."

Candidates have one calendar year to qualify for the Global Recognition Event. Winners get a trip to a resort destination. In spring 2000, it was the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. In 2001, winners will travel to Dubai.

NCR associates earn the trip by qualifying in one of these categories:

- CPC: The 100-year-old-plus sales recognition program, Century Point Club, is named for the original requirement that winners earn 100 points.

- R&D: This category is for people who bring technological innovations to NCR. While winners usually hail from R&D, all associates are eligible.

- Consulting Excellence: This category encompasses people responsible for presale, postsale, and other consulting functions.

- Great Performance: This is the category for associates who go above and beyond but who aren't eligible for CPC or Consulting Excellence.

In CPC, winners are those who make quota. In the other categories, the winners are selected by review committees.

There's also a Chairman's Award add-on trip, for the "best of the best." Within sales, the award goes to the top performers, based on quota, in each business unit. In the other three categories, the top performers are determined by the review committees.

And winners abound. For the Bahamas trip, there were 1,700 winners; 1,500 attended, along with 1,100 spouses/guests.

The Web is the way to go, say two incentive house executives who have been traveling that road for several years. "We've designed Web sites for about 50 programs," says Bill Boyd, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation & Travel Inc., Dallas. Such sites have come a long way in a short time. A program that earned USMotivation a SITE award in 1996 "was cutting edge then, but now it looks like kindergarten," says Mike Hadlow, president and CEO of the Atlanta-based company. Online incentive program management offers enormous benefits, say Boyd and Hadlow. But there are still lots of potholes on that highway.

The Pluses - Database management. "A planner can go into our database and see immediately who has signed up for what," says Boyd.

- Richer content. You can add links to other information sources, such as details about a destination, "without a lot of effort," says Hadlow. Or there could be success stories, tips from the field, online training, even a short movie with a message from the CEO.

- Increased productivity. Boyd's staff used to handle endless phone calls with questions about clothing, weather, tours. "The Web now manages all of that," says Boyd.

The Pitfalls - Don't view the Web as a replacement. "It's an enhancement," says Hadlow. "You still need to capture people's imagination."

- Don't overlook off-line promotion. "A critical component is to excite not only the qualifier but also the spouse or significant other," says Boyd. And that means "3-D mailers" to the home. For example, macadamia nuts and Kona coffee for a trip to Hawaii.

- Don't assume you can simply transfer a print promotion online. "Behavior changes online," Hadlow notes. "People don't read a screen the same way they read a printed piece."

- Don't focus on cost savings. "That's the wrong objective," says Hadlow. Printing and mailing costs probably go down, but programming and Web design time are probably more expensive.

But Boyd points to one area of clear-cut savings. "You can now take one laptop on the road to manage a program. The notebooks we used to need ran up excess baggage charges."