Just because the incentive house you've hired has a great track record doesn't mean your arrangement will be a success. The partnership will succeed or fail depending on the communication channels you establish early on. Here are some ways to set the tone:

Define Your Involvement Don't assume the vendor knows how you want to work together. While incentive houses can be flexible, they can't read your mind. You need to define your level of involvement up front. If incentives are a small part of your job, you may need to limit your role to key decisions, such as program rules, promotional copy, and hotel selection. On the other hand, if you are an event manager, you probably want to get involved in everything from menus to room gifts.

Clear direction is also needed for on-site trip operations. Some clients want to be free to entertain guests; others want to be on a "walkie" with the travel staff. Good incentive companies use seasoned professionals whose default mode is to "get the job done and don't bother the client." If this isn't what you want, let your incentive company know.

Plan the Work and Work the Plan To ensure that nothing is overlooked and activity ownership is clear, the incentive house should generate (with your input) a work plan that tracks the milestones of the design, planning, and delivery of the incentive program. A good work plan is a concise summary (one or two pages) of tasks, decisions, deadlines, and approvals--each keyed to a date and responsible party. Work plans are best created in a spreadsheet format that can be easily updated and sorted by task type, date, or responsible party.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate Besides a lack of clear direction, poor communication is the main culprit when incentive house relationships go sour. Here are some tips:

l Don't rely on phone and voice mail. Follow up with e-mail that summarizes key points. Writing has a wonderful way of clarifying meaning.

l Meet face-to-face. E-mail and phone calls are great, but limited. How many times have you learned something critical because of an offhand remark at a meeting? Meet face to face with your incentive house at least three times before the program.

Motivate and Recognize Performance It may seem ironic that an incentive company could need motivation, but it's not an unreasonable idea if you want high performance. Start by treating your suppliers with respect. A sincere "thank you" or "great job" goes a long way. Incentive house partners will jump through hoops if their hearts are in it.

You could also try a performance incentive. One of the more innovative incentives I've seen pays a bonus to the incentive company for exceeding target satisfaction scores. For example, if the target satisfaction score is 8 and the actual score is 9.5, the incentive company would earn a 18.75 percent bonus (by exceeding the target by 18.75 percent).

Conduct a Post-Program Review Continuous improvement requires continuous feedback. The results of one program become the basis for improvements to the next. During the planning phase, agree on goals in three main areas: program results, program processes, and user (management and participant) feedback. Then design measurement tools, such as evaluation forms and satisfaction surveys, to collect this data.

Good partnerships demand patience, understanding, humor, and respect. Your first program together will be a learning experience--but practice does make perfect.