Effective Employee Incentive Programs: Bring Out the Best in Your Firm

By Lisa A. Rozycki, Marketing Director, Reinsel & Company LLP

In a firm-wide marketing survey, employees were asked what would motivate them to market the firm’s services. Not surprisingly, the top two answers were "incentive compensation" and "recognition" for their efforts.

Like many CPA firms across the country, we’ve had the standard commission structure on new business and cross-selling services to existing clients for a number of years. Three years ago, the paper forms that needed to be filled out for compensation almost never left the shelf. Having been at Reinsel & Company LLP (11 partners, 75 total staff) for a year and a half as Marketing Director, I questioned why people weren’t participating and quickly came up with the answers. Cash isn’t always king, paper shuffling isn’t in vogue anymore, and people need to know that their marketing efforts are recognized and appreciated by top level members of the firm.

Today, our firm has an incentive program that consistently has nearly 85% participation, and was awarded the AICPA’s Innovative User in Technology Award for Public Practices in 1999, and the 1999 AAM Marketing Achievement Award for Incentive Programs. Our staff is more effective at business development resulting in a good return on investment, and our marketing culture is strong.

Why is our incentive program successful? It has all of the components of a winning incentive program and allows our firm’s professionals to become part of the development process. I would like to share with you what I think makes a successful incentive program.

The overall objective of Reinsel & Company’s annual Business Development Program is to build a strong marketing culture in our firm by involving personnel in marketing activities, especially lower level staff, and then recognizing and rewarding them for their efforts. Incorporating marketing as part of expectations early in one’s career can make the individual that much stronger in business development by the time they reach the supervisor and manager level when those skills become essential.

All participating employees of our firm work toward three different levels of point goals by conducting any of over forty identified marketing activities. The individual is immediately rewarded with prizes once a point goal level is reached. The worth of the prize increases as the second and third levels are reached. The point goal levels are more difficult the higher the individual’s position in the chain of command. For example, a staff accountant’s first goal level may be 25 points, while a manager’s is 80 points. A variety of awards, ranging from gift certificates at local malls to spa packages, are offered for reaching one’s goals.

A Business Development Taskforce was established with a representative from every staff level. Involving every staff level was key to understanding the make-up of our firm’s professionals and what incentives would motivate them to reach an established marketing goal. The Taskforce members’ input on what those marketing goals should be was extremely important. Expectations of participants need to be realistic and achievable in order to lend credibility to the program. Also, your staff may place a different value on an incentive than you, as marketing director, expect. Find out what they value, and your firm will literally profit from it.

Technology plays a key role in how our incentive program works, hence the technology award from the AICPA. All of the marketing activities are entered into a database from the employee’s desktop, making it simple and convenient for them to participate. An added feature of the program enables our employees to apply for their commission on-line so we eliminated the paper shuffling. Employees can run individual reports, review their point totals at any time, and enter their marketing activities whenever they wish. Given direction on the features and functionality we wanted our program to have, some of the members of our Business Development Taskforce created this program from scratch using Microsoft Access™.

The most important aspect of this incentive program is that it is fun and exciting. The kickoff of any incentive program is an important step. The goal should be to create excitement for the program and to make sure that everyone clearly understands the objectives. Each year, a new theme is introduced and carried out throughout our program year. Examples include the Olympics, Space and Baseball. Before each year’s kick-off, we run articles about the program in our internal newsletter. Initially, we presented the program to small groups of staff outlining the program’s objectives and how it would be administered. Now we incorporate it into new staff orientation.

During our baseball theme kick-off this year, staff walked around with vendor boxes that we borrowed from the Reading Phillies, the farm team owned by the Philadelphia Phillies. Bags of peanuts, Cracker Jacks and baseball shaped stress balls were thrown to the crowd. Hot dogs and hamburgers were a part of the luncheon menu. The three goal levels are Major Leaguer, MVP and All Star.

One of the most important aspects of the program is the recognition individuals receive for reaching their goals. Certificates of achievement are handed out to each participant who succeeds at attaining a goal level. Our managing partner personally delivers the certificates and many employees display them in their offices. Toward the end of a program year, the remainder of the certificates is presented at a special ceremony.

Other marketing directors from across the country have held similar programs. Eileen Monesson, Director of Marketing of the Ocean, N.J. office (7 partners, 46 total staff) of J.H. Cohn LLP created a football-themed Team Incentive Program (TIP) last year called “Kick-off to Success.” Monesson’s incentive program has all of the key ingredients for success. She has set clearly defined, attainable goals, has created excitement for the program through the theme and kick-off for the event, and recognizes and rewards all staff levels including administrative personnel.

The program takes a team approach to new business development in that the office’s staff is divided into 7 teams, each including one partner, one administrative person, and four other team members from various staff levels. Each team, headed by a “coach”, is named after an NFL football team and works to “gain yards” as a group towards their goal. An Activity Guide lists the new business development activities that a team member can participate in, as well as the yards gained for each activity. A scorecard is kept by each team and is submitted at the end of each month. At the end of a season, the teams are ranked by average yards gained by the team members. The first place team receives $300 per team member. Individual rewards include gift certificates and plaques handed out at a special event.

Monesson says that to date the results have been good. This past “season” ran from September 2000 to January 2001 and over 80% of the employees participated. Results show a sizable increase in new business during that period. “People are more conscious where marketing is concerned. Our marketing culture definitely has changed as a result of it,” she says. “Before the program, I would have to beg them to send a gift to a client or referral source for new business. Now they want to do it because they realize the value in it.”

The end of the program year is only the beginning. A critical evaluation of the results can provide valuable information for creating a more effective program in the future. For Monesson, that means tweaking the program a little bit and adjusting some of the yard totals for individuals to make them more realistic. Otherwise, she has the start of a solid program that she will start again after tax season with a baseball theme.

Julia Johnson of Grannis, Whisenant & Associates (3 partners, 25 total staff) in Nashville, Tennessee, thinks a little bit of friendly competition can make an incentive program take off. “I think a lot of it is friendly competition between the management and staff,” says Johnson. “It is more in the forefront of their minds when they think about marketing. I have had a couple of people who went from absolutely putting in no effort, to winning the top prize for bringing in new business. When you talk about starting this eight years ago, it was very hard to get anyone to do any marketing. We’ve come a long way.”

Johnson’s program sprang from listening to another AAM member talk about his program in 1994 at an AAM conference. She assigns points to marketing activities that are entered into the firm’s time and billing system under Client Development. Points are also awarded each month for new clients generated. The top point earner among management and staff earns a prize. Monthly rewards include gift certificates and movie passes. Participants also share in a bonus pool at the end of the program year based on the number of participants. One third of the money is distributed based on “efforts” and two thirds on “results”. The money is divided based on percentage of total points earned.

Marketing directors searching for new ways to bring out the best in their firm’s employees can take a lesson from these three incentive programs. Having clearly defined and attainable goals, making the program and prizes fun and exciting, and informing employees of their progress and the program’s objectives are some of they key elements to a good incentive program. The concrete results you achieve can range from a stronger marketing culture to new clients knocking at your firm’s door.

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