Principles of an Effective Reward and Recognition Program

Principles of an Effective Reward and Recognition Program

/ People, Recognition, People management
Principles of an Effective Reward and Recognition Program

Best practices for maximizing program benefits for your employees and the business.

I first encountered the concept of “reward and recognition” in my first contact center role with Brisbane City Council back in 1996. Prior to this, I’d escaped unscathed from any notion that the critical elements of productivity, staff engagement, customer satisfaction, increased organizational performance and much more could be so heavily influenced and rolled up into the powerful concept of “having fun” in the workplace!

With a focus on delivering the optimal customer experience via the heady combination of people and technology, the contact center is perfectly placed to take advantage of both formal and informal recognition of frontline staff’s behavior in the delivery of excellent customer service. Add to this the contact center’s unprecedented ability to accurately measure and report against such a comprehensive range of metrics, and it becomes apparent why reward and recognition programs are such a commonplace feature across the globe.

There’s even a physiological benefit for agents in regard to effective and meaningful recognition programs. The well-known substance oxytocin (also known as the “feel-good hormone”) is created by the body when we feel loved or appreciated. Even a friendly, warm handshake can trigger increased levels in the brain. (This may explain why politicians do so much hand-shaking and baby kissing!) Recent research has demonstrated that people who experience increased levels of oxytocin also perform better at work and are more trustworthy.

I stress the word “meaningful” in relation to recognition, however. Any hint of insincerity or fake acknowledgement would undoubtedly fail to generate the desired effect. (This probably takes politicians back to square one in the hand-shaking stakes!)

Research published last year (“The Science of Happiness,” Globoforce, 2014) found that 78% of employees reported they would work harder if they were better recognized and appreciated, with 67% stating that praise and motivation from managers was their top motivator for performance.

The wealth of available academic and other research supporting the value of both formal and informal reward and recognition for employees leaves little doubt about its effectiveness. The secret, however, is ensuring that the design process and implementation maximizes the potential benefits for both employees and the business.

While the majority of the many contact centers I’ve visited over the years have had some kind of reward and recognition program in place, they haven’t always appeared to be reaching their full potential. Often, some of the simple, but critical underlying best-practice principles required for an effective program were missed. I’ve found the following key elements to be of particular importance in generating the best outcomes:

  • Focus on strategy and building a dazzling business plan
  • Understand that recognition is more important than reward
  • Keep it simple and keep it local
  • Include an “On-The-Spot!” element
  • Get staff involved from day one
  • Create an organizationwide foundation
  • Have fun!

Focus on Strategy and Building a Brilliant Business Plan

Like any important project or initiative, time spent planning and crystallizing outcomes is the first critical step. Spending time thoughtfully identifying the areas of your operation that need to improve—whether that be staff attrition and retention, customer service metrics, sales or Net Promoter Scores—will pay big dividends and help guide the design of an effective program. Running two or three different programs simultaneously targeting different outcomes can be very effective in addressing a range of improvements.

But don’t stop there! Take the next step of calculating the cost of these deficiencies and then develop a business case that details where savings and improvements could be made with a more engaged and focused team.

I’ve often found that a critical part of my role as contact center manager, regardless of the organization, has been the education of executive management in the dark arts and complexities of contact center metrics and operations. The process of developing a compelling business case for reward and recognition provides a great opportunity to involve, educate and coach a sponsor from the executive-level team in the basics of contact center management. This may hopefully also provide an executive “champion” to help advocate and promote the program across the wider organization.

Recognition Is More Important Than Reward

I’ve always found that recognition is much more important than the reward part of the equation. I’ve heard the argument that, “We can’t afford a reward and recognition program.” However, I maintain that the demonstrated benefits of increased performance, highly engaged staff, reduced attrition and, ultimately, significantly reduced costs means you can’t afford not to have a reward and recognition program. This is great news for those many smaller centers that may have limited budgets, since some of the better and more creative programs I’ve observed are run at almost no cost.

The focus on recognition above rewards also bodes well for government centers, where I’ve often noticed sensitivity to media accusations regarding a perceived misuse of public funds. Sadly, this gross misunderstanding of the value and potential ROI of reward and recognition persists in many government organizations.

While managing a government center, I once (outrageously!) proposed that a line item be included for a very modest amount in my contact center budget for reward and recognition. The financial controller (whose surname ironically was “Cash”… yes, really!) was completely bemused and kind of slumped back in his chair saying, “Well that’s a novel idea!” He was eventually persuaded to see the light, but couldn’t bring himself to include the words “reward and recognition” against the line item. Instead, it became, “sundries.” I took that as a win! We went on to apply our very modest budget wisely using balloons and streamers to decorate the desks of monthly winners, a couple of movie tickets here and there, and opportunities for early finishes on quieter days.

Keep it Simple and Keep it Local

Keeping it simple (and local) is a second concept that I’ve found provides very positive outcomes. Complicated programs that are far removed from the agents themselves, regardless of the value of the reward, often fail to be effective in driving the required behaviors.

A large multisite insurance company with several thousand employees used an annual awards ceremony as their only rewards and recognition program. A complicated process of points for various criteria was used to select a relatively few number of winners from several thousand agents. The rewards included $2,000 travel vouchers, iPads and personal DVD players.

On the lavish gala awards night, I congratulated one of the winners and asked what they’d done to be awarded one of these big prizes. Their response, “Actually, I have no idea!” was perhaps not a surprise. If the purpose of an employee reward and recognition program is to recognize and reward work and behaviors that support and further the mission, goals and values of the organization, the program had undoubtedly failed.

The remoteness and complexity of the process meant it was not clearly understood by employees and I suggest the significant cost and effort invested in administering the program could have been applied to drive much better outcomes.

Get Staff Involved from Day One

Involving a diverse group of staff in the early stages of the program design process is important, i.e., establishing an “R&R” committee to gather input from peers provides both an outlet for their creativity and ensures buy-in to the program.

Get them to run a competition to come up with a name for the program that resonates and reflects the character of your organization. Publish the names of the committee via posters in the lunchroom or on the staff website, encourage staff to share their ideas with team members and “talk it up” at team meetings.

Placing a management representative on the committee to help guide the process is important to ensure that business outcomes described in the original strategy document are also being met. (Recognition for “Best Dressed Agent of the Week” may be great fun, but probably doesn’t contribute significantly to performance targets or customer satisfaction!)


The immediacy of recognizing great performance or effort is important. Informal and accessible “On the Spot” rewards can take place every day, all year-round, and are an incredibly effective way to drive the right behaviors. I once implemented a “Dob-in-a-Do-Gooder” peer recognition program at a large Australian government contact center to great effect. (Just to translate this quaint Aussie colloquialism into American-English, to “Dob somebody in” is literally to inform against them… It just sounds a lot less sinister!) The context here was obviously not of a criminal nature, but rather to allow frontline agents to catch a colleague “doing the right thing.” Small perforated cards were issued by the “Dobber” to the “Dobbee” with a brief but specific explanation of the observed behavior. The most important aspects of this process were not the movie ticket prizes that were offered, but rather its immediacy, simplicity and specificity.

Create an Organizationwide Foundation

“What are you crazy contact center people up to now?” is a question I’ve often been asked by colleagues from other departments. Regardless of what outcomes you’re seeking from your reward and recognition programs, there are potentially significant benefits in looking outside of the contact center itself and generating genuine interest in your goals by creating at least one award or recognition opportunity for other parts of the business.

At Toowoomba Regional Council, an Australian local government organization, I had responsibility for establishing a new customer service branch which was to act as a catalyst for change and drive consistency in processes and service delivery across the organization.

It was no accident that the first reward and recognition program—“CS Bravo!”—was initiated by the customer service branch to recognize and reward great service provided by staff in other parts of the organization.

The aforementioned “Dob in a Do-Gooder” principle was used to great effect to recognize and encourage staff from other departments who went the extra mile in supporting contact center staff. Agents recorded the details of the interaction on a card (including the tear-off stub). The card was then sent to the colleague via internal mail and the stub placed in a draw for a monthly prize. Each month a photo of the winner receiving their reward was published on the internal website. It caused quite a stir!

Above All, Have Fun!

Reward and recognition programs have long been a part of contact center culture and frequently provide that sparkle (and even a little dash of weirdness!) which helps to balance the often challenging and difficult job faced each and every day by frontline agents. So don’t be afraid to unleash creativity, humor and the “inner child” of both staff and management to generate a reward and recognition program that really makes a difference!

Malcolm Angell

Malcolm Angell is a Contact Center Consultant at Interactive Intelligence with over 18 years of experience within the Australian Contact Centre industry working within the private sector and across all tiers of government. His career experience has included the design, implementation, operations and management of contact centers in both service and sales environments. 

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