How to reward top performers in tight times

Marketing Intelligence / Joanna L. Krotz

There's a line that bosses deliver when they deny awards to the company's top-grossing salesperson, sunniest customer rep or canniest IT manager.

It goes like this: "You wouldn't want me to make you a special case, would you?" The major talent is expected to shake his head understandingly, square his shoulders and go back to doing everything he does better than anyone else can or will because . . . well, because he dares not push it. But the smart answer to that question is: "Yes, absolutely. Make me a special case." These days, sluggish sales and lackluster profits are requiring many skilled workers to do more and more for a whole lot less. Yes, the unemployment rate has edged up to about 5.7% and, yes, there is a good deal of talent now available. But no one can afford to lose top producers. Just think of the recruiting and training dollars, not to mention lost time and business.

How can business owners motivate and reward valued employees when there are fewer cookies in the jar? Let me count the ways.

1. Money isn't everything; praise counts too. Cash compensation rocks - but not as much as you may think. For instance, a recent survey of office workers nationwide, conducted by Xerox and Harris Interactive, found that employees rated more money and more recognition as almost equal motivators.

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Typically, talented employees who run extra miles are not thinking about paychecks. Yet over and over you hear stories of the chief exec brushing right by the managers and employees who make him or her look good - without saying a word. Never underestimate the power of individual recognition and direct praise.

2. Up the ante in terms of challenging work. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, assigning more high-quality and demanding work galvanizes peak producers.

"By offering them more challenging assignments, you are letting employees know that you appreciate what they are doing and that you trust them to handle more responsibility," says Rachelle Disbennett-Lee, a Denver business coach. "And it provides training and experience that positions the employee for a promotion when everything shifts back to high gear."

3. Little treats go over big. At Career Professionals in Minneapolis, a recruiter that specializes in placing recent college grads, co-founder Colleen Watson notes that business has really slowed for her 10 commissioned reps and two salaried employees.

When times were flush a few years back, Watson and her partner awarded the staff morale events such as boat rides, picnic lunches and a weekend trip to Chicago. Nowadays, she says, "We give things that don't cost very much, like lottery tickets or movie tickets." And that is bolstering the team. "Instead of Me First, the staff is We First," she says.

4. Help them grow. Investing in an employee's career development produces a return of hard work and appreciation. If you care about the staffer's satisfaction and growth, he or she will likewise care about yours.

"Even people operating at the top of their game can benefit from increased developmental opportunities through training and personal mentoring," says sales trainer Dave Anderson, author of "Selling Above the Crowd."

5. Instill faith. Motivation depends on providing straight answers to three questions about a difficult job, new assignment or staff project, suggests Paul Johnson, an Atlanta-based sales and marketing consultant.

• What's the plan? "Without a plan there's no way to believe this will work," Johnson says.

• Where are the tools? "If we have a plan, we need to believe it will actually happen."

• How do we use the tools? "You need training to use the tools within the context of the plan."

6. Give a gift of time. A half-day or a long weekend off means a lot to today's time-pressed families. On the eve of holidays, early getaways are especially welcome.

If, on the other hand, your staff has been trimmed along with your business, you can at least offer the option of telecommuting or flexible hours. Let staffers choose to come in early or leave later.

7. Be more responsive. If you solicit ideas from employees on teamwork or, say, how to develop new business, follow through. Use the ideas - at the very least, acknowledge them and discuss them.

"Don't make the mistake of asking for feedback and then shelving it," advises Tory Parks, director of sales and marketing for Del Lago Resort near Houston. "Show your sales team that their ideas make a difference."

8. Target incentives. Customize bonuses or commissions to exactly the kind of sales you need now, and the money might be well worth it. For example, offer a commission only for new business or only when a salesperson achieves new sources of revenue from old customers. "Tie salary commissions to new product lines that are important to sell," says sales consultant Jay Bauer in Pleasanton, Calif. "Give a corresponding bonus for the development of these product lines, especially if they must develop a new customer base in order to make the process profitable to the company."

9. Leverage expertise. Tap your top performers as teachers, suggests Bill Coleman, who heads the compensation practice at, based in Wellesley, Mass. Have employees share their expertise by training or mentoring other staffers. You'll not only save your training budget, but you'll also make skilled employees feel valued.

10. Horse trade. Find a company with excess inventory or slowed services that your employees would enjoy, and set a swap. Trade your product for theirs, suggests Jack Schacht, president of the National Trade Association in Niles, Ill.

For instance, your managers get a swell dinner at the local five-star restaurant and its senior staffers receive free products or services from your company - or some similar exchange. Make sure to check with your accountant before sealing any deal. There usually are tax consequences from such bartering.

"Now more than ever, intangible rewards are an organization's ally in the competition to motivate and retain top talent," says's Coleman. In other words, when times are tough, it truly is the thought that counts.

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