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The Best Reward--For Anyone

What's the best way to reward customer service reps or sales people for a job well done?

Ask them.

That's the very simple, yet underappreciated, finding from a study by Francis Flynn, of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Francesco Gino, of Harvard Business School. The two have worked together on a series of research projects focusing on gift-giving, and the often mismatched expectations of people who give gifts and the people who get them.

The most obvious example is the wedding registry. When couples register for their wedding, you can be pretty sure they actually want the stuff they register for. And if they don't, most stores have generous return policies for registries. Yet some well-meaning folks insist on believing that a more 'personal' gift-one that's not on the registry-will be more welcome. Flynn and Gino are trying to figure out why this happens, and what the implications are in a corporate setting.

What do people want?
Flynn and Gino conducted five experiments to figure out what people actually want. In most of them, the subject either asked for a specific thing or made up a list of things they'd like. In one case, participants were asked about their experiences with wedding registries. In another, they were to imagine a situation in which their birthday was coming up. In the last, they composed a wish list on Amazon. In this last experiment, another participant in the study got a gift for the first person. In all cases, the receiver was asked how happy they were with the gift, and, when appropriate, the giver was asked how appreciative they expected the other person to be.

The results:

  • Going above and beyond to come up with a more 'thoughtful' gift than the one requested is a bad idea. The giver thought he or she would be seen as more considerate for doing this, but that's not the way it works. The recipient is more appreciative when they get what they want than when they get some random gift that seems thoughtful to someone else.
  • You have the best chance of preventing excess 'thoughtfulness' if you specify one particular thing that you want. If you compose a list of things you want, the gift giver is apt to go out of bounds to appear more thoughtful--even though the research shows this does not work. Gift givers are more likely to fall in line if you ask for one specific thing.
  • The only exception: Money. Turns out money is terribly, terribly thoughtful. When recipients were asked to rate how thoughtful the gift givers were, those who gave money-instead of the requested gift-came out on top. Next were those who gave the gift that was asked for. Those who gave 'thoughtful' gifts came in last.
The lessons from this should be pretty clear. Don't assume that everyone on the sales team wants a trip to Hawaii if they bust through their goals. Don't assume everyone in your loyalty program wants discounted flowers or free hotel nights. Instead, ask people what they want. Then give it to them. And if all else fails, you can't go wrong with cash.

What do you think is a suitable reward for a job well done? Does your company offer it?


Image courtesy flickr user mmlolek
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at
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