By Reid Thorpe & Derby Ruspoli-Jorgensen
Illustration by Simon Landrein
There’s no one right road to explore the myriad companies that market themselves in the employee recognition industry. But there are several pretty smart paths. The handful worth considering below can help you compile the list of candidates you’ll need for the next phase of your journey.
PHONE A FRIEND. OR FIVE.
The odds are extremely good that you already know several people who have valuable experience and insightful opinions on employee recognition partners and solutions. Lean on them. Text, voice, email, lunch—whatever works for their schedule.
To ensure your conversations are fruitful, prepare some questions ahead of time, such as:
If nothing else, you’ll get a feeling for the competitive landscape and some practical, current perspectives. And that last question can lead you to other sources of wisdom.
SEE WHAT THE WEB SAYS.
Most buyer journeys (61%) include a broad online search. Nearly three-fourths (71%) of buyers say they conduct anonymous research during the first three months.1 And on average, B2B researchers do 12 searches prior to engaging on a specific brand's site.2 The reason: Google, online communities, and software review sites—even the ones based on advertising—have very valuable information.
That said, here are several things to keep in mind during web research:
Choose your words carefully. Google ranks each website found in a search according to several criteria including how many other sites link to it, how long the site’s been around, how long people spend with the content there, and, of course, key search terms. But the exact algorithms that weight these factors change frequently in a never-ending effort to improve the validity of results. Just know that as good as Google is at determining the intent of a search, every word you use makes a big difference in your results. Specificity pays.
Be aware. When you type “employee recognition programs” or “employee recognition software” into Google, the top four results are paid ads (typically $12 per click). But just because a provider is willing to shell out for this visibility doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the best option. The first several results after the ads are more worthy of attention.
Be more aware. The user reviews on software review sites such as Capterra and G2 are valid and trustworthy. However, the rankings on some sites (like Capterra) are paid for, while on others (like G2), the reviews themselves determine position.
Look to thought leaders. HR industry associations like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), WorldatWork, Employee Benefit News (EBN), HR Certification Institute (HRCI), Human Capital Institute (HCI), and Recognition Professionals International (RPI) all have sites and content worth reading that often name providers—just know these outlets are also funded by advertising.
Link in. The professional networking website, LinkedIn, has groups dedicated to HR (and virtually every industry on earth) where group members share articles, discuss trends, ask questions, and offer advice. You can also search posts, download whitepapers, connect with industry veterans, and tap into your own network of connections by simply posing a question as a status update.
HIT THE EXHIBITION HALL.
Trade shows and conventions went dormant during the pandemic, but in most cases, they’ve been time well spent and likely will be again. Specifically, they provide a great forum to meet representatives from numerous providers in a condensed, efficient way, as well as catch up on emerging technology and new ideas. Plus, it never hurts to network and nurture relationships with other event attendees.
So check out the dates (and participating vendors) for shows like those offered by SHRM or WorldatWork to see if they coincide with your timeline.
When you feel like you have a broad understanding of the providers available, it’s time to go deep. Start looking closely and more critically at the ones that appear to be a good match for your organisation. The goal: narrow the list so you can conduct (or avoid) a request for proposals. This pre-qualifying process can include any or all of the following avenues:
If your company has relationships with analysts such as Gartner and Forrester that cover the HR industry, consider connecting with them.
When you visit the websites of providers, look for client names and any testimonials. Contact those that are tackling similar challenges to the ones your organisation faces. Ask about their experience with the provider and whether they’ve met expectations.
Sites such as Crunchbase are great for looking at the financials of a provider. Likewise, Owler offers a quick list of vendors and crowdsourced information about funding they’ve received.
The software review site, G2, has a feature that allows you to compare providers head to head on a number of criteria. Also, look for evaluations such as the PEAK Matrix® for Rewards and Recognition by Everest Group and the Baker’s Dozen Customer Satisfaction Ratings for Recognition by HRO Today.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR—SPECIFICALLY.
You may already have a clear picture of what you need from your recognition provider, but if you’re hazy at all, here’s a sample checklist of capabilities that can guide your research into potential partners and help you determine the best candidates.
Like a good online dating profile, the RFP process should help you learn more about a potential partner without committing to a relationship. And while RFPs may seem intimidating and cumbersome to even experienced HR and procurement professionals, they don’t have to be.
WHY CONDUCT AN RFP?
Simply put, peace of mind. A formal RFP is a more rigorous way to compare features, functionality, compliance, quality, and other important factors across your top few vendors so you can sleep better at night when the stakes are high. The main trade-off is time.
Typical RFPs outline the scope of the project and ask prospective partners for a detailed proposal by a certain deadline. Then, of course, the proposals must be discussed and evaluated. Done well, the RFP helps you make a well-informed decision, even before speaking with a salesperson. But it’s not a process you can start and finish in a week (or a month).
Keep in mind, RFPs are just one step in getting to know the recognition providers. They shouldn’t replace conversations, presentations, demonstrations, and follow-up meetings.
HOW DO YOU KNOW AN RFP IS FOR YOU?
In some situations, RFPs may be absolutely necessary. For example, maybe your organisation operates in a heavily regulated environment or is required to show multiple bids. RFPs can also be critical for large organisations with complex buying processes or projects that require a lot of technical information.
If an RFP isn’t required or essential, foregoing one can save your organisation time, as well as some money and resources. On the other hand, it’s never a good idea to use an RFP in lieu of doing your own research, or because you don’t want to deal with salespeople. In those cases, the RFP process may backfire, and you’ll find yourself with less-than-ideal vendors responding (or no vendors at all).
IMPROVING THE RFP PROCESS.
Once you’ve decided to embark on the RFP phase, use these seven tips to make sure it goes smoothly:
1. Narrow the search. Sending an RFP to a dozen companies will only overcomplicate the process. Your prior research should yield three to five vendors to target. You may even want to meet and see demonstrations from potential partners before issuing an RFP because the more you can cut now, the smoother the rest of your process will be when you return to your committee.
2. Elevate the experts. Companies that score well on the Baker’s Dozen, FORTUNE Best Companies to Work For®, Everest Group PEAK Matrix®, etc., deserve more consideration. Also note the companies that have been around and are financially stable. You’d be surprised how quickly recognition providers come and go. Track records are important.
3. Decide on features. Understand the product and program features that are commonly available, and don’t compromise on the most important ones to you and your organisation.
4. Include a scorecard. When designing your RFP—any RFP—be sure to create a scorecard to ensure your request addresses all the needs of your organisation. It’ll also minimise bias and protect against groupthink when it’s time to review proposals. Additionally, have your stakeholders agree on the scorecard before you release the RFP so you can revise it accordingly, if necessary.
5. Tailor the RFP to the employee recognition industry. The quality of a proposal is directly proportional to the specificity of the request. Which means sending a generic RFP template is a big, time-consuming mistake. Most providers are happy to provide details. Help them help you.
6. Craft questions deliberately. As a rule, questions that require a thoughtful response are more beneficial than those that can be answered in a single word, like yes or no. So phrase them to your advantage. Also, separating (rather than combining) questions will make them easier to answer and the answers easier to evaluate.
7. Keep it simple. The more questions you ask, the more questions you’ll have to read, analyse, and score. Stay focused and ask only the questions you couldn’t answer elsewhere. Mimicking a legal cross-examination by posing questions you already know the answers to isn’t worth the time (even it feels good and thorough).
DON’T RELY ON THE RFP ALONE.
As good as an RFP can be, it’s not the only way to find the right recognition solution, and it’s not sufficient by itself. Whether or not you conduct an RFP, you’ll want to visit potential vendors’ facilities (virtually if necessary), see demonstrations, and meet the team(s) you’d be working with to confirm the solutions and chemistry are everything you expect.
Fortunately, if you’ve leveraged your referrals, done your research, and conducted a prudent RFP, your organisation is perfectly positioned to make a final decision.
Following all research and information gathering, you’ll likely develop some preferences. And you may even feel a little anxious.
The good news is you’re almost there. With the right criteria, questions, and procedures for building consensus and making a final decision, you’ll soon have an employee recognition partner that can help you create or refine the culture your organisation needs for years to come.
The equally good news is those are exactly the subjects of the final article in this series: Select a Partner. Take a look, and feel free to review previous insights in the Culture by Design: Recognition Buyer’s Guide.
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