How should employees be rewarded when they go the extra mile?

Q: My local barista was a tower of strength to us oldies during the pandemic. He was always cheerful, a good listener and went above and beyond just serving us.

I wrote a letter to management asking if he could be given some kind of recognition. I was therefore disappointed to discover he had been given just a bottle of wine.

I think the company could have done more. How do you feel about rewarding employees who go “the extra mile”?

A: Twenty-five years ago, when I was Timpson’s chief executive, I sent a handwritten letter every Monday to at least 10 branch managers who had traded particularly well. Many proudly displayed the letter in their shop. The personal touch was so popular that I introduced our Chairman’s Award with a tax-paid cheque (usually for £50), which was also sent with a letter in my handwriting.

James, my son and Timpson’s current boss, still writes to individual shops. A Chairman’s Award is now more likely to be at least £100, but, like a lot of other companies, we also recognise exceptional customer service and random acts of kindness, especially when a customer has contacted us to praise a particular colleague.

Most big organisations measure customer service levels on a dashboard – a popular part of today’s governance agenda. To ensure good service is being encouraged, they establish a standard reward system. Some rewards have inevitably gone digital and are often handled by outside “service providers”.

Some have adopted a system based on “well done emails” that encourages colleagues to pick out people who deserve praise and send them an online note. The message is then copied throughout the organisation and… well, that’s it; the reward is simply their public recognition.

Many big companies seem seriously concerned that giving generous rewards can come at a prohibitive cost. With this in mind, they make sure rewards are closely controlled by the human resources department at head office. Before anyone out in the field can hand out a box of chocolates or a bottle of Prosecco, a request has to be sent to HR by selecting an appropriate reward from the approved list.

Before handing over the flowers, chocolates or wine, a form has to be completed and sent to HR, who, in due course, will issue an order form in favour of an approved supplier. At last, the gift can be purchased and presented. It’s an example of command and control going bonkers.

Some years ago, we found a way to give our frontline managers the freedom to hand out immediate rewards to recognise exceptional service: we issued our own company scratch cards (an idea that was originally Asda’s).

Unlike the lottery, to be a winner on a Timpson scratch card, colleagues have to reveal three Timpson items, such as three watches, three keys or three shoes. Everyone’s a winner, but their reward depends on which items are exposed. The options are £10, £25, £50, a bottle of your choice, a meal out on James or “the next sale is yours”.