But when the recession hit, Dorset-based Hallmark International, a specialist in providing financial incentives packages, had to find something that would make its services especially attractive to clients. At the same time, its own experience convinced the company that conventional incentives were not working. The elite sales people would qualify for them anyway, because they did not want to be seen to have lost their touch, while the majority did not stand a chance, says Peter Martin, Hallmark's managing director. Mr Martin also suspected that some companies realised this, but felt they could not abandon the schemes out of fear of losing their best sales people to rivals.
Consequently, Hallmark joined up with industrial and behavioural psychologists at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology to survey more than 10,000 sales people in a variety of industries, but mainly financial services, pharmaceuticals and fast-moving consumer goods. It found that - rather than expensive holidays in the Far East - most sales people were looking for feedback, personal recognition of their efforts, and some idea of what they were achieving.
From this research, Hallmark has developed a software package called Hermis, which enables companies to convert raw sales figures into a personal message to each member of a sales team - even those with more than 1,000 members - which sets out how they have done in the most recent period, where they are in relation to the prizes on offer and, if necessary, what they have to do to improve.
The message, composed with the aid of computer graphics depicting horse races, exotic destinations or whatever is appropriate to the incentives, is probably a little gimmicky for the average employee. But Mr Martin claims that the combination of inspiration and hard fact is winning over sales people and their bosses. More than a dozen large companies have signed up for the package in the three-and-a-half years since it was launched.
Mr Martin and his team are even thinking about introducing refinements to stay ahead of the competition, such as holograms and "scratch 'n' sniff" features which give the employee a scent of the prize.
Such an approach not only gets the majority of the sales force to buy into an incentive package, because they think there is something in it for them; it also provides the data with which managers can measure the return on their investment, says Mr Martin. "It's nothing more complicated than a piece of software that we've written to convert lots of data into something more meaningful," he adds.