People often ask me why I got into the people business. At the most fundamental level, I believed companies had it all wrong. If they spent as much time thinking about their employees as they did their customers, the sky just might be the limit. Many years later, my philosophy hasn’t changed: When companies put employees first and customers second, profits will follow. That may seem counterintuitive for a lot of people, but a business doesn’t thrive unless its employees are committed to doing quality work that helps it compete in the marketplace. Without employees to keep the doors open, there isn’t a pressing need to focus on customers. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the commitment and capabilities of the workforce.

So, how do companies turn their employees into their biggest competitive advantage? Well, for starters they realize how important it is to keep the good ones. Turnover is expensive whether it’s in lost capacity or finding the next candidate, but it’s an avoidable expense when companies pay attention to the needs of their people. Research clearly shows that happy, satisfied employees stay longer and voluntarily choose to take on extra job duties. A workforce full of those committed employees means the company gets a higher level of performance that can be sustained over longer periods of time. There is your competitive advantage!!! It’s not enough to get incredibly talented people on board. You have to constantly make sure they feel appreciated and recognized for going the distance to get the job done.

That affirmation and appreciation I reference is actually quite simple. It’s no panacea, I admit, but the research says, and I agree, that an employee will work harder and longer when he knows his contribution is valued. It may be as simple as a public thank-you, a gift card to the local pub, or a day off. Your job as a manager is to find out what makes them happy and give it to them when they deserve it.

It is an unfortunate thing when your top performers become someone else’s competitive advantage. One of the most common ways for this to happen is to forget to put your people first. To recap, here are my suggestions for making your recognition programs profitable:

Recognize and affirm your employees so they focus their happiness and satisfaction on helping your business compete in the marketplace.

Before you undertake a massive investment that is customer-focused, make sure you have invested in appreciating your people first.

If you forget to value your rock stars, they will become someone else’s competitive advantage. Use recognition as your secret weapon for retaining top talent.