A lot of people say money doesn't motivate, but I found myself grabbing for the phone as soon as it rang," says Catherine Hessinger, a travel agent who became the office quick draw when given the chance to earn a bonus. After three fiscal quarters, Hessinger added $3,000 to her salary, making her one of the top producers at Topaz Travel Inc., a $30-million company based in Framingham, Mass.

More and more companies in every business sector, including the pennypinching travel industry, are seeing incentive plans as the key to motivation. Incentives are particularly suitable when the company's emphasis is on service, notes Mark Murray, an account manager with Hewitt Associates, a compensation and benefits consulting firm in Wellesley, Mass., who is designing a bonus system for a jewelry manufacturer's order takers. Incentives can work well in any field, however, so long as management is clear about what sort of performance it wants to reward.

Susan Cornnell, Topaz Travel's director of agency affairs, wanted to encourage her agents to provide extra services to customers. In most travel bureaus, agents are looked upon as "maintenance personnel," those who service the accounts generated by commissioned outside salespeople; rarely are they rewarded for bringing in additional revenue. Cornnell decided to correct the imbalance. "We realized compensation in the industry as a whole was pretty abysmal," she says, "but I felt raising [agents'] salaries alone wasn't enough."

The executive committee introduced a plan for its agents in March of last year, awarding them a 1% commission for surpassing a sales quota based on their experience, and a small bonus -- from 25? to $1 -- every time they book a car, hotel, or boarding pass through the airlines' computerized network of preferred suppliers. They also get $30 for each month in which they make no errors on reservations.

The major drawback to incentive payments is the paperwork, says Cornnell. "I spend at least 10 hours a month administering the plans."