Improving the Customer Experience Through Loyalty Program Operations

Mar 30, 2015

Tips for Improving Loyalty Program OperationsA back-office perspective on loyalty program implementation and operations

After 25 years in the loyalty industry, we’ve learned a thing or two about program operations. When program operations are less than optimal, the customer experience suffers.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Our perspective in the loyalty industry is based on facilitating numerous conversions; both implementations and on-going operational tasks. The journey has taken our teams through everything from day-to-day project management, call center and fulfillment ops, technical implementation, change management, client service and technical support. Those who have worked with Kobie know that our teams are both the “liaison” between the business people (marketing) and the technical people (IT), often serving as a bridge between the client and the previous loyalty services provider. As you can imagine, with this type of history in loyalty, we’ve seen and heard almost everything when it comes to the execution of loyalty and customer experience programs.

Improved program execution demands enhanced communication and collaboration between client and service partner(s), especially during the project planning and implementation phases. The often forgotten goal of implementation is to ensure the program launches as designed, on-time, and on-budget, with minimal disruption to everyday client operations and with maximum delight delivered to those members who engage. Yet the pace of change in our industry, both from a technology and marketing perspective, and in the overall business landscape requires that we all be better and go faster.

At Kobie, we continually refine and perfect the way we enable and operate – on all levels – in order to ensure that both the member’s experience and the client’s expectations are enhanced.

Sounds easy, right?

Well consider for a moment the implications if client and provider lack clarity during the operational and technical requirements phase of program development. Consider what may happen when program strategy as designed can’t be enabled by supporting systems, at least not within budgetary and time constraints. Consider how matters may be complicated and the outcome jeopardized when the design elements change pre-launch, without any corresponding documentation or the lack of formal change request processes. Typical to the program implementation phase of any loyalty program launch, these conditions will cause significant stress for all involved. Timelines will be affected and anxiety will certainly increase, although the “cast in stone” program launch date will probably remain unchanged. Investment expectations will certainly be modified, making either one side or the other (usually both) feel more like pouting newlyweds instead of happy honeymooners.

The underlying factor often associated with such conditions may rest with unspecific roles and responsibilities on both sides of the program implementation team. Additionally, without dedicated resources for the task at hand, regular day jobs can easily take priority or cause distraction for both service provider and client. Next thing you know, teams seek shortcuts. A reluctance to follow processes and the elapsed time necessary required by protocols, especially when dealing with compliance issues, could spell serious trouble. As decisions are made and deliverables completed, a mutual review process is required to confirm that the loyalty initiative is on track. Yet there is often a lack of sensibility involving reviews, taking either way too much time or requiring far too many modifications because of unclear requirements, lack of prior involvement in the program by key stakeholders, or shifts in strategy. The final factor, we often observe, rests with coordination difficulties and lack of accountability with client-mandated 3rd party software and POS vendors.

It all adds up to potential disappointment.

Instead of going on lamenting or complaining about the situation, we offer some best practice tips and guidelines to help mitigate the issues and problems before they surface:

  1. Bring the technical side of both houses in early. Design teams and marketing stewards must recognize that we can’t design programs/rules that we have no ability to enable via existing systems. As the program planning is taking shape (targeted segments, components, rules, rewards & benefits, member care, organizational readiness and data capture needs) a living/breathing/changing set of requirements documents are being developed, with considerable technical input/comment/review.
  2. Map the information flow from the member’s perspective. Beginning to end. Enrollment, member care, data capture and earning, POS, web, mobile, kiosk/tablet, social media, statements/communications, redemption, partnership interactions, and all fulfillment needs. Keep everybody on the map in order to ensure they all arrive at the same place.
  3. Include the information flow needed to facilitate reporting, analysis, financial systems, etc. from the client’s perspective. Reporting needs should be an outgrowth of the design and program objectives, not a pre-launch afterthought. What does success look like? Where’s the measurement plan? Who owns it? What does the loyalty dashboard need and how often will it be refreshed to determine if the program is achieving what it intended to achieve?
  4. A final requirements document, with supporting exhibits, ensures project success. It will change as the days and weeks go forward, but at least everyone starts on the exact same page.
  5. Use collaboration tools to enhance understanding, communications. Frequent telephone conference calls, online meeting tools, shared document repositories, definitional directories and any other readily accessible project mapping, timeline or collaborative tools will pay huge dividend during implementation. Meet frequently, even daily, in the beginning and determine if meetings can be scaled back without risking synchronicity.
  6. Don’t forget the power of the status report! All important discussions need to be documented, even if the format is very brief. All meeting outcomes and decisions/changes are a must for inclusion. Who agreed to do what, by when? And by all means, an agenda for every important meeting is extremely beneficial.
  7. Have a formal, disciplined, change management process. More than just a cover your … type of thing, best practices in change management suggest formal procedures, multi-functional alerts, revised cost and timing implications, assignment and tracking logs, in addition to a clear approval process. Approval triggers the change, not the request.
  8. Keep timelines in relative days, not absolute fixed launch dates. If it’s a 30, 60 or 90 day process to launch, that means that every deliverable along the implementation path has to developed, received, communicated and approved on time. When a delay occurs, on whichever side, for whatever reason, the absolute date originally envisioned will likely be jeopardized.
  9. Assign dedicated resources. A part-time, “I have other roles and responsibilities” approach will not work for the key players on both client and service provider sides. What could be more important than best customers? When relevant to the program, find out in advance who (specifically) on the client side is going to help with the non-responsive key stakeholders and uncooperative 3rd party vendors.
  10. Be agile and nimble, yet disciplined and rigorous. Things will change and that is often good. However, change without a disciplined approach can easily lead to chaos.
  11. Don’t forget the training elements and the call center operations. You can’t launch without properly preparing front-line associates in the call center, in-store, in the reservations center or anyone else who actually impacts the customer experience. And many times, measurement and incentives serve to heighten everyone’s enthusiastic participation.
  12. Communication and collaboration are the essential ingredients. No matter what you are cooking up, the recipe starts with a fundamental, bi-directional belief that talking with each other always tops talking at each other; that solving problems and issues together, takes precedence over flying solo. Maintaining the lines and frequency of communications leads to a more engaged and unified matrixed team.

Well, that’s it. Not the sexiest topic in loyalty, but one of the most important topics in our industry. With the increased need to go faster, it’s even more critical to have and utilize a proven implementation methodology. Heavily financed customer experience strategies are too mission critical to risk on hopes, prayers and chances. A well implemented and smoothly operated loyalty program that has organizational support, will be the foundation for ensuring a positive and beneficial customer experience. For service providers, it will also prove to be a significant driver of client satisfaction and the basis for long term relationships and organic growth.

“When one has finished building one’s house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way – before one began.” Friedrich Nietzsche


This blog is dedicated to the memory of John Hoelker, a loyalty operations expert and true friend.  He served as the Vice President of Loyalty Operations for Kobie Marketing until passed away relatively suddenly after courageously battling leukemia.  John was one of the most dedicated (and huggable) people to ever work at Kobie.