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Adapting your loyalty efforts in the face of economic disruption: Exclusive Loyalty360 Q&A

In today’s global marketplace, there are constant disruptions and uncertainties. Whether it be the upcoming US election, BREXIT, swings in the economy or global health concerns, change is inevitable.

Staying connected to your clients and helping them stay connected to their customers is of utmost importance in a normal economic climate, but even more so today. With that said, Epsilon has years of experience in the loyalty platform space, and knows how to make sure there is a connection at an emotional level and not just on the surface.

Loyalty360 recently spoke to Rick Boubelik, Senior Director of Loyalty at Epsilon, about how loyalty marketers are reacting to disruption, some advice to maintain customer connections in challenging times, as well as how Epsilon is adapting. Read on to learn more, or watch our video to hear Rick discussing key topics from the Q&A.

What are you hearing from your loyalty clients as their concerns around some of these disruptions?

Well, obviously we’re seeing declining foot traffic and less travel. But the main questions we’re getting back from our clients are, “When will business come back? How will it be different? Is my program actually prepared to reconnect with our customers? How do we recreate the customer experience (quality, exception services, customization)?” With the COVID-19 virus out there, many clients need a fundamental change in their way of doing business. They need help finding, attracting and communicating the new (and evolving) customer offering. We’re trying to help them engage new and old customers at a different level than they’ve had to in the past.

What can brands do to stay connected to customers during uncertain times?

The brands who will succeed are those who remain connected to their customers with relevant communication and by continuing to deliver positive customer experiences. Loyalty marketers have an advantage, in that they already have data-driven insights and close connections with their customers.

I think one of the great things we’re seeing right now, and it is tough times… At Epsilon, we’re trying to keep it positive—trying to deliver a positive experience for our own clients and have that translate to their customers. How are we communicating that? We encourage them to just be human, be real, be a partner to their customers. This is where loyalty is getting exciting right now. Brands are putting people over products, and this really endears customers to be better customers to the brands. Our data-driven insights are helping to inform those conversations.


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Do you have specific advice or recommendations for these brands to put these processes in place?

Recommendation #1: You cannot carry on business as usual anymore. Brands really have to be flexible and adapt to this business challenge. So, where we’re really seeing that is how brands are reevaluating and communicating with customers. It’s not the same old messaging we’re putting out there and saying the same old “thank you’s” anymore. We want to help them connect to customers on an emotional level. It’s not just transactional anymore. For example, you don’t want to target people who just lost their jobs with designer handbags. But maybe it’s more relevant to give helpful tips on how to dress for an interview if you lost your job, then offer specific options. Helping brands to communicate more on a 1:You, human level is where we can be most effective.

Recommendation #2: Now is the opportunity to create that goodwill. Make sure that you’re authentic. For example, the New York Times and other media outlets have taken down paywalls blocking COVID-19 stories. The Times and USA Today are offering free coronavirus newsletters. U-Haul offered 30 days of free storage to college students who needed to quickly vacate their dorms. They are touching on the emotional aspects. In the UK, Nandos restaurants provided food drops to National Health Service teams, an initiative apparently led by the restaurants themselves.

Recommendation #3: Focus on the customer experience, especially online. You know your loyal customers; they have opted-in to be part of your community. Use your data-driven insights to keep in touch with them and reassure them. Be service-focused, not sales-focused. And make customer experiences easy.

Double down on your digital experience. Provide those important updates up-front on your home page. This is where people will see the brand right off. Get it across very quickly. And facilitate ways to connect with your company, such highlighting ways to contact you on your homepage, increasing call center or customer care staff or proactively investing in chat bots 

Recommendation #4: Waive or ease policy restrictions. For loyalty marketers, there are easy things you can do to ease restrictions on some of your policies, because people can’t transact with you. For example, airlines like Delta and British Airways are being proactive in their customer experience. They have waived flight change and cancellation fees, offering credit for future flights. Changing the time required to earn Elite status. Marriott has also added more flexible policies. Go through the terms and conditions and find the angst points.

Retailers, many of whose storefronts are now temporarily closed, have amended their return policies. Adidas temporarily increased free returns to 100 days. In the UK, John Lewis extended returns for up to 35 days from John Lewis shops reopening. Or if you’ve been unable to return an unwanted item due to self-isolation restrictions, they will honor late returns.

In the financial services arena, several banks are offering more flexibility (payment deferrals, waived fees). Bank of America created a Client Assistance program for consumer and small business waiving certain account fees. And UK banks are allowing fast tracking applications for three-month payment holidays from mortgages.

Recommendation #5: Adapt or fall behind. Whether we like it or not, our world can drastically change within a short period of time. Whether it be from health concerns, recession, financial uncertainty or a toxic political environment. When this happens, take the opportunity to evaluate and possibly evolve your program to better align with new consumer expectations, business environment, and customer sensitivities. Ask yourself, “Is it still the right value proposition for your consumers?”


Download our guide: From 1:1 to 1:You-Personalizing the loyalty experience 


 

You mention “Adapt or fall behind.” What does that mean in terms of loyalty strategy?

Well, it’s really in trying to look at the purpose of your program. The typical loyalty programs are rewards-based, “Do this, get that.” But loyalty has evolved. It is s a strategy and an outcome of all the experiences customers have had with your brand. It’s trying to connect on a 1:You level with more human experiences.

So, we really want to address that customer value proposition as more than just the transaction. But are providing rewards enough? If a recession hits or a percent of your customers become unemployed or underemployed…is this enough of a value proposition to keep some share of wallet? Loyalty programs have excellent data to provide customer insights to help you adapt, however, in a situation like COVID-19, these are lagging indicators of a world that has changed. Look at some of the leading indicators and trends to help you adapt.

For example, with COVID-19, many in the restaurant industry suddenly shut down. It’s a new business model. How do I get my product out to the customers? How is that changing the experience? How do I keep part of that? I want longer lasting emotional engagement and loyalty…How am I going to adapt to that? When many were out of work, many efforts popped up to help. This “social sharing” phenomenon might have a place in a lot of programs as we look to create longer lasting “emotional” engagement & loyalty. Health, safety and confidence of wellbeing as a message has a role in loyalty. Or consider doing business in isolation: shopping, dining, socializing in the comforts of our homes continues to grow. Have you made it easy for your customers to interact with your brand? Those are the type of the things to achieve your 1:You approach. You have to rethink your program and be adaptable to many different types of customers. Some are price value driven, some are service driven, some need more attention and time to make decisions. So how does your program adapt to all of these, not just one of these segments.

How is Epsilon adapting to keep up with the rapid pace of change and uncertainty?

We do this through both our Services and our Platform. We focus on a collaboration to help stay entrenched in helping our clients and their customers. Publicis recently launched our new AI-driven collaboration tool Marcel to enable us to tap into knowledge and experience from across Publicis’ group of agencies. We have great talent across the globe, and this helps us tap into expertise internally and redefine how we form teams. So, our clients benefit from the knowledge of not just our local Loyalty teams, but from cross-functional resources around the world. We’re going to be very collaborative, which is going to help our clients.

Also, on the technology side we’re heavily investing in AI and machine learning for our PeopleCloud Loyalty platform. This allows better understanding in how we’re going to act and act fast. It’s not just a product or transition focus anymore, but the emotional focus. I think that’s where machine learning is really taking off for us. We have the most talented people I’ve ever worked with in the industry, in loyalty and data marketing side, and having those people in a collaborative environment, the investments we’re making in this technology, is happening on a speed pace being pushed by some great clients. They want to learn more and see how to maximize their investments. We stay on top of industry research and trends to help the address their needs for today and tomorrow.

What technologies do you (Epsilon) offer to address clients’ needs in these disruptive times?

As I mentioned, AI and machine learning are very proactive on connections for us and that’s the big shift that’s coming for us in loyalty. It’s not about a single transaction. But investment, turning even reports that we’re turning into insights, that kind of asset becomes a very valuable tool to loyalty managers and analytic personnel. “Where do I start my day? How do I make better decisions?” That investment in those insights and better metrics on what’s working and what’s not working—not just the loyalty program, but the business impacts of the loyalty program. Some of the technology is getting actually getting better tools to make those metrics more understandable for loyalty clients.

We’re also including some proprietary products outside of our loyalty platform. Epsilon uses VAP (value attrition and potential) framework for customer segmentation where we can define and score customers in a proprietary way. We have industry benchmarks that help our clients understand where they’re performing well within their competitive set, in retail, banking or in travel. We have a fraud detection tool that’s part of our machine learning enhancements to protect the programs.

Specifically, for loyalty, our best technology is our decision engine that makes eligibility decisions and calculations “in a moment”: our offer management tool which we call “connection management.”

It’s to drive the most effective outcome that can be enabled with any inbound or outbound marketing systems across all touch points (email, online, mobile, call centers, point of sale). Marketers can set-up any number of “moments” with point and click action, creating dynamic formulas with robust business rules using any data element within or received by the platform. And the cool thing that we just launched is the ability to simulate marketing outcomes. So you no longer have to wonder and guess about hey, how’s this promotion going to work, or connection or engagement promotion. We can simulate it and you can better define your budgets and add in more segments or clients’ memberships. We are able to do a better job of predicting for you.

Ultimately though, the technology cannot stand alone without the people. You need to have good loyalty marketing professionals helping you. Our loyalty technology team is tied at the hip with our strategy team and our client services team. We get great input in understanding where do we go next. And we’ve got some great clients, who are also loyalty experts, pushing us to evolve not only our thinking, but our products and services and how we can engage better.

Watch the video interview.

**This post first appeared on L360.