Loyalty programs are about much more than just rewarding a customer for spending a certain amount. In the “experience economy” of today, these programs now depend on how brands and retailers choose to engage and emotionally connect with consumers, says Chuck Christianson, Senior Vice President of Connexions Loyalty. With mobile devices increasingly acting as brand “megaphones” in consumers’ hands, Christianson offered MPD CEO Karen Webster an inside look at where loyalty programs are headed, and how Connexions aims to serve as an important piece of the overarching “connection” that brands have with their customers.
KW: To get us started, you were quoted as saying “Loyalty is about having a long-term emotional connection with your customer.” I agree with that, but how do you actually help your customers do that?
CC: It’s all about creating that great experience for customers. I’m a firm believer that we live in what I call an “experience economy.” It’s not what we deliver to a client, but it’s how we make them feel and how we engage them emotionally. At Connexions, we’re in the business of enabling our clients to deliver the best engaging, emotional experiences with their customers every single day. We’re part of the overarching “connection” that they have with their customers.
We’re one piece of that bigger ecosystem in terms of delivering that experience, but a very important piece because people spend a great deal of time and money engaging with the brands that we’re lucky enough to represent. We hold that very dear to our hearts.
KW: Payments isn’t the kind of thing people get all teary about unless, of course, it goes wrong. So how do you create those connections around payments, and what kinds of things do you advise your clients to think about today that perhaps they haven’t thought about before?
CC: We’ve been in this business for 30 years, and we’ve evolved much like the marketplace has evolved. It’s not simply about the reward, it’s about the overarching communications and connections we have with our clients across the spectrum of how we interact with them. Whether it is a payments company or travel company or hospitality company, at the end of the day we have to understand that we interact with them much less on a transactional basis. Rather, we interact on a much greater, longer term that begins with the first time they hear about us, and hopefully never ends.
We want to look at each of those customer touch points and understand how we can best deliver, whether it’s in the form of a product or a service, or some sort of voice that we’re expressing on behalf of the customer. They should walk away and feel very good about doing business with these brands.
Connexions works with some of the largest brands out there –Discover, MasterCard, Chase, GM, and more – and those customers have been with us on average 10 years each. That’s because we’re part of that conversation. We’re not looking at the transactions they have, but the overall experience they’ve created and how they’ve listened to their customers and delivered what they believe is the most lasting experience.
KW: How has mobile changed the conversation about loyalty in the payments space?
CC: I think it’s a fantastic delivery mechanism that in essence is always on. Brands have the ability to connect with customers everywhere, all the time. It amazes me how quickly we have become tethered to a device meant to create greater connections.
We have to be careful with how we use it – it has to be seamless and easy. But what it’s brought to the forefront is our connection with brands. Before, we had to fight to get in front of people. Now people carry around a device that is that megaphone for our brands.
KW: Do rewards really work to keep the right customers loyal?
CC: That’s a big question. I think they do. A lot of brands, many years ago, had to be sold on the notion that rewards are important. They had to “give something away.” I think not just domestically but globally we’re seeing a huge trend in rewards programs – and I firmly believe that rewards work. They’re not the end-all and be-all, but they’re part of the overall experience we have with our customers.
Rewards can also take many different forms. One of the trends we’re seeing is in not just rewarding for profitable behavior, but rewarding a customer when they go through something that’s difficult – the bright side of negative engagement. That’s a huge thing we’re seeing in financial services, hospitality, and travel specifically. I think that trend will continue domestically as we monitor the overall customer experience and understand negative interactions can be far more powerful than positive interactions. How we deal with them and address them, and how we makeup with the customer, is very important – arguably just as important as a reward based upon a level of spend.
KW: So you have the premise of loyalty, and you have payments devices that you can use in whatever fashion you want as a retailer. But retailers also have their own objective of getting foot traffic into the stores, getting people to buy and making it easier for them to pay. Do you see any trends that bring payments, loyalty and retail together?
CC: Well, mobility certainly does that. But it’s a delivery mechanism of the myriad of offers that retailers are trying to effectuate with their payment partners. I absolutely think that loyalty and the forms it takes – whether it’s offer presentment at the right time to the right customer in the right location that allows them to take that left or right into your store – is essential. I think it’s going to take very careful partnerships to effectuate that.
If you believe the prognosticators that say 20 percent of payments in 5 years will be on a mobile device, that’s a huge change. Our ability to carry around that megaphone that blares offers at us is absolutely important to retailers, issuers and the customer. The customer is actually choosing to put it in their hands, and they’ll also choose to turn off alerts and not accept offers. It will be a careful alchemy that needs to be effectuated amongst the stakeholders to make sure that customers have a good experience and aren’t overwhelmed with retailers’ and brands trying to get in their pockets.
KW: I think that Apple Pay and other mobile wallet schemes could give card-linked offers a new lease on life. In the past, it’s been hard for consumers to make the connection between the offer they get when they swipe and the benefit. The mobile device, especially with Apple Pay, can prompt messages every time someone transacts to remind the consumer that they’ve gotten some benefit or value. Those are the kinds of things that create that association between the brand, retailer, issuer and the network that makes it all possible.
CC: You make a good point. The adoption hurdles are being removed with incredible speed. Two to three years ago, it was six or seven clicks to get your offer, and then there was this element of trust to figure out if you actually got what you were going to get.
Now, it won’t be long before you see offers and the ability to pay with points presented to you as you walk up to the POS. Also, we’ll go beyond the transaction and ask what the next step is in the world of commerce to maximize the transaction a consumer engaged in.
Understanding that overall, continuous conversation won’t be easy but we’re seeing the big rocks moved out of the way. It will be an interesting next 5 years in the payments and loyalty industry.
KW: I’m sure you’re preparing your roadmap for 2015. What are some of the things you’re talking to your clients about with respect to trends and initiatives they need to pay attention to?
CC: For us, there have been interesting adjacencies we’ve seen come forward in the last couple of years. I mentioned being able to understand the customer and incentivize, reward them or apologize to them in a myriad of places. We have a platform called MotivEngine that allows customers to do that, and has applications across the spectrum. These allow clients to effectuate spend at certain levels, spark adoption of a particular product, or for example, get people to take their car in to get fixed at a certain period of time. These incentives really fill the mortar between the bricks of the traditional ways of rewarding and engaging customers.
We’re also seeing interesting trends internationally. We’re quickly becoming a much more global payments ecosystem, and there are immense capabilities and challenges coming down the road. We’ve been lucky enough to be partners with MasterCard for nearly 10 years, and we’ll be going into a total of 4 continents with them, bringing travel rewards into those geographies. There’s ubiquity in travel. And if you look at Chase’s re-launch of its rewards, they’ve done a phenomenal job at looking at the customer across devices and beyond the simple transaction of booking a plane or hotel.
In the future, we’re going to see the 2.0 of travel program rewards – and in gift cards and merchandise as well. There will be a manicured experience that’s seamless across all devices coming down the road for a multitude of clients, extending across many borders.
Senior Vice President, Connexions Loyalty
As the Senior Vice President of Sales, Account Management & Client Solutions, Chuck Christianson believes firmly that marketers no longer just sell goods or services, but enable experiences that live and breathe within each customer.
Since joining Connexions Loyalty in 2007, Chuck has stewarded the sales and account management organization to double the size of the business. As an experienced spokesperson, Chuck has presented at numerous industry events and has been quoted in Fox Business, Yahoo Finance, CreditCards.com and PYMNTS.com among other trade publications.
In 2002, Chuck co-founded the first smart card based loyalty company geared exclusively toward small to medium sized companies. Prior to his 15-year career in the financial services industry, Chuck spent eight years as a litigation attorney focusing on commercial and product liability law. Chuck earned his bachelor’s degree from Dickinson College and Juris Doctor from the University of Maryland. He enjoys travelling and directing performances, as well as the occasional acting gig.