JOHANNESBURG - Customer loyalty is a two-way street: brands need to earn the respect and loyalty of their customers.
In this way, loyalty programmes aren’t there to benefit the brand, they’re there to add value for customers, something they’ll appreciate in the current economic climate. Your loyalty programme could earn you “points” in terms of enhanced customer experience and the attendant word-of-mouth marketing.
A business-savvy customer may be aware that some loyalty programmes have built-in costs to prevent the company losing out on profitability, ultimately subsidising their customers, but if you have the capacity to avoid doing this with your loyalty programme, that’s a far better approach – a transparent one that doesn’t see massive price hikes that are then cynically “reduced” for club members. Your marketing efforts will need to be increased, though, if you’re dealing in discounts, you have to recoup in sales volumes.
Cross-market marketing – the multi-national challenge
It’s a challenge for multi-national companies: how can you ensure the loyalty programme is replicated with very different markets, sometimes with differing customer preferences and expectations? Different countries may also be on tiers of development that can’t support certain benefits; let’s say you have a branch in the US and another in Ghana, a developing nation such as Ghana may not be able to support a loyalty programme benefit such as free Wi-Fi. Have you considered what the opposite of a value add is? That’s right, it takes away from your brand.
We’re busy developing our own brand throughout Africa, with over sixty hotel properties set to come on board in a variety of nations, so this must be a consideration. We want to offer all of the benefits in each country so that the guest experience is consistent from place to place.
The benefits of being part of a multi-national company allow for a little leeway; your brand is already recognised, to a degree, and, for us, partnering with an international household name like Marriott International has immediately given us access to a loyalty programme that, with other hotel brands in the mix, comes to over 100 million members. Bear in mind that a large part of those are frequent travellers, often for business, and you start to see how it can be lucrative to offer discounts, free room nights, air miles and other programme-related benefits. Yes, it may come as a cost at face value, but we’re gaining in customer loyalty.
Bear in mind that we also have our own local benefits programme, so our customers have the choice of two sets of offers to choose from, should they be members of both.
Our customers are adventurers, they want to explore, no matter what the state of the economy is, so we’re helping to facilitate that.
South Africa is facing some challenges when it comes to travel, so it’s even harder to preach loyalty right now when people have so many destination options. Again, having a footprint across a number of nations aids us in being able to provide alternatives for the travel enthusiast.
Customer experience wins every time
Discounts can go a long way to attracting business, but they’re no substitute for business excellence; when working on that loyalty relationship, your customers have to not only experience value for money, they must be surprised and delighted from start to finish. Discounts in order to rid yourself of inferior products will give your customers an inferior experience. In addition, your business must be equipped to honour the value-add promises you’re making – if you’ve ever taken an offer up only to be told it’s sold out, you’ll understand the disappointment.
Ideally, you can use customer intelligence based on data analytics insights to drive your campaigns, marketing to your customers in ways that are personalised, according to their preferences. You could offer a mid-week special to someone you know is more likely to use it mid-week than to someone who generally only uses your business on weekends, for example. In that case, you’re adding value AND addressing how they prefer to do business with you. A great start to making that value-add work for you.
Some customers have access to a number of loyalty programmes so that they can shop-and-compare; loyalty, then, is about what you’re offering them. That doesn’t mean they’re not loyal to you, just that you have to make their experience stand out from your competitors. You’re not in a price war, you’re competing on the levels of service excellence and value.
This year, we’re likely to see even more competitive behaviour as brands seek to maintain their client base during challenging times, and the ones that do this well will emerge as leaders.
Avukile Mabombo is Group Marketing Manager, Protea Hotels by Marriott.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.