We spoke to Joanna Walker, CEO & Partner of Loyalty & Co., about the importance of cultivating diverse perspectives within organizations, the keys to developing effective and engaging customer rewards programs, and what the future of the loyalty and rewards industry has in store.
Tell us about your experience working in the Customer Loyalty & Rewards industry.
I started my career at the company that runs the Air Miles program — at the time called The Loyalty Group — and was part of the Air Miles Incentives Group. We supported small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) as well as large Air Miles Sponsors who used the Air Miles currency as an incentive tool for employees or B2B loyalty programs. Air Miles was an amazing training ground for me. It was the foundation where I learned the ins and outs of a corporate environment, the benefits of database marketing, incenting, and motivating purchase behaviour, account management, and gained insight into the needs of SMBs looking to attract, grow, and maintain customer loyalty. I then went on to work for the largest and most iconic retail brand in Canada, The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).
At HBC, I was introduced to gift cards as a customer acquisition and marketing tool, management of credit and financial services as a profit driver in a retail environment, and large sponsorship programs as I had the privilege of working on HBC’s Olympic Sponsorship and was introduced to sponsorship marketing activation through customized apparel. I also spent some time at Bond Brand Loyalty (Maritz Canada at the time) launching their loyalty consulting division. When I left the corporate world to start my own consulting company, I felt I had a good foundation of experiences and expertise I could lean on. In retrospect, that was just the beginning, however. My consulting company evolved and I co-founded Loyalty & Co. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to work with many Canadian and International brands looking to drive customer engagement and loyalty by diving in and evaluating their current and future journey in building valuable customer relationships balancing both business objectives and customer experience.
How do diverse perspectives within an organization help shape programs and consumer experiences?
As an advisor and loyalty consultant, the first step we do in most client engagements is interview cross-functional stakeholders in the organization. Gaining individual insight on their definition of loyalty and how their role impacts (or detracts) from the customer experience with the brand is imperative. Most companies still have elements of silos and not everyone is aligned or committed to driving the same objectives. With that in mind, it’s important that everyone is aware of how they can influence and build relationships with customers whether they are customer facing or behind the scenes. We find that when given the opportunity, most people can get excited and committed to building loyal customer relationships and have lots of ideas on how they can do so in their roles. Asking the right questions to uncover new ideas and frameworks while educating how loyalty programs can be the tool to drive company objectives and individual success is key.
How have you seen the loyalty space evolve in 2021?
The reality is that the fundamentals of loyalty have not changed — understanding customers and building relationships based on their needs and behaviours is the goal for successful customer engagement programs and driving sales. The difference in 2021 is that the need is stronger than ever. Consumer behaviour has changed, and it has changed based on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected us individually. Most small businesses, restaurants, and travel providers have been drastically impacted. During tough times, communicating virtually has been the lifeline to keeping customers engaged with their brands. With the staffing shortages and negative impact of supply chain issues, customers are further impacted on their shopping experience. With brands facing so many challenges, driving foot traffic and sales is going to be the priority — but that doesn’t mean that loyalty programs can take a back seat.
A loyalty program, and the data collected through it, can be the most important tool to provide brands insight on how customers are interacting and transacting (or not) while identifying gaps where they can target marketing investments. A loyalty program should be the umbrella for customer service, product availability, promotions, and partnerships with like-minded complementary brands. A loyalty program can be the lens of all customer interactions. The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for collaboration and customer data. This is a starting point of how brands can come together and leverage resources to address operational challenges or leverage marketing assets to help drive incremental/reciprocal value for their organizations — ultimately benefiting and engaging the customer. Consumers want to get back out to eat, shop, play, and travel. Loyalty programs and tools like digital gift cards and innovative payment products maybe some of the most important tools to help brands facilitate this, one customer at a time, building back to where we were in 2019.