Monday 5 January 2009

It takes two to Tango

One thing that really annoys me is how companies only allow the named customer to make account enquiries – from gas bills to credit cards, typically only the primary or named card holder can make enquiries, which seems ridiculous when the caller is quite obviously a spouse. I know from personal experience the frustration this brings when my wife is trying to organise things and has to rely on me to make a phone call… normally 5 days later than agreed!

This may be fine for utility and finance companies that are not known for their levels of customer service, but within loyalty programmes this really is unacceptable as more often than not the spouse can be a major force within loyalty programme decisions.

Recent research from TNS showed that UK housewives spend 47% of their leisure time online – one of the highest percentages across the 16 countries surveyed. Now that might seem like a lot of time in comparison to other groups but you can bet that those housewives are doing more than just "surfing" – they are probably doing the weekly shop, managing the household finances, researching household purchases, buying gifts and quite possibly managing their partners loyalty accounts.

Within many schemes, despite not being the primary user of the scheme the partner does take an interest in the rewards. In some schemes such as frequent flyer programmes, it has been known for points to be contested during relationship breakdowns due to their high perceived value. On a day to day basis, for many of the schemes I've been involved with it is the partners who call the service centre to try and make balance enquiries or reward redemptions – and quite often find the response being that the primary card holder must call back.

This really is a missed opportunity and in many cases may be value destroying.

Within B2B marketing it is recognised that buying decisions are very rarely a one person activity and instead they are made up of a number of stakeholders. Names have been given to these different players within the process such as Users, Influencers, Deciders and Gate Keepers and there are strategies for addressing each role. Within B2C though it is sometimes overlooked that many consumers are also part of a larger unit, the family, and that decisions are very rarely taken in isolation. Obviously a decision about which airline someone may take for a business trip wouldn't be a family decision, but how the subsequent points will be spent probably will – the destination, the date, the additional spend – all of these will be subject to a larger discussion.

Marketers working in the kids sector understand this principle. As Dr James U. McNeal pointed out in his book "Children as Consumers: Insights and Implications", the big power of children was not just within the limited purchasing power they had, but rather in the influence they had over family purchases – or as its typically termed now – pester power. Marketers needed to create demand within the child for a product whilst separately communicating to the adults about the relevant benefits, pricing and availability – two separate communications messages – one communication strategy.

These disciplines should also be applied within loyalty marketing.

Understanding that the partner may have more time to review rewards and benefits and more desire for certain types of product can help to create that "pester" power or "Nag" factors that ensures the primary member stays firmly within the programme and maximises their earning potential. These spouses are also probably more likely to expound the benefits of the scheme to friends both online and offline so providing greater word of mouth potential.

Credit card companies cottoned on to this very early on and there is generally always a space on the application form for including an additional card holder – the card company knowing that this will lead to increased card spend. Loyalty programmes on the other hand normally just assume that its one account one person with no encouragement or messaging for additional account holders – this needs to change.

Loyalty schemes should actively encourage partners to register as joint participants and the scheme should understand their preferences and provide the primary participant with the ability to grant permission for them to manage the account. Even where schemes do support additional account holders, this is usually documented in the small print rather than highlighted as a programme benefit and positively encouraged.

It's also worth noting that these additional partners will have different needs and desires and so communications shouldn't use a one size fits all approach. Some more forward looking schemes have actively sent a glossy DM rewards booklets to the home address knowing that these will in all likelihood be opened and perused by the partner or spouse; if you're asking questions about preferences you also cannot assume that these apply to the household – whilst the husband may like short breaks and golfing holidays the wife may like lakes and mountains - as ever there would be compromise but if you're hoping to engage both partners you'll need to understand separately what they are looking for.

Involving partners/spouses directly within a loyalty programme can have real benefits and I think it's high time that loyalty programme operators liberated their schemes and maximised the potential that they can offer.