Special Report
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How businesses are managing customer relationships amid Covid-19

Kathleen O’Callaghan looks at the heightened focus on customer pampering driven in part by the pandemic

Leading companies, from hotel groups and car dealers to fashion retailers, who heavily invest in customer relationship management (CRM) are reaching out to their customers with unprecedented generosity and attention as online sales skyrocket. As they endeavour to maintain long-term business users and reward their loyalty, they are ensuring the customer is king and treating top-brass clients like royalty.

In fact, some pampered clients boast they are being love-bombed with treats, freebies and special offers, which makes a welcome change from credit card bills, final demands and disconnection notices.

Ensuring loyalty all comes down to customer relationships and building up a feelgood rapport with your retail followers via data sharing, customer preferences and targeted marketing research. Getting the long-term client to stay with you is the marketing objective. It’s like an old marriage. Sometimes you are better off with the devil you know than splashing out on a new but possibly meaner version of the same working model.

Hotels are keen customer relationship managers. Ciara Hanley of the InterContinental Hotel in Dublin says all the guests at the IHG hotel can become a loyalty member of the group and as they move up in status more benefits are added.


“Every guest wants to feel at home. Our guests are greeted by name and welcomed back stay after stay, assigned their favourite room overlooking that special view that they like in our unique building in Ballsbridge. They can access our lowest rates too, as well as earn points on every stay at 6,000 destinations globally, and redeem points to enjoy a free night as well.”

A guest may choose your hotel primarily because they like your exclusive linens and complimentary Lir chocolates on your bedside tables, to give one example. Hanley suggests getting creative with the ideas you use to market your hotel and showcase your unique style. Some hotels host outdoor movie nights complete with complimentary snacks and canapes, or an evening cocktail hour. Five-star establishments prepare welcome bags for guests who reach certain milestones, as well as going-away goodie bags with soap and shower gels. Guests usually help themselves to these anyway, so why not throw them in as a bonus?

The longer companies keep customers, the more revenue is generated, leading to higher returns and more profit. So how do you protect and grow CLV (customer lifetime value)?

Profitability is only achievable when the CLV is greater than the investment you made to get the customer in the first place. You can’t afford to blow your budget on promotions that leave you searching for coins behind the couch. Healthy retention rates drive positive CLV: if you can keep more customers longer, they will generate more revenue, higher returns, and more profit.

‘Above and beyond’

Dr David Dempsey is general manager of Salesforce Ireland, who have excelled through the pandemic despite the challenges. "Many of our employees went above and beyond to connect with our customers, partners, and to support each other. A great example of this is our 'B-Well Together', Dublin series. At the onset of the pandemic, we started hosting weekly wellbeing breaks to provide wellbeing tips and resources. We were very impressed to see so many of our colleagues step up and share their own wellbeing tips, habits, and practices with their colleagues on video calls." This kinetic energy was channelled to enhance customer experiences, as the Salesforce workers came up with more ideas to generate smart rewards.

“With great ideas, endless energy, and the occasional dash of good fun, our employees in Ireland created a range of wellbeing sessions that energised and inspired our Dublin community,” according to Dr Dempsey. “This feeling of community is what sets Salesforce Ireland apart. Our people bring our culture to life as they show up every day, ready to go above and beyond for our customers and for each other.”

The Salesforce global team provide the building blocks of CRM and have a targeted loyalty management product for retail, consumer goods, manufacturing, travel and hospitality companies designed to increase customer trust and engagement.

Personalised experience

Data analytics powers the personalised, online experience to deliver what customers want from certain car brands, holiday destinations or favourite designer labels.

Before embarking on any large-scale promotion companies must spend key money on data protection and the best systems to keep customers’ accounts safe. It stands to reason that secure customers are happy customers, who in turn are loyal, more willing to spend customers.

After that, it's all about enticing the right customers and feathering their nests or flattering their egos. As Shirley Bassey might say: "Hey Big Spender! Spend a little time and moolah with me."

Japanese auto company Nissan has dealerships all over the world, and to make the buying experience even more fulfilling for customers, the company executed a special loyalty programme to build on their driver base.

Customers earn points for spending money on vehicles and parts and services. Buying a vehicle provides a few hundred euro discount for the next vehicle purchase. Enrolled members are eligible for a physical loyalty card delivering perks and promos. The rewards continue long beyond the first year of purchase.

Europcar, a global leader in the car and van rental business, has a hybrid-style rewards programme, with permanent perks available for everyone who joins, coupled with a tiered system for long-time engagement. For example, all members are eligible for 10 per cent off the public rate for a car or van rental of three-plus days. After three rentals, members earn a free car rental for a weekend. Members are also privy to priority service and a free one-car category upgrade. There are Priority Pass memberships for airport lounges offering a break from queueing in a sweaty airport with the kids hanging out of your arms.

Charity sector

The charity sector also needs to be customer conscious, according to Mary Gamble, director of fundraising, communications and retail with Barnardos. "At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic it became clear we could no longer deliver our 'business as usual' donation requests – the line between our supporters and those who we supported began to grow distorted," she explains. "We started to reach out to people who had been regular donors to our work – not to ask them for money but to ask how they were coping, could we do anything to help. We offered guidance on how to talk to your children about Covid-19 or how to cope with the stress of home-schooling. Very often people we spoke to were feeling lonely, scared, and needed a friendly listening ear."

Trust is all important. “Customer care should be based on a foundation of trust and none more so than in the charity sector,” says Gamble. “Keeping in touch with our donors to tell them about the impact of their donations forms a significant part of our communications. Each touchpoint provides us with an opportunity to make our donors feel part of the Barnardos family and for us to share with them how donation is making a difference to the lives of vulnerable children and families. The customer experience is crucial – the feelgood factor felt by donors is the product we deliver. The challenge for us is that we cannot just meet but need to exceed the experience given in other sectors – with less money, budgets and resources. Because without our customers we would no longer be able to help the children and families who critically need our support.”

Trust is also a key area of focus for Cooney Carey chartered accountants, according to Gillian Conway, a director with the firm's taxation department. "The best advice is given and received only when there is trust between the parties," she says. "Trust is not a given – it is earned over time by consistently keeping promises and delivering excellent service. We completed our latest confidential client survey in April, and it showed that 99 per cent of our clients fully trusted us. This has enabled us to make a positive impact on 93 per cent of the clients we serve. This combination has given us a 99 per cent satisfaction rating overall."

Online shopping

The pandemic has driven millions of careful shoppers online and untapped unprecedented online traffic and retail orders. Since the start of the pandemic, more than one-third of US consumers have tried a new brand, and 80 per cent of them intend on sticking with it given the right gratitude. Similar changes are happening here too. Tesco and Dunnes Stores have now discovered a huge online shopping crowd who may never return physically to the shops due to the accessibility offered by online, even after the Covid crisis ends. This gives these supermarkets a dream opportunity to put more in their big-spender reward ebags – like a special gizmo for the kitchen or a voucher towards a hotel break.

That switch to online has been very challenging for many city centre stores, according to Marian O’Donnell, media and public affairs manager with Dublin Chamber. “We know from talking to our members that retail in the city centre has been particularly impacted and hit by Covid-19,” she says. “When we talk about recovery in relation to retail in the city centre we have to acknowledge that the sector has undergone significant change, real long-term change, in a very short timeframe. The future of retail in our city centre relies on businesses embracing that change, moving towards experiential shopping and putting the instore experience front and centre. But businesses need to be supported as they develop and transition into that space. In reimagining retail in our city centre, it needs to be mixed-use, it needs to be innovative and interesting, and online shopping and technology need to be embraced by our retailers to support and complement their physical space.”

Loyalty management plans

Loyalty management plans allow companies to pull in their customer data – including marketing interactions, purchase history and website visits – to create a clear picture of the customer and inform the personalised promotions customers receive. For example, a retailer like The North Face could promote an exclusive ski trip that they are offering in partnership with a local ski resort, or a boating break. Meanwhile, a B2B manufacturer can reward a business customer with free links to a marketing tutorial, an inspirational podcast or a webinar or product training.

It's just as important not to go too far and offer overly generous rewards that could put you out of business

When building a loyalty programme, the goal is to acquire customers, retain them and increase their shelf-life. Don’t overload them with goodies or promises or your customers may feel they are being stalked by a Fatal Attraction-esque figure with a suspicious amount of information about them.

Victoria's Secret, the leading lingerie retailer, has a separate brand geared for a younger audience called PINK. Perfect for the Instagram, selfie-obsessed crowd, the PINK Nation app for the brand ensured it merged the classic online shopping experience with fun games and contests. It also reminds retailers that if a major percentage of your target audience comprises young, e-surfing customers, then give them a cool app with games, rewards, and prizes to get them more connected with the business's personality.

Even accountancy firms have to pay attention to customer loyalty. "Reward for loyalty for long-term clients is the depth of knowledge and understanding built within the relationship that can be called upon immediately," says Eamonn Madden, a director with Cooney Carey's taxation department. "At our core is the close intimacy we have with our clients – we will know what the important issues are for our clients, and we build our service around that. For compliance matters such as audit and tax returns, we provide peace of mind – the client knows that they need not worry about deadlines and the ever-increasing complexity of statutory returns. In the consulting area, our clients know that we have their back if matters are rocky and that we add value to their business development."

Popular schemes

As of its launch in February 2019, Amazon already had 20 brands onboard its Moments tool offering digital rewards, including TikTok, Bravo, Sony Crackle, and Sesame Street, as well as offering physical rewards through the tool, with Amazon handling the bonus bags from its warehouses. The Marriott Hotels have a popular customer loyalty rewards programme called Marriott Bonvoy Benefits. Travellers can redeem points for free hotel nights, dining, and other experiences. They can also earn points with car rentals and flights, share points with friends and family, and get free wifi and special rates.

But glitzy sales promotions may not always be an answer. It’s just as important not to go too far and offer overly generous rewards that could put you out of business.

In all the excitement of launching a fantastic new loyalty programme to boost revenue, increase customer retention and put your brand on the map, businesses have a tendency to promise the world.

Even the big-name brands are vulnerable to this.

Tesla had to pull the plug on a rewards programme that offered six months of free supercharging upon purchase of a new Tesla vehicle. According to Elon Musk, the programme was severely affecting the company's profit margins and adding too much cost to the cars as a result.

Eventually, Tesla rolled out a sustainable programme so that the existing Tesla vehicle owner and the new buyer both enjoy 1,000 miles of free supercharging. Maybe Musk’s next big idea will be a free trip to Mars for his 100 most loyal customers. Once it’s not a one-way trip it could be a bit of a blast!