Picking the right partners: How NTUC Link expanded its merchant portfolio

When it comes to creating the right loyalty programme for your brand, having a good myriad of merchant partners is crucial in ensuring your customers get the most holistic experience with options. The next important factor is picking the right partners for your programme, Henry Christian, head of loyalty, NTUC Link, said during a recent Customer Experience conference organised by Marketing.

Doing so often involves starting with the customers. For the case of NTUC Link, the sales teams work closely with the loyalty and consumer team, together with the analytics teams. Through this collaboration, NTUC Link is able to establish which brands customers are really interested in.

This feedback is then relayed to sales, which is in charge of securing partners, and also advised when to re-look at the profile of target merchants. This ensures the merchants coming on board are those who are relevant to customers.

“So while the sales try to get the partners, it is our job to give the feedback. Because we are running a platform ecosystem, it is always a chicken and egg situation. There’s no easy way, but you have to find a balance,” Christian explained.

Given that many merchants today have their own loyalty programmes, getting merchants on board a single loyalty programme is not always the easiest. Christian added:

It is important to look at loyalty as a programme and not just a product.

“When we talk to merchants and ask them to join, they don’t usually like it because they have their own loyalty systems and points – so using ours doesn’t make sense,” Christian said.

To overcome this, Christian said that interviewing the merchants is key. This is because it is important to understand the business challenges and problems faced by merchants – this includes solving loyalty pains from a merchant perspective.

After 200 to 300 interviews, this allowed the brand to figure out the four main problems associated with their loyalty programme – allowing it to  come up with solutions which benefit all parties.

“Everyone wants to acquire new customers, and ensure these customers keep coming back. Another common issue was ensuring customers not only made repeated purchases but also recommended the merchant to their friends,” Christian said.

“This saw NTUC Link creating digital vouchers and digital stamps to address concerns on whether there was a closed loop mechanism which allowed the value to translate back to the merchant partner. As such, understanding pain points are crucial.

Currently, NTUC Link’s Plus programme encapsulates categories such as dining and groceries, shopping and leisure, and even transport and services. It believes that the larger the ecosystem it builds, the more data it is able to harness to help merchant partners better understand and improve the customer experience for consumers. This will allow all parties to provide the right offerings to consumers.  Having a large merchant ecosystem also allows the brand to map the customer journey more precisely, Christian said.

Connecting with customers and enhancing the CX

When it comes to having a customer-centric approach, Christian outlined a “three diamonds” framework NTUC Link’s design and research team developed.

The first is “Understand” which refers to the process of talking to both customers and merchants to understand their pain points and empathising with them. This also means understanding and defining the problem statement that the company is trying to solve with the app it wants to launch.

Next is “Design”, which is to sketch and create a prototype of what the mobile app is like and doing a soft launch which involves focus groups for feedback. The prototype will then be reiterated until its official launch. Christian added:

Building an app is getting easier and cheaper, but you only get one shot in connecting with your customers.

The last “diamond” is “Validate”, which involves measuring and learning. For the case of NTUC Link, it had a research team which deployed various methods to understand customers, including studies and going to a customer’s home to ask them for their point of view on loyalty and if there was a need for a mobile app.

“Please be involved in that process, whatever you do. Don’t just delegate this process to the research team and obtain the results. Follow them, talk to customers and merchants to understand the pain points so everyone can be involved in mapping the customer journey,” Christian explained.

There are also other necessary steps when it comes to enhancing the customer experience, such as “housekeeping”. This includes breaking down organisational silos, engaging employees and managing the HiPPOs (highest paid person’s opinion).

“Enhancing customer experience is not the job of one department, or one person in the company. It takes a village, the whole company to actually talk about it and understand the customer’s pain points,” Christian said.

For NTUC Link, it has a forum where management teams meet together. The first 15 minutes is always dedicated to talking about merchant pain points and then customer pain points. The forum also involves feedback sessions from operations, customer service teams and more.

“We talk about all the pain points in the customer journey and try to solve them before actually talking about P&L and the business,” Christian added.

Engaging employees is also crucial in enhancing the customer experience, Christian added, as they are your best brand ambassadors. For the case of NTUC Link, big campaigns are usually done in-house, along with advocacy programmes. Before the launch of its mobile app, the company ran tests with its employees to garner feedback. Christian said:

If you want to start improving the experience, start by improving the experience of your own colleagues.

Lastly, it’s always important for marketers to listen to the paymasters – the customers themselves. Doing so may sometimes involve ignoring the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) in the room – which of course needs to be backed by data and insights.

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