Using Customer Experience Optimization To Boost Loyalty Programs

The online travel industry has changed: travel agencies now provide a one-stop shop for everything from airfare and room and board to transportation and tours, hotels and car rental agencies are teaming up, and airlines aren’t the only ones offering frequent traveler programs. 

And consumers are taking advantage of this to please their own wallets as well as to avoid too many booking snafus. Always-on-the-prowl bargain hunters can make marketing in the travel industry difficult—especially for companies that can’t compete price-wise. But how do you create and maintain brand loyalty when consumers have hundreds, if not thousands, of choices? By ensuring that visitors have a successful browsing and booking experience.  

Loyalty programs, reward points and status levels—when executed correctly—can significantly boost customer retention and long-term brand loyalty. Even better, these programs give travel marketers and on-the-ground team members—such as concierges, management and front desk agents—deep levels of personalized data on guests that can be used to significantly improve their experience from the time of booking to the time of checkout. The problem is the industry really has not yet grasped how to use these rich data portals to provide a seamless 360-degree brand experience across all channels—meaning not just in their marketing initiative, but also to the customers actual experience in real life.

Your digital assets are the perfect lynchpin for achieving an exceptional guest experience. But before loyalty programs can be successful, there are a few steps to aligning business objectives with customer needs.

Step 1: Review Your Itinerary: Discover where brand delivery is failing

This may be obvious, but it’s always a good idea to sit down, evaluate your current marketing and business objectives and prioritize what you want to change. Don’t just focus on loyalty programs, guest complaints or even your CRM program; instead, think about overall business, revenue and company goals. Are current marketing efforts positively impacting revenues? Are you using CRM data to make the online and offline experience as relevant as possible? Are you investing time and effort into email marketing without a true segmentation and personalization plan? Before tearing-down, launching or re-tooling anything, uncover your issues, achievements, successes, trends, and gaps. Clearly defined digital goals will lead you in the right direction to perfecting the overall customer-brand relationship.  

Step 2: Consider Guests’ Reviews and Take Them to Heart

These days it’s likely your current or would-be customers’ experience starts with the online booking process. While your guests’ impression of your hotel, airline, car, bus, train, or tour, will be the sum of multiple interactions across a number of potential touch-points—mobile, social media, email, GPS/maps, advertising, check-in/check-out, service, quality, experience, etc.—the online booking experience is often the customer’s first impression of your brand’s perceived value and quality. 

Forrester research found that nearly one in five U.S. online leisure travel bookers encounter problems with travel sites—namely with redeeming loyalty rewards, completing or modifying reservations, or finding information on the terms or conditions of a fare or rate.  These frustrated bookers, are young, tech-savvy, and much more likely to switch to a competitor when issues arise (loyalty program or not!). Oops, big oops.

So, if nearly 20% of travelers are experiencing issues with online booking, then there’s a lot of business at stake to those who don’t streamline their booking process (and a lot of opportunity for those that do). The good news is that your visitors will give you access to their opinions on the content, design, and overall experience of your site. But before you run out and start gathering data from costly focus groups or customer polls, consider getting this information by looking at the data you already have, based on their online preferences and behaviors.

Start by identifying the different elements—buttons, forms, pages, pricing options, and so forth–that push them through the booking funnel. Which elements experience a high abandonment rate? How easy is the process visitors must go through to convert from researcher to customer? Once you’ve identified these items, you can test the effectiveness of the different elements that comprise them. 

If you’re new A/B testing or multivariate testing start small. Even simple tests such button colors, banner ads and copy placement can impact conversions and bookings. Recently, OTA Laterooms.com ran a test to explore the impact of adding messages across the “Hotel Details Page”, and increased the overall booking confirmations by 9.13%. 

If you’re already testing your site(s) for these types of small, iterative changes, try something more advanced (or daring), in order to discover more opportunities for conversion improvement and customer experience enhancement. Knowing, for example, that during the research phase, many travelers tend to consult Google maps (especially when booking at hotels as they want to ensure their location is safe, accessible and desirable), consider incorporating a Google map directly into your site so that visitors less likely to leave your site and more likely to move into the booking funnel. Maps can provide convenience to determine how close a hotel is to a local attraction, or the types of restaurants available nearby—and convenience is a big part of a good travel (or travel booking) experience.

No matter what the feature though, testing several renditions will enable you to determine how and when these features benefit your exact visitors and improve conversion rates. 

Step 3: Show Your Loyalty: Combine Loyalty, CRM and Online Behavior

Traditionally travel marketers have focused on boosting enrollment in loyalty programs to gain access to better CRM data. But it seems there is a disproportionate relationship between CRM data and its use to improve the customer experience. That is: now that their websites are playing an increased role in travel bookings, many brands have more CRM data than ever before but are less inclined to marry it and loyalty data with the online customer experience. This data isn’t just for tracking points and past reservations, it can be used to digitally personalize the experience for each customer, in real time. Things like offers, promotions, calls-to-action, room or seat preference, rewards level, type of traveler, etc.—whether on your website, mobile site or app, or in your hotel—can all be pre-selected or promoted based on each visitor’s unique profile. This will ensure visitors see content relevant to their loyalty level and behavior, which makes the entire booking process easier, reinforces their loyalty status and confirms their importance to the brand.

Yes, it’s true, using CRM data in real time to drive bookings and customer retention is now possible. CRM practices were born and bred in the offline world, but today marrying offline, online and mobile consumer data through new technologies will help you achieve better CRM and multichannel marketing outcomes: more precise targeting, personalization and consumer connections across all media channels, and delivered at the time most appropriate to increasing conversion—an very important factor in the travel industry. Imagine being able to target your consumers across the various phases of travel with different messages that can benefit them: research, booking, check-in, etc. Not only can you dramatically enhance and personalize their experience with your hotel, but increased retention, loyalty and customer lifetime values also result from a truly connected multichannel experience.

Step 4: Personalize the Experience for All Customers

Your loyalty program membership is flourishing and your CRM program is successful in its own right. But what about gaining loyalty from visitors who you don’t know much about? Not everyone is going to be a loyalty or rewards member, but that shouldn’t stop you from personalize their experiences as well. 

With each visitor that comes to your website, arrives an opportunity to collect a wealth of user-specific data and create a unique “virtual profile” that can be used to tailor their experience on your site, in real time. Insight on behaviors such as previous trips researched, prior trips, past travel locations, frequency and recency of travel, past purchases, and ads or offers they’ve clicked can inform what content and offers you should make available to each individual, in order to make their visit much more relevant, and hopefully gain their loyalty in the process. 

You can use the data you collect from CRM systems, loyalty programs and unique visitor profiles to define rules, or a set of conditions that trigger the specific content and offers served to the visitor. 

While rules-based targeting is possible, it is very difficult to manually decide the thousands of combinations of behaviors, products and promotions, so, the next best option is automated personalization solutions. These solutions can adapt the online experience for each visitor, based on data from their recent and previous visits, without assigning rules. In the case of a repeat visitor to a hotel site, for example, you might re-target them with a hotel in the last destination they searched and indicate that only two rooms are left at the discount price.  

Step 5: Retarget Properly to Increase Up-sell and cross-sell 

One mistake travel sites often make is automatically tagging on extras, such as trip insurance, car rentals or theater tickets, as their customers enter the booking funnel. The customer has therefore had a price in mind throughout their visit, and suddenly that number changes just as it’s time to purchase.  By forcing these add-ons at the wrong time, you’re more likely to elevate annoyance levels then cart sizes. With recommendations, up-selling and cross-selling, timing is everything. Don’t be pushy up-front; instead, leverage CRM, trip and personalization data to get the right offer in their face at the right moment. 

The good news is that, as a travel company, you typically know the exact dates of a customer’s trip and therefore can target them with timely add-ons that don’t interfere with or distract from the booking process via email, mobile, display ads, your website, etc. Additionally, it’s likely your traveler will return to your site prior to departure to print a reservation, double check the room type, look up check-in/out times, or view onsite amenities and nearby activities. The best part is, if you have used your CRM and personalization data properly, you have already collected a unique profile for them during the research and booking phase, so you have a good idea of what items to cross-sell and up-sell.

For European Budget airline, bmibaby, selling add-ons, such as travel insurance and paid seat bookings, has been critical to their success. But like most travel brands, figuring out the best way to increase add-on revenue without deterring customers or bookings, required some trial and error. bmibaby started by testing and updating elements throughout the booking funnel—elements such as moving the call-to-action on the "seat selector" page, repositioning and reordering the "help" copy, and adjusting the right hand vs. left hand position of the seat selector diagram. The new winning page (according to their live visitors!) increased in paid seat bookings by 18%.

If you’re ready to provide a deeper connection and more personalized guest service across all touch points, it’s time to stop playing guessing games with your digital assets and listen to your customers’ real live feedback. Even simple changes like button colors can improve conversion rates, and getting smart with targeting and personalization will make turning browsers into buyers and enhancing their loyalty a snap. So listen to your guests, give them what they want and make them feel special, every single time, in every single [digital] destination.

Tags: loyalty, travel
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2 comments about "Using Customer Experience Optimization To Boost Loyalty Programs ".
  1. Robert Gilmour from Innfinite Hospitality Ltd , July 31, 2012 at 4:18 p.m.
    On minute commentators/bloggers are saying there's no such thing as travel brand loyalty, the next thing they're extolling its virtues. In between they're saying well it might exist but its not worth worrying about. This article is telling us hotel professionals nothing we don't already know.
  2. Mark Simpson from Maxymiser , August 1, 2012 at 10:21 a.m.
    Thanks for your comment Robert. It sounds like you're ahead of the game. I would be interested in knowing how you are achieving one-to-one online personalization integrated with your loyalty programs? Many brands we work with are still learning the ropes. While I can't speak for all bloggers and don't freely adopt their opinions as my own, travel brand loyalty is alive and well when actively pursued. That is the point of this article and much of our work.