Q&A: AT&T's Stuart Dunleavy

It’s been just over a year since AT&T launched its loyalty program, “AT&T Thanks.” What began as a way to appreciate wireless users has now been broadened to cover the company’s entire spectrum of offerings, including television and Internet service. Similarly, the rewards have expanded beyond reduced-price movie tickets and company-provided benefits to include partners such as TopGolf. Marketing Daily spoke with Stuart Dunleavy, associate vice president, customer lifecycle marketing at AT&T, to discuss the program.

Why did you develop Thanks and what were the intentions behind it?

It’s been a little over a year. The "Thanks" program was originally initially in the mobility business. It was designed to be an appreciation program for AT&T to return value to our customers in a way that expresses our thanks and recognition of their loyalty, tenure and engagement with the brand. Clearly the seismic shifts that have happened are that we’ve merged the entire consumer business together — mobility, video and broadband — and the "Thanks" program has been expanded to cover the entire consumer business. 



Why did you feel the need to create the program? Were there market forces that drove it?

Loyalty programs exist in almost every sector you can point to. Whether it’s travel or financial services or any number of different retail outlets. The telecom sector at the time was at the time launching them, so we were either right on or just ahead of the curve. But more than competitive pressure, it was about AT&T returning value to customers and creating a vehicle that would do that in a more structured way. 

What have you learned about your customers in the year you've been running the program and its expansion?

We also operate in a slightly different model than other sectors because we’re a subscription business. Quite often, there isn’t a daily decision to make a transaction. What we’ve also tried to focus on — and is resonating well with our customers — as AT&T is making it’s pivot to becoming an entertainment provider, we’re focusing more and more on having an integrated entertainment solution. It’s really about trying to create more value through that integrated offer. What we’re trying to do is determine the components of the entertainment proposition that has the most value for the customer and then supplement that with a very carefully selected range of partners that fit with that.

How have you gone about communicating these benefits to consumers, and what has been effective in doing that?

When the program launched, we had a dot-com venue and used a combination of direct-marketing tactics. We reached out through e-mail and newsletters and a number of digital channels. But most exciting and of critical importance was we recognized the need for a specific venue for customers to learn about the program. So a couple of months ago, we launched the AT&T "Thanks" app. This is an app that is a single window that gives information, content about previous events and we’re embedding the fulfillment capability for the benefits themselves. And we’ve seen a really positive response to that. 

How often do you communicate with customers beyond the app? Do you have a need for constant communication or do you let them discover it on their own?

We’ve been prudent in the amount of communications we put out. We want to make sure that any dialog about the program is meaningful and has some weight behind it. But the program is still at a relatively early stage of communication. We’ve sent out welcome e-mails. Similarly when you become an AT&T customer for the first time or add a product, we will send you details about the "Thanks" program as part of your onboarding process. We also have a monthly newsletter that’s designed to aggregate the contents of the "Thanks" program and highlight new features and benefits. We like the idea of having a relatively conservative number of touches. We don’t want to bombard our customers. We all receive a lot of communications, so we want them to be meaningful. 

Over the year of this program, what has worked particularly well , and what hasn’t worked as well as you would have hoped?

We’ve seen a really positive response with our entertainment offerings. Where we've been able to access other parts of our portfolio and access premium content for a period of time has worked really well. I think what’s also going to be important with the customer is a combination of evergreen programs — those that have value permanently — and other benefits that we want to run on a seasonal or time-limited benefits. It’s really important to keep the rewards of any loyalty program fresh and it’s equally important to keep adding benefits over time. At the end of the day, you have to have meaningful benefits that the customer can understand.

What have you learned over this program with regards to customer retention?

This is just one part of our ongoing commitment to our customers. First and foremost, customer retention is about providing excellent service, whether it’s through the care product or the service integration with the frontline people or the delivery of the project itself. "Thanks" is just one element within that suite of areas the company can focus on to make sure we take care of our customers. As it relates to "Thanks," customers want to be recognized for their tenure. We have some customers who have been with us for a very long time, and it’s important we recognize that tenure. And the value and engagement the customer has with the brand in terms of the number of products and services they have. 

How does this help you differentiate among your competitors?

I’d go back to the breadth and quality and assets that AT&T has within its ecosystem. We feel that each of our individual product lines and experiences is really great, but when you combine the bundle of superior mobility service with one-demand content streaming to your device, and IP Connectivity to your home. That mix of product and services and as a bundle and integrated offering is where we think AT&T "Thank"s can pay off the huge investment our parent AT&T has made. We’re constantly looking for ways to encourage and provide reasons for customers to enjoy our offerings. It’s about AT&T coming together as one.

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