Taking Care of the Customers Is Key to Ensuring Loyalty

At a time when the competition for the guest dollar and loyalty is fierce, it's a challenge to stand out. How can a brand develop a loyalty program that is relevant for a variety of guests?

Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine connected with Christine Ralph, Director of Loyalty for HOA Brands, the parent company of Hooters and Hoots Wings, to discuss all things loyalty. As a former college tennis player, she brings strategic thinking and competitiveness from the court to her role overseeing the loyalty program.

What are the best practices for building a new loyalty program?

The first step in building a successful loyalty program is understanding your customers. Hooters has done a great job of creating a community in stores over the past 40 years, and we knew that the foundation of our loyalty program needed to be based on research about our audience, the market and what motivates them to dine at our restaurants. Brands should look to utilize their consumer data and design their loyalty program to adapt to customer preferences and offer personalized experiences or offers. 

The next step is key: be transparent and clear across all channels. Loyalty programs should be straightforward and easy to understand, so consistent messaging across every channel of the customer-facing journey is critical. Customers should be able to easily navigate a platform to learn how to join, know where to find terms and conditions, deals, and more. In addition, brands should always have a way to measure success. Setting quantifiable goals and KPIs enables us to understand what is working and what isn’t.

Keeping customers engaged cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to rewards, so brands need to offer valuable rewards and a mix of them.

Keeping customers engaged cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to rewards, so brands need to offer valuable rewards and a mix of them. At Hooters, HootClub Rewards loyalty members receive a variety of reward types, including discounts, free items, anniversary and holiday deals, exclusive events, and more. On the data side, we analyze preferences and trends to tailor our rewards and communications to meet the individual’s needs and wants.

The last, and most important, piece of the puzzle is customer service. Brands need to ensure that they are taking care of their customers, whether it be in restaurant, online or through customer support. At the heart of our brand, our Hooters Girls ensure top-notch customer service in brick-and-mortar locations, and we have a support team that is available online for our guests. These avenues have helped Hooters deliver on our brand promise of “Hooters Makes You Happy” for over 40 years, and through the customer journey and online experience, our goal is for the loyalty program to be an extension of that promise.  

As loyalty programs develop and evolve, brands should constantly monitor progress, adapt to new information and trends, and explore opportunities that benefit the customer.

How can a brand develop a program that is flexible enough to offer more to a variety of potential guests?

One way to cater to a wide variety of consumers is by offering tiered membership levels, with increasing benefits and customized rewards at each level. This allows customers to choose their level of engagement with your brand and can encourage them to strive for higher tiers for a sense of achievement. With HootClub Rewards, we have multiple tiers, so whether you just joined or have been a loyalty guest for years now, we have a range of rewards based on where you are in your loyalty lifecycle. This flexibility ensures that there is something appealing for everyone. 

Additionally, brands should want their guests to engage with their loyalty program no matter where they are, so ensuring a seamless omni-channel experience is important. At Hooters, we give our customers the flexibility to order and redeem their rewards in store at one of our restaurants or online to enjoy in the comfort of their own home. This ensures we are providing convenience and a unified experience for all. 

Lastly, brands should regularly update the program based on customer feedback and market trends. You can do this by introducing new rewards, features and engagement opportunities to keep the customer loyalty program fresh and exciting. We spice things up by including seasonal promotions and limited-time offers through HootClub Rewards to create a sense of urgency and exclusivity, while catering to different customer preferences throughout the year.

What do guests expect/want from a loyalty program?

Guests have specific expectations and desires from a loyalty program which can significantly influence their decision to join and actively participate or not. A user-friendly interface for both online and app-based loyalty programs is crucial as guests appreciate easy navigation and simple steps for earning and redeeming. Along with that, consistent and relevant communication about new rewards, offers or upcoming events keeps the program top-of-mind and encourages ongoing participation. At HootClub Rewards, we always strive to communicate the value and benefits of our loyalty program to help enhance the appeal for more guests to join.

Personalization is key as guests want offers that provide value and are relevant to their interests and preferences. They appreciate multiple earning and redemption options, allowing them to choose how, when, and what to redeem, ultimately leading to high guest satisfaction. 

Guests also want to feel valued and appreciated; it’s important to acknowledge their participation and reward them for their loyalty and support to your brand. We strive for guests to feel that value whether through personalized messages, special birthday rewards or acknowledgement of milestones within our program. Ultimately, we want to have a loyalty program that drives customer satisfaction, loyalty and retention. 

Guests have expressed privacy concerns when it comes to their data. How should brands address these concerns in their loyalty efforts?

The customer’s needs should always be top of mind for any brand. Transparency is important, and brands should make it completely clear how guests’ data is collected and used, while also providing easy ways to opt in or out of data sharing. Guests should also be able to easily access, update, and delete their data if needed. To do this, brands should stay up to date on compliance policies to adhere to legal requirements. There is a deep well of knowledge out there on compliance and legal requirements, so starting research ahead of time is essential for ensuring a loyalty program is built on a solid foundation.

What are common mistakes brands make with loyalty programs and how can they correct them?

By far, the biggest mistake a brand could make is not talking to, or listening to, their customers. Starting at the most basic level, brands need to promote their loyalty programs with their guests to gain visibility and awareness. Maintaining regular communications in-store, in the app, email, and on social media will keep customers engaged and decrease the likelihood of any drop-off in participation. And on the flip side of that, brands should actively solicit feedback from their customers and take swift action to address concerns and implement suggestions. Demonstrating responsiveness and commitment to improving the program can help regain customer confidence.

We all know the saying, less is more. Brands often overcomplicate their loyalty program structures when it needs to be straightforward. We provide step-by-step guides and FAQs to help customers navigate our program and clearly outline how it works. Customers should understand how to enroll, how to earn, and how to redeem in an easy and clear manner – no one wants a frustrated customer. 

Failing to personalize the loyalty experience for individual customers can lead to disengagement with your brand.

In the end it all comes back to personalization. Failing to personalize the loyalty experience for individual customers can lead to disengagement with your brand. That’s why it’s so important for brands to leverage consumer data to tailor offers, rewards, and communication based off their preferences and behaviors while regularly updating those offers based on ongoing customer interactions to keep things fresh and remain top of mind. 

It’s important for brands to recognize and correct certain common mistakes to improve the effectiveness and performance of their loyalty program. At Hooters we are constantly making sure our program is continuing to drive increased engagement, satisfaction and loyalty among our customers. 

In what ways are brands using AI and other advanced digital tools to reach audiences in their loyalty programs?

Brands are leveraging AI and other advanced digital tools in various ways to better engage with their audiences. One example includes predictive analytics to anticipate customer needs and behaviors, which enables more targeted marketing campaigns by analyzing past interactions and data patterns. In addition, AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can provide instant support to loyalty program customers by answering questions, resolving issues and offering personalized recommendations in real-time, enhancing the overall customer experience. At Hooters, we rely heavily on our partners to provide our technology components and platforms with AI to help improve analysis and processing capabilities overtime. All in all, AI is here to stay, and brands should take advantage of this evolving technology to maintain relevance and ultimately drive long-term customer loyalty, engagement and retention.