Published March 27-April 2, 2023
The B2C world is flush with loyalty programs – from airlines to credit cards, from retail brands to restaurants. I have always wondered why there are so few B2B loyalty programs. It could be because in B2C, there is a clear beneficiary – the individual customer. In B2B, the decision-makers in the buying cycle are many, and so if a program has to be crafted, it will need to perhaps be more focused on the business. The reasons for a B2B loyalty program are similar to those for B2C: retention, more spending especially in commodity categories, maximising wallet share and lifetime value, and getting an edge in new acquisition. In this series, I will investigate B2B loyalty and suggest some ideas to craft better programs. Let’s begin with a survey on what the current world of B2B loyalty programs looks like.
I have written two essays on B2C loyalty programs. In Microns and Loyalty (June 2021), I wrote: “As consumers, we are part of many loyalty programs. Loyalty brands are a win-win for brands and consumers – brands get greater spends and additional data on their customers, and consumers get rewards and other benefits for their loyalty… The most popular ones are typically those of airlines. In fact, airline miles have become a sort of tradeable currency – where we can earn miles for various activities outside of flying (hotel stays, car rentals, spending via co-branded credit cards) and spend miles on various purchases besides airline tickets. In India, the largest free loyalty program is Payback (owned by American Express) which has 100 million members.”
In Loyalty 2.0, I wrote:
We are all advertently or inadvertently members of various loyalty programs. In some, we track our points earned closely. In others, we don’t care. Most loyalty programs are brand-specific. Points are generally non-transferrable and they can expire. While some have moved to mobile number as the identity, some have long strings of alphanumeric characters that make it necessary to carry the card along for earning points on purchases. Redemption is often not easy – multiple steps or restrictions make the process much harder than earning the points. A few open even debase the program forcibly reducing the value of the earned points. One thing common to all programs is that they are linked to transactions – us as customers spending money. This is the world of Loyalty 1.0.
… There are several limitations of existing loyalty programs. First, the absolute focus on transactions at the cost of the upstream. Second, the lack of incentives for customers to proffer their own data and preferences, which can help brands personalise the offerings creating a win-win relationship. Third, the hurdles put in the way of redemption creates asymmetry: easy to earn, hard to burn, when in fact rewards must be made easy to avail because it will actually lead to more spending. Fourth, the siloed and centralised nature of loyalty programs – limited to a single brand, and therefore the whims of a single individual running the program.
I then went on to describe a Loyalty 2.0 “Atomic Rewards” program – focused not on money and transactions, but on time and Adwaste. Such a program would incentivise the upstream of transactions (attention and data) and the downstream (ratings, reviews, referrals). The core message: pay customers, not Big Adtech.
B2B loyalty programs need a similar rethinking. The two central elements we will discuss are on earning points and then redeeming them.
Commentary – 1
Monigroup: “Nurturing customer loyalty is essential for B2B companies since it allows them to build long-term relationships and, eventually, have access to more opportunities with their clients. Unlike B2C, B2B customers represent a much greater pool of potential business engagements, which may be also incredibly unique. Customer loyalty also morphs into referrals resulting in greater brand awareness, new customer acquisition, and new cross-sell/upsell opportunities… Before approaching business customers with a loyalty program, one should assess the following: business customer’s buying potential along with their buying habits, which stakeholders should be addressed and how best incentivize them, importance of value propositions: the vast majority of B2B buyers are rational to the bone, which is why loyalty programs launched for B2B should focus primarily on business benefits and other value propositions, [and] the line of business specifics, popular loyalty programs in the customer’s business domain, and the customer’s B2B model type (e.g. a loyalty program for a manufacturing company selling to retailers vs. a loyalty program for a company providing its services to a manufacturer should not be the same).”
Peekage: “Customer churn can be a major source of concern for B2B companies. Despite having fewer customers than B2C businesses, B2B transaction value is much higher. This is due to the fact that B2B customers are more likely to order in bulk and are bound by longer-term contracts and subscriptions. Customer retention and satisfaction are top priorities. According to Forrester Research, a 2% increase in customer retention affects profits as a 10% cost reduction, and the average company loses 10% of its customers each year. Customers must be encouraged to make additional purchases from your company… Encouraging customer loyalty is crucial for B2B businesses because it enables them to create lasting connections with their clients and, eventually, gain access to more opportunities. B2B customers, as opposed to B2C, represent a much larger pool of potential business engagements, some of which may be incredibly rare. Additionally, customer loyalty develops into recommendations, which lead to increased brand awareness, new client acquisition, and new cross-sell/upsell opportunities.”
Antavo: “B2C loyalty programs are predominantly free to join, and members often receive instant rewards for enrolling. B2B loyalty programs, however, require clients to sign a contract or make a purchase. Also, B2B reward systems are more suited to the subscription-based model, but only if they offer substantial benefits in exchange… Point collection and redemption (or in other words, earn & burn) is less effective for a B2B reward system, as this structure was designed with frequent, lower-value purchases in mind. Because deals in this market are often subscription or commitment-based, tiers and perks are a far better fit… With regards to incentives, while B2C reward systems use discounts, double points campaigns, and early access, B2B loyalty programs often focus on rewards that provide business enhancement for the client, or special experiences. This can include business consultancy, movie experiences or even prize draws… Because B2B companies face a longer, more thorough decision-making process, they can’t rely on FOMO, such as limited-time holiday offers, to entice people to join. Instead, they should emphasize the long-term benefits that customers receive as members.”
Commentary – 2
Affise: “B2B rewards and incentives help businesses retain customers and build brand loyalty. This is achieved by offering some kind of prize in return. This prize might be a physical reward, or some other sales incentive. Often, these rewards are offered for spending over a certain amount, or making a certain number of purchases. They may be done in conjunction with a channel partner for greater efficiency. The B2B market is different to the B2C market, and B2B merchants face unique challenges. Business customers are looking for different things compared to a consumer, which should impact your planned B2B rewards strategy. The most obvious difference is that any deals you make are fewer in number but greater in importance. This means you need to think about what value you’re offering to a business customer, as much more is riding on this deal.”
SmartKarrot: “B2Bs can tap into several benefits, including access to reliable customer data, encourage up-selling and cross-selling, and gain actionable insights to enhance business strategies.”
Comarch had this chart based on a commissioned study conducted by Forrester on its behalf.
strategy+business: “In a recent PwC customer survey, almost 60% of B2B customers reported they had never had an experience with a brand that made them feel special. That’s an alarmingly high percentage of customers who’ve been given no particular reason to stick around. But the implications of consumer loyalty for B2B companies are enormous, and, if anything, as crucial as they are for consumer-facing companies. After all, it can cost five times more to acquire a customer than to retain one, and on average the most loyal customers account for up to 80% of a company’s revenues. For companies willing to reimagine the traditional transactional nature of their B2B relationships, a loyalty program represents an important growth opportunity. But in this regard, B2B customers can be a tough nut to crack. Many times, the B2B “buyer” is actually more than one person—including those in procurement and finance, along with heads of business, for instance—and these individuals have different needs. Companies must figure out who to pursue: the whole entity or the different purchasers? And getting targeting right is just one piece of the puzzle. To be successful, a B2B loyalty program must also align with the customer’s strategic goals and transform transactional relationships into dynamic partnerships designed to promote mutual success… It won’t be long before loyalty programs begin to take off throughout the B2B world, particularly as the economy springs back from its pandemic lows. And once relationships become sticky, the switching costs for customers will only grow. This should be incentive enough for companies to get serious about showing some love to customers.”
Commentary – 3
The Loyalty Leap for B2B by Bryan Pearson writes about the 4 Rs of B2B loyalty:
Relationships: With B2B loyalty plans, our direct communications will not always be with the end user or decision maker. If we are working with a large enterprise, for example, our contact might be a buyer, several function heads, or representatives, but it is unlikely to be the CEO or the chief marketing officer. The information gleaned from talking with one or two of these contacts is likely to be too vague to meet the needs of decision makers. To make up for this, we must implement broad data collection and disciplined customer information use.
Rewards: B2B organizations must differentiate themselves from their competitors with “soft benefits” or experiential perks, such as training events that lead to certifications or introductions to key vendors or partners. Channel marketers, in particular, are receptive to experiential rewards because the contacts are often sales representatives whose compensation is a mix of salary and incentives.
Recognition: Unlike rewards, recognition is not doled out based on the accumulation of points or miles. It is tied to longevity, customer potential, and transactional history. Recognition is the equivalent of sending a handwritten appreciation note or simply doing someone a favor. n fact, recognition is most often delivered on a person-to-person level.
Relevance: Relevance means knowing where the client is at a point in time, because understanding where the client is in the purchasing process and the associated needs both affect how a marketing message resonates. It also means understanding life stages.
Loyalty Programs: The Complete Guide by Philip Shelper and others writes about how the characteristics of B2B programs tend to be different to B2C programs in six fundamental ways:
Member base size: B2B programs generally have smaller member bases than B2C programs… This provides B2B program operators with an advantage; a smaller member base makes personalisation of communications and services much more achievable.
Member base spend: on average B2B programs generally provide greater value to members than B2C programs. This is because B2B customers tend to spend more than B2C customers, allowing the company to return more value to the business customers as rewards.
Purchasing drivers: businesses have different purchasing approaches to consumers, which necessitates variations in program design. businesses buy to enhance profitability, productivity, payback, and operational ease and maintenance, make slow and complex decisions, receive relevant marketing primarily via direct one-to-one presentations and discussions, and are overly sensitive to technological changes.
Relationships: a B2B relationship may be between multiple participants, including owners, initiators, influencers, deciders, users, buyers and gatekeepers.
Fundamental challenges: the design of a B2B program needs to accommodate three fundamental challenges; ethical, communications and employee longevity.
Reward variations: B2B programs…also tend to include the businesses own products, direct discounts, free education courses, access to events and conferences, and other benefits more suited to the needs of particular customers.
The authors add: “B2B programs should strive to build customer commitment to the brand. Gilliland and Bello (2002) identified three important characteristics specific to loyalty commitment within B2B relationships; it makes it difficult to exit the relationship, partially because loyalty sentiments motivate participants to work out problems rather than leave; it suggests a preference for one company over their competitors when making supply decisions; and, it maintains the relationship even if the decision may be economically irrational.”
One aspect of B2B sales process is the involvement of channel partners. Cristina Ziliani wrote in Loyalty Management about an analysis of 420 cases which contained premium and prize promotions, spanning 20 industries and 25 years, from 1990 to 2015.
ChatGPT on how B2B and B2C loyalty programs are different: “B2B loyalty programs are designed to reward companies for making frequent purchases, while B2C loyalty programs are designed to reward individual consumers for making purchases. B2B loyalty programs often have a different structure and focus, as they deal with larger transactions and longer buying cycles. They may also offer additional benefits such as special pricing, dedicated account management, and early access to new products. In comparison, B2C loyalty programs tend to have a more straightforward rewards structure, where points or stamps are collected for purchases and redeemed for rewards such as discounts, free products, or exclusive experiences. Overall, the key difference between B2B and B2C loyalty programs lies in the nature of the customer and the business relationship, and the rewards and incentives offered are tailored accordingly.”
ChatGPT’s response on five features of a good B2B loyalty program (lightly edited):
- Relevance: Offer rewards and incentives that are relevant and valuable to the target business customer, such as exclusive access to new products, special pricing, or dedicated account management.
- Flexibility: Allow for flexibility in terms of the types of purchases that can be made to earn rewards, and how rewards can be redeemed. This helps to ensure that the program is accessible and appealing to a wide range of businesses.
- Customization: Allow for customization to meet the unique needs and preferences of different business customers. This may include offering tailored rewards or creating different tiers of membership based on the amount of business a company does with the provider.
- Simplicity: Should be easy to understand and participate in. The program should have clear, straightforward rules and be user-friendly, so that businesses can quickly start earning and redeeming rewards.
- Communication: Have effective communication and engagement strategies in place to keep business customers informed and motivated to participate. This may include regular updates on rewards earned, reminders of opportunities to earn more rewards, and promotional campaigns to drive engagement.
And finally, here is ChatGPT’s answer to how can B2B loyalty programs be improved:
- Personalization: Offering customized rewards and experiences based on a business’s specific needs and preferences can increase engagement and satisfaction with the program.
- Data Analytics: Using data analytics to better understand customer behavior and preferences can inform more effective program design and decision-making.
- Streamlined Enrollment and Redemption: Making the enrollment and redemption process simple, fast and user-friendly can increase participation and reduce friction for businesses.
- Real-Time Feedback: Providing real-time feedback on rewards earned and opportunities to earn more can help keep businesses engaged and motivated to participate.
- Integration with other business systems: Integrating the loyalty program with other business systems such as procurement, accounting, and customer relationship management, can provide a more seamless experience for businesses and help maximize the value of the program.
- Flexible Rewards Structure: Offering a flexible rewards structure, such as allowing businesses to choose from a variety of reward options, or allowing rewards to be redeemed in a variety of ways, can increase the appeal of the program and ensure it is valuable to a wider range of businesses.
Next, let us look at some examples of B2B loyalty programs.
I have aggregated examples from multiple sources of loyalty programs. As a caveat: most are probably US-centric and Netcore is not part of any of these programs. A few may even be dated. This exercise in listing programs is to provide ideas to get started.
Antavo provides examples of loyalty programs:
- IBM VIP Rewards: IBM’s VIP program is challenge-based, meaning customers have to perform predefined actions to earn points. Points can be redeemed for gift cards or private sessions with IBM experts. The program also features a leaderboard based on the number of points earned with challenges to foster a bit of competition.
- Celebrity Rewards: [Operated by Celebrity Cruises], the program is rather straightforward, utilizing direct cash incentives to motivate agencies. Every cruise sold translates into 500 points for the booking agent. After hitting the 2,500-point milestone, points can be exchanged for cash using a Celebrity Rewards Mastercard. The program works on a per-agent basis, meaning each participating booking agent has their own individual point balance.
- Lenovo: The Leap Program, which stands for ‘Lenovo Expert Achievers Program’, combines the premise of IBM’s and Celebrity Cruises’ loyalty programs. Leap features a dual system dubbed ‘Learn & Earn’ and ‘Sell & Earn’. Partners earn points for selling Lenovo products and participating in education sessions. Points can be exchanged for cash rewards. Points are accumulated on the Leap Account and can be transferred to gift cards or a prepaid Mastercard.
SmartKarrot has more examples:
- American Express: American Express launched its referral-based partnership program ‘American Express Partners Plus.’ Through the program, American Express rewards organizations if they successfully refer their contacts to AE’s Global Corporate Payments program. The simple program played a key role in deepening trusted partner relationships.
- HP: The global tech company came up with the ‘HP Planet Partners Rewards Program,’ where the company rewards businesses for returning used HP print cartridges. The program is also aimed at supporting HP’s recycling initiative. Thus, businesses are able to earn rewards while also contributing to the environment.
- Nufarm: Nufarm Limited is a leading global specialist seeds and crop protection company. The company operates through retailer channels. It has come up with the loyalty program ‘Priority Partnership’ for its partners in New Zealand. The company rewards partners for purchasing and promoting its products through the program.
- Schneider Electric: [Schneider] is a multinational company providing energy and automation digital solutions, and Clipsal is a subsidiary brand providing electrical accessories. Club Clipsal is Australia’s largest loyalty club for the electrical industry with over 8,000 members in the rewards program. Operating on a three-tiered membership basis, the program offers members the ability to earn points by purchasing Clipsal products from their selected wholesalers. The program features an earn accelerator, where the higher the tier, the higher the earn rate per dollar spent. Points can then be redeemed via a rewards store for a variety of gift cards and consumer goods.
- Uber: Uber Pro Partner Rewards program was designed to recognise and reward Uber drivers. Like their B2C program, points and status tiers provide drivers with the ability to reach higher tiers and unlock more desirable member benefits. Provided by Uber and partner third-party companies, member benefits include economic rewards such as fuel discounts, free coffees, and discounts for business, support services, as well as more functional and experiential rewards such as providing drivers with the ability to view trip duration and direction before accepting a job, receive priority airport rematches, 24/7 support and accident replacement vehicles.
- Allianz: Allianz is a German multinational financial services company with core businesses insurance and asset management. The Allianz Blue Eagle Program exists to engage and reward their broker network, primarily through networking, educational and celebratory events. The program offers one point of call for all the information brokers require, such as program news, policy and claims information, online training, and product quoting and binding. An important aspect of the program is to build a sense of community between brokers and the brand, and Allianz do so by organising a variety of initiatives to get members involved.
Some additional examples:
- TRW: TRW is one of the leading global brands for steering, suspension, and braking parts in the automobile aftermarket. In 2014, competitors are flooding the market with branded and non-branded products. Also, because of its complex distribution structures, there were no direct means for businesses to communicate with its aftermarket. To counter the issue, TRW relaunched its Automotive Diamonds, a B2B loyalty program to target workshops across Europe. [via Retail CRM Cloud]
- Metrodata Electronics: This technology, information and communication company has a B2B loyalty program called SMILY (SMI Loyalty) for its B2B customers. This loyalty program is integrated between offline and online sellers where customers can collect points which can then be exchanged for rewards. [via Tada]
So, what can a next-gen B2B loyalty program look like? I will answer this from my vantage point of running a B2B SaaS company (like Netcore) selling customer engagement solutions to B2C companies.
As a buyer of many B2B solutions, I don’t think Netcore is part of any B2B loyalty program. At the same time, Netcore itself is a seller as a B2B SaaS company to many B2C companies. This was the context I started with in thinking about designing a next-gen loyalty program – one which I would be delighted with as a buyer and seller.
The core of a loyalty program comes down to two elements: earn and burn. How do members receive points? How do they redeem them? [For reference, I had done a similar exercise for Mu tokens in my Loyalty 2.0 essay (part 13).]
- Points can only be earned by the business, and not by the individuals who are part of the decision-making process.
- Earning can be linked to both monetary and non-monetary actions. For example, points are earned based on spending (and could be linked to the gross margin generated by the product). Points could also be earned for time (events attended, reviews, testimonials, referrals). Points could also be earned for additional data provided by the buyers which can help with RoI calculation. For example, most email service providers do not get transaction data. If that data were available, it would help with a better assessment of revenue per email (RPE). The same could apply to customer journeys in marketing automation solutions. So, think of this as a blend of both Loyalty 1.0 and 2.0 elements that I wrote about earlier.
- The formula for earning points will need to be determined by the quantum of investment made for the program. A reasonable figure is 1% of revenue generated.
- A minimum monthly or annual spending threshold should be there for either membership continuation or redemption.
- Earnings could be linked to products and services from a single company or a consortium. Membership tiers could help drive more loyalty (and spending).
- For redemptions, the key to long-term success will be the CPP:VPP calculation. Cost per point is what the B2B seller is spending, while value per point is what the buyer perceives. A good example of this is that while redeeming airline miles for a free ticket, the buyer perceives the full value of a ticket, while the cost for the airline is just the cost of meals. Similarly, for B2B loyalty programs, it is very important to ensure the value of rewards is far greater than the 1% or so which serves as the basis for earning points.
- In this context, there can be two types of rewards: conventional rewards and Mu (Atomic Rewards). Examples for conventional rewards are discounts against future product purchases, attendance at events, and participation in beta programs for new releases to get a marketplace edge. What can make the redemptions program much more valuable and exciting is the addition of Mu to the points. Mu can benefit the B2C business’ customers. For example, Mu tokens could help a business drive change in end customer behaviour. [I have written on these ideas]
- The Velvet Rope Marketing ideas can also be applied here with rewards being used to provide exclusivity, ease, and access. The creation of a community of buyers is an example of exclusivity.
To summarise: B2B sellers need to start thinking of creating loyalty programs which can help drive retention and growth of their buyers. It can also help with creating better experiences and relationships, and offer newer dimensions on which to win rather than just price discounting. A program which can excite end customers of the buyers can make it even more “rewarding.”