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BAI Beacon 2018 Manish Grover

Building The Connected Customer Journeys of the Future

It was a privilege to speak at the BAI Beacon conference in Orlando a few weeks ago. The topic of the day was digital (of course) and what banks should be doing to improve customer experience and make operations more efficient.

My session was on “creating connected customer journeys of the future” – based on my book Connected! I felt that even as we all examine the more immediate need to launch new digital capabilities such as mobile, analytics & AI, there had to be a longer term view of what the overall landscape of customer engagement looks like. So in this session tailored for banking I linked the need for these immediate capabilities to that future vision – how can we build a customer engagement powerhouse to by looking at our customers as people, instead of just account holders? How can banks be the center point of customer interactions, orchestrating instead of just providing the money rails?

Given the significant presence of community banks and credit unions, this need was even more prominent. The trust and strong customer relationships were front and center, but the roadmap to enhance those, and to maintain key business metrics almost always came down to technology upgrade imperatives. Technology drives everything today so it wasn’t a surprise. But I didn’t want to make this vision dependent on large technology investments.

So, here’s how we (the audience and I) analyzed this important topic.

  1. First we looked at all the top priorities facing us today and so much in the vogue – all of the new digital stuff we need to do such as analytics, AI, mobile etc. For the lack of a better term I called it the “inside-out” plan.
  2. Then we looked at what “outside-in” is and it turns out that’s the top down strategy making – looking at product portfolio evolution, branch network optimization, customer satisfaction, distribution etc.
  3. But something was missing. We realized that both of these views did not cater to the tremendous disruption we are seeing in the marketplace today. Could both these views help counter the expanding ambitions of new entrants into the banking sector, and changing customer preferences that go beyond a better mousetrap?
  4. Turns out there is a key ingredient that needs to be added in to make this work – connected customer journeys. There’s a big difference in mindset between traditional and new businesses (or born online companies). The difference is that the new entrants we are worried about don’t have a mindset of core domain competency. E.g. define Amazon’s business, or Google’s, or Facebook’s. And that’s forcing everyone to re-examine their own models, e.g PayPal, Apple, WalMart, Uber, Marriott etc.
  5. So, to get out of the trap of domain competency, we needed to focus on what’s important – the customer and what they want, not how we want to serve them. It follows that our product and service portfolio must expand, and the most optimal way for a traditional business (e.g. banking) to expand its product portfolio that maps to the customers is not to become a new business but to become a networked organization – complementing it’s portfolio with those of other companies. In short, we needed to think about building the right ecosystem.
  6. Then, we looked at what it might take to do this. For example, we saw that we did not have an underlying connecting thread that integrates customer interactions across industries that are enabled by the bank but not orchestrated by the bank – financial advice, retail, restaurants, hotels, recreational activities and so on. This business ecosystem structure led us to focus on the purpose of our business – to improve our customers’ financial well being and make life easier for them – rather than getting trapped in the narrow identity defined by our products. We discussed a few examples of how this is being done slowly but surely in banking. We also saw that big banks with deep pockets are not the only ones doing the innovative stuff. And we looked at the analogy of how ecosystems have evolved from small stores to superstores to online conglomerates and now towards a network of businesses.
  7. Finally with this ecosystem structure and examples in mind, we put a new lens of connected customer journeys on the roadmap of building digital capabilities. For example, what should be in a mobile app for the bank, or what additional considerations must a core system upgrade look at, and how can the conversation of branch network optimization be given a new perspective. And while we were at it, I could not resist a primer on blockchain/DLT which is of course what I do now. As we went through the primer, the concept of an ecosystem operator surfaced which is – surprise – the bank!

It is unlikely that this ecosystem or connected customer journeys based structure will take center-stage in day to day business operations in the short term. But I would like to think it provided a very useful model to evaluate and shape investment strategies, partnership discussions, and execution roadmaps for the medium to long term. More importantly, I hope it helped augment in a tangible way the concept of what it takes to be a customer centric business, and the associated slogans that go with it. Last but not the least, thanks to BAI for seeding the beginnings of some great friendships with emerging leaders who will define what 2.0 looks like!


  1. Refer to the Customer Interaction Index to see the difference between businesses that have a sticky relationship versus that don’t.
  2. You can download the summary eBook here to review all of the 5 building blocks including 3-Tier loyalty and CX focused org design


The Failure of Plenti And The Return to the Stone Ages for Loyalty

Plenti loyalty rewards

The coalition loyalty rewards program Plenti has wrapped up operations as of July 2018. Plenti was a cross-industry loyalty network where customers could earn points and spend at multiple places. Partners included American Express (creator), Macy’s, Netflix, Hulu, Exxon, RiteAid, Chilli’s, Enterprise, Winn Dixie and others.

Why did such an exciting proposition fail? Was Plenti a bad idea or were the issues more tactical? What does it mean for cross-industry loyalty programs?

Here’s my humble take:

1. Giving up on Plenti was a blow for customer engagement

Through Plenti the partnering brands had this amazing shot at becoming a company of the future. But it is now just a familiar story of missed opportunities for both consumers and brands. With Plenti each company could begin a new journey to becoming customer centric. They could create ultimate customer engagement by expanding the customer journeys they examined and addressed beyond their own corporate silos. Because of its cross-industry nature, Plenti would have given purpose and a larger box to guide analytics and AI based customer experiences. The relationship with customers could have been driven by context like never before. The Plenti platform could have become a customer’s platform and not the sponsors’ marketing vehicle. The issues of privacy violations could have been a thing of the past for those customers who willingly participated.

But sticking to traditional metrics of success measurement and execution did the program in. Instead of advancing the standards of customer engagement, the sponsors now have to go back to the traditional method of buying customer behavior and loyalty. We are back to a failing loyalty model of the stone age because it provides immediate “quantification of effort”. Together brands could have acted like a conglomerate such as Amazon without being one in this new digital, connected world.

2. The failure of Plenti was tactical

Even as the Plenti participants chose to withdraw, we can see airlines expanding their programs to be cross industry, Uber and Airbnb expanding to cover expanding customer journeys, and big retailers such as Amazon and Walmart morphing their original identities to cover new offerings through Plenti like loyalty and subscription programs.

The failures therefore are not a strategic market indication but were rather tactical in my view. As a Plenti customer, I felt that Plenti was a little clunky. I never easily knew where I was with my points and what my redemption options were, the customer experience model was very big company driven – instead of simply sending me texts and emails they just kept getting lost in privacy and consent issues, redeeming points needed a pin which was a pain to reset, and so on.

Short term rewards were excellent and it was a delightful experience when the cashiers announced them. But I had to rely on the store to tell me how much I had. Yes, I could have been more active with my online account but they could have also sent it by email or text and made it easier? In addition, the spending was cross-industry but the rewards were still pretty traditional. Overall, the CX layer of the program – especially cross-industry – should have been more deliberate and obvious.

3. The move to experiential & aspirational loyalty was slow

Overall the program was slow in driving customers from being points focused to being experiences and aspiration driven. That evolution would have made customers consciously look forward to using Plenti in new ways rather than the POS discount expectation that every other loyalty program sets.

The Plenti partners did create some nice innovations. I remember fitness related discounts at RiteAid that engaged customers with a broader brand messaging focused on long term goals. But for the most part, the best practices of the top brands of the world were not able to come to Plenti. If you have worked in a large organization and tried to bridge functional or product boundaries, that should not come as a surprise to you. The simplest way to put it is: we did ourselves in.

To be fair, most loyalty program don’t do experiences and aspirations today. A reasonable analogy of what an aspiration based loyalty program looks like is the airlines loyalty programs where people engage with a goal to save miles & points towards a family vacation. Another examples is when you get exclusive access to an upcoming concert, or priority reservations at a popular restaurant. These are things that “money can’t buy” to borrow from Mastercard’s awesome campaign.

Plenti was the perfect vehicle to create amazing experiences and aspiration based rewards because it was such a broad coalition – hotels, gas, grocery, etc. But it probably became hard. Balancing short term goals of each brand getting its share of increased spending was not easy. In addition, coming together to think in terms of “customer first across industry boundaries” is not in our business training DNA. So the transition to this 3 tiered loyalty model did not happen in time.

4. The “new Plenti” might be more open and ecosystem driven

The fact that Plenti got wrapped up in their own centrally managed coalition model & brand was not their fault but perhaps it did not allow them to scale quicker. Instead of focusing on on-boarding partners to Plenti, they could have become a white labeled platform allowing any company to join, brand their own program and explore coalitions of their own.

For example, Target & Starbucks could have created a joint program called RedGreen. Or Walgreens, Cigna and YMCA could have created a custom program for themselves. Other companies may have chosen to migrate their grossly complicated and expensive-to-run programs on to this platform. What’s more, such a platform can put customers in charge of selecting and customizing their own rewards across the entire ecosystem!

Technology is at a point today where this is easily possible. Especially with Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) these coalitions are an excellent candidate because they provide high efficiency with all the benefits plus much more.  The trick is to think in terms of becoming a conglomerate by leveraging those around you.

So there you have it – my armchair analysis of this problem of Plenti. I’m sure it must have been a massively complex and difficult program to operate – and extremely painful to end for those close to it. So I do apologize for my simplistic treatment. Let me know what you think about Plenti and what the future has in store for us.


List of References for Connected!

Here is a list of references I used while writing Connected! Very helpful and informative sources. I encourage you to take a look.

  1. The HorizonbFit program – The program is powered by Advanta Health Solutions.
  2. Alfa-Bank, with its save more when you move program.
  3. Plenti, the multi-retailer and cross industry loyalty program by American Express.
  4. COLLOQUY: An average household uses only 30% of the loyalty programs they are signed up in.
  5. Report on loyalty by Capgemini Consulting:
  6. The Bond Brand Loyalty report – 44% of customers feel that it is easy to replace the rewards program,
  7. Effect of Customer-centric structure on long term financial performance – Lee, Sridhar, Henderson, Palmatier.
  8. Ambidextrous organizations – HBR –
  9. Putting The Balanced scorecard To Work –
  10. How to acquire profitable customers:
  11. Field experiments in trust and brand consideration –
  12. MIT paper on Trust imperative –
  13. Customer loyalty is fleeting:
  14. Millennials find banks irrelevant –
  15. Millennials find banks irrelevant –
  16. 18 months for innovation in banking – Innovation and the Future Proof Bank: A Practical Guide to Doing Different, James A Gardner,
  17. Solving the warranty problem for consumer using Blockchain,
  18. How Wells Fargo is integrating with Xero to make life easier for small businesses and entrepreneurs,
  19. How to help your customers engage with you on Facebook Messenger,
  20. How UK is pushing for bank interoperability through its PSD2 regulation,
  21. PayPal, Visa and MasterCard enter into agreements to open up business for each other,
  22. Facebook impacts the importance of business pages and fans,
  23. New FinTech innovations to target millennials and passive savers,
  24. What is a Robo-Advisor,
  25. Multi-sided platforms and the Fidor example,
  26. What is blockchain technology,
  27. The value of keeping the right customers,
  28. What went wrong at J. C. Penney?
  29. Banks must differentiate,
  30. A Thousand Tribes: How Technology Unites People in Great Companies,
  31. Walgreens links healthy choices with rewards and loyalty,
  32. Will the sharing economy disrupt trucking,
  33. Can we regulate Bitcoin,
  34. How millennials will transform industry,
  35. What is NPS?
  36. Accelerate! (XLR8), Book,
  37. The Innovators Dilemma, Clayton Christensen,
  38. Wearables down but not out,
  39. Pressure in food cereal category,
  40. How connected devices are affecting brands and established channels,
  41. The Connected Company,


How to create 3-Tier loyalty models?

In Connected!, one of the 5 strategies I outlined towards being a connected company was about creating 3-tier loyalty models. It means that we start thinking about extending our loyalty programs. Every industry can do it – banking, retail, CPG, travel etc. All we need to do is to think of what our customers want beyond the products we are selling. (The book is on Kindle as part of the launch offer for 99c) and this post is sort of an advt too (sorry about that)!


In Tier 1, I show how traditional redemption based models (miles, points, discounts etc.), can be expanded to consider experiential, and finally aspirational loyalty. Studies have shown that our loyalty programs are becoming too discount focused, and customers are getting used to (even waiting for) the discount. That’s not bad but we can do even better! So the 3 levels of loyalty in Tier 1 are not just a way to jazz up the program, but also leapfrog competition by engaging customers as per their core purpose. And before you start getting nervous, know that this is not dramatically new. Anyone remember the awesome concerts that our Amex cards used to give us exclusive access to? The trick is to start thinking of exclusivity for our customers, and ultimately something they can look forward over a longer time horizon.

In Tier 2, I show how we can extend our programs to include additional players who will make our programs more effective. That’s the core idea of connected anyway – build an ecosystem. The basic premise is that the needs of our customers are broader than the products we are selling. So why not address that by being more inclusive. Being digital is about escaping our silos, and looking outside-in. Don’t just pay lip service to outside-in, do it!

And in Tier 3, I show how we should become reference anchors in our customers minds. We can do that by 2 ways. First, every brand today needs reinforcement. How can we translate the promises we make in our advertisements and slogans into physical experiences? If we claim trust, do we deliver it during and after purchase? Second, how do we start providing advice instead of just selling. We all know that customers always look for second opinions (check prices while in your store or bank branch, go to aggregator sites for travel bookings etc.). Instead of fighting it and calling it showrooming and other negative things, think of how we can make it easier for customers to get the same advice from us! Don’t let normal customer behavior cause a break in their engagement with you. I won’t say that Tier 3 is not complex but I will definitely say that it is not difficult. All we need to do is to start putting customers at the center of our universe! Rest will follow.

In short, reduce the cost of redemptions, encourage higher wallet share, and boost retention! Isn’t that what we all are looking for!

Get your copy of the book to read more. It’s available for 99c only as part of the introductory launch offer! That’s as close to FREE as you can get on Amazon Kindle. Sorry again for the shameless plug! Images are from the book.

Kindle Link: