At one time or another, even the most seasoned marketers have fallen into the trap of using instincts over empathy while bringing a new product to market. Whether it’s blind trust of past experience and knowledge, overconfidence, or simply doing things the way they’ve always been done, the outcome remains the same: you’ve lost sight of the people your product is for. The gap between brand and customer grows wider.

As we gear up to reveal the winners of the Skift Design Awards, we’ve emphasized the transformative role human-centered design plays in creating seamless travel experiences. But where does loyalty fit into the equation?

We talked to Guy Cierzan, managing partner of ICF Next, a consulting agency specializing in deploying and implementing loyalty strategies and customer experiences, about the interconnectivity between design and loyalty, giving customers a seat at the table, and why empathy is key to long-term customer relationships.

SkiftX: For the Skift Design Awards, we’ve talked a lot about this idea of human-centered design and the need for brands to think of design in a more holistic and integrated way, especially around creating spaces, services and experiences across the traveler journey. So where do you see loyalty fitting into this or to phrase it a bit differently, what is design’s role in loyalty?

Guy Cierzan: It’s a good question. In our perspective, loyalty fits into this as a natural extension of the relationship and the experience. When you think about loyalty in a more traditional manner, a big part of it is cultivating the relationship over time with the customer using data and customer behaviors to understand the way to really strengthen that “relationship.” And then how do you amplify it and actually bring it to life and bring value relative to the experience itself?

So for us, the role of loyalty and design are very much intermingled in the sense that loyalty provides an avenue for that value to be delivered to customers in a more holistic and integrated way. And, as we think about that customer journey, which often times is the way to envision the travel experience, almost regardless of what part of the travel experience you’re talking about, there are a number of very natural micro-moments that occur throughout that journey that lend themselves to being the avenues or pathways by which loyalty can add value to the experience that the customer is having.

SkiftX: You mentioned “micro-moments.” Can you share a few examples of what that means?

Cierzan: Traditionally, we might’ve thought of the customer journey starting with awareness and consideration or maybe booking, then maybe some engagement to actually take a trip, visit a hotel, plan an airline, and then that cycle naturally repeats. That’s a very macro view.

When we think of more of that micro view, there are a lot of things that happen from the very start of exploring or dreaming about a travel journey. So if we look at those micro-moments of that exploratory phase with the customer, having an opportunity to recognize that they’re in this inspiration discovery mode, there’s an opportunity for us to tailor the way that we might serve up information because of that micro-moment that they’re in.

During the travel journey itself, guests will experience this as well. At a full service hotel, there are micro-moments that occur from the very first time you arrive at the hotel when you’re greeted by world-class service-oriented employee. That first impression is created. There’s a micro-moment as you get out of your Uber and before you even step into the hotel.

Your whole first impression can be created in that 15 or 30 second micro-moment.

SkiftX: Can you maybe walk me through an example of a loyalty program that you’ve designed in the travel space?

Cierzan: With Amtrak, especially being in an industry that has been around for a century or longer, there is this desire to modernize everything, whether that’s the actual trains and stations, the class of service and kind of amenities that you might get onboard or in the station, all the way through to the loyalty program.

Our most recent strategic redesign really focused in on a very human-centered design principle, which is putting ourselves in the shoes of an Amtrak traveler. Our aim was to understand their journey more holistically and understand where the loyalty program could be improved, simplified, or optimized for better engagement. Our core belief is that by doing so, customers will be inspired and influenced to recommend Amtrak. From a design standpoint, we literally took a step back and looked at the program that was in-market to understand all the facets of the way in which the program brought forward value to Amtrak’s customers.

SkiftX: How did you approach this iteration and how did you optimize?

Cierzan: We looked at all the communications touch points and talked to customers quite extensively, both through surveys and through focus groups. With that assessment, we identified opportunities to relaunch the program and invigorate some new life into it.

As we identified these new ideas, we had to say, ‘okay, that’s what customers are looking for. That’s what customers will value.’ Now let’s do the economic modeling. Let’s actually look at the data. Let’s run if-then simulations that allow us to understand how we change the structural components and the value proposition of the program, the way in which we communicate, the way in which members can engage. How did that change the economics of the program relative to the investment?

We ran extremely robust simulations and economic modeling based on historical data and really worked to understand the strategic levers to pull and how that would affect Amtrak financially.

We took all that from a strategic design standpoint, we unpacked it, we analyzed it, we put it through those economic models and then we were able to positively influence KPIs and the important metrics relative to the program.

SkiftX: What changes did you make?

Cierzan: The original program had a complicated zone based redemption model. For example, if a member was traveling from Raleigh to Pittsburgh, it was a one zone redemption. If instead, they were going from New York to LA, a three zone redemption would be involved as they would be crisscrossing the country. But it really was a bit complicated in that it didn’t align very well with how customers think about their travel journey. It was disconnected from the fares and revenue management.

But when it came time for a customer to actually cash in on the value of the program by redeeming for a free trip or for a journey, it also had some odd financial mechanics to it that gave either extremely great value for some of the trips that people could take as loyal Amtrak customers, or extremely poor value on the other side of it. And there was a lot of volatility or variability of the value that any one customer would get out of the redemptions.

On that design element that drives redemptions, we eliminated the complexities of that zone reward and redemption model. We stripped out that complexity. We instead allowed for a consistent valuation of the currency, aligned to fares and not distance.

So we did a lot of different things, but in all of those cases, foundationally, it started with this customer informed human-centric principle. It was validated by robust economic modeling to ensure that it was fiscally able to be delivered and then ultimately, we executed upon it.

SkiftX: Let’s get back into a little bit of the overall design philosophy here. A principle for good design, in any discipline, is empathy for the end user. What’s your take on that?

Cierzan: We’ve done a fair amount of research and thinking around the drivers of loyalty to uncover where and how loyalty can be most successfully cultivated.

Our research culminated in a white paper called Humanizing Loyalty. I think we really found some foundational validation of the importance of that empathy, and how that needs to stay at the table in your design process. Really thinking about the customer entirely along the way, not just in your UX, but even in the upfront design. So, whether it’s a new strategy or whether it’s a new technical capability, whether it’s a new method for communicating and engaging with customers, we would argue, in all respects, having the customer at the table as you’re thinking about that strategic design well ahead of doing any UX, is critical.

SkiftX: Having the “customer at the table” seems like it should be given. Do you see this as something that companies have embraced or is there still a long way to go this sort of customer-centric thinking to really be adopted?

Cierzan: That’s a good question. I think some companies have absolutely done this, and not just in 2019, have been doing this for some time. I feel like it’s still not quite as contagious as it should be and that more companies should be doing that more consistently. As a marketer, it’s very easy to think, in a well-intended way, that you already know what they need and want, and then you just run on that path of designing and executing upon that knowledge that you’re so confident in.

So, I’d say not enough companies are doing that well and it needs to be a bit more explicit. You can even use very specific customer segments or personas as a device to make sure that you’re appropriately acknowledging the customer along the way as part of the process. I think that can be an effective technique, but it’s probably not quite as pervasive as it could or should be.

SkiftX: It does feel like sometimes you should slow down and think through the lens of the customer and not just execute, execute, execute, but really take a more holistic step backwards to view the overall… the purpose, so to speak.

Cierzan: You have to be intentional about it, and a bit explicit in ensuring that you do that, and that the team that’s working on a project is, again, remembering that the customer should have a seat at the table. You certainly don’t want them to get lost in the thinking of how you design things, or how you execute things, because, ultimately, success is going to be judged by how it’s received by customers and how much metrics like engagement are improved. The customer has a key role in that. By keeping them involved in the process throughout, you significantly improve your odds of success.

This content was created collaboratively by ICF Next and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.