Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Making Punch Cards Better

Nearly three years ago I started thinking about Punch Cards.

Well, I'd been annoyed by them for decades; actually. I'd often lamented about how it seemed everyone conspired to put a card in my pocket. For a few years now I have had an absolute policy of not enrolling in any loyalty or rewards programs or carrying any of their cards. I'd decided it was time to rebel; someone had to tell them enough is enough. Ridiculous; I know, but I like to get carried away.

Of course; passion of any kind can be a big wind behind anyone's back and over the years, partly to amuse myself, I came up with a few schemes and ideas that would allow businesses to enroll me in a loyalty program without making me carry yet another card around.

The problems with most of my ideas were either related to expense (e.g. custom hardware) or adoption (e.g. making customers install special software on their phone or training them to do some special action like scan a bar code). Although I didn't know it at the time; my focus on reducing the number of cards in my pocket was causing me to not give enough attention to the needs of businesses.  I was ignoring the fact that businesses really like giving something to their customers that they'll carry around.  Something that has their branding and message and that encourages them to come back. I was mainly thinking about what worked for me, as a customer, and not spending enough time thinking about what worked for the business (or even other customers).

Mobile software has similar advantages for businesses that cards do; and more (and less).  A mobile application can, for instance, give a customer a timely alert that draws the customer back into making further purchases. But it's also true that there are significant number of customers who are reticent about installing and using mobile applications (and scanning QR Codes or using NFC, etc). For instance; Punchd said this about one of their showcase customers:

SLO Donut Company currently uses an equal amount of paper and virtual punch cards. Pickering said the only drawback is that “there are anti-smartphone people out there who can’t use the app.”

Loyalty apps have some definite advantages for businesses and customers but some people just aren't that technology savvy or comfortable.  It often takes time for people to adopt new technologies and there are enough people who can't or won't use a mobile app (or scan QR Codes) that it's definitely an issue that shouldn't be ignored.

And then I realized there was a very simple solution to the issue of cards vs. mobile: do both.

By both I mean that businesses could hand out cards; identical to the cards they always have had; except that the cards would have a QR Code on them and instead of being punched with a hole puncher or dabber; they would be punched with a mobile device (QR Code scanner).

And... technology savvy customers could scan their own card and convert to using a web/mobile app if they choose to.

By having the employee do the punching, it means the customer has the option to use their punch card, just like they always have, if they want to (i.e. the customer hands their card to an employee, who punches it and hands it back). It's much easier for businesses to train their employees to scan codes, for instance, than to train customers.  And by also providing the customer a path to switching to a mobile version of the card if they choose; everyone is happy.

But that's still not enough

I have no idea who it was who said a product has to be ten times better than the existing product before it can be called an Innovation.  But making cards that one can punch with a mobile device instead of with a hole puncher, by itself, doesn't make a punch card better.  In fact; it makes it worse because at least the traditional punch card has holes or stamps that a customer can count.  It's true that customers are less likely to forget their phone at home than they are a punch card; and there are some small benefits with "registered cards" for customers (e.g. customers can lose a card and not lose their punches) but the biggest single benefit is to the technology savvy customer; who doesn't have to carry another card around.

Of course; the obvious feature for businesses is logging and reporting.  One of the two biggest issues with the traditional punch card is that they largely go untracked.  Possibly businesses are keeping track of redemptions, but probably not in a very detailed way.  For the most part the cards just sort of go out into the wild and the business has no idea how many are being used, or how.  However, with a connection to a central database one gets to track all kinds of information automatically, or with small interface changes, that will let businesses all kinds of new information.  And if you have employees stamping cards (or phones) with a mobile device you can use some of that data in real time (e.g. tell the employee the customer's name or vice versa).

The second big issue with traditional loyalty card systems is that they only reward one kind of customer behaviour:  The "Buy 10 Get One Free" behaviour.  But actually there are many behaviours that businesses would also like to encourage in their customers.  And here is the real innovation: an application can be used to reward several kinds of behaviours impossible with traditional punch card systems.

Encouraging Other Customer Behaviours
There are many other behaviours that can be rewarded with an application that can better track and respond to customer behaviour.  Many behaviours can be implemented in a way that requires no extra effort by the business, and others by adding small simple additions to a punching interface.

For instance; an application can know if the customer been back several days in a row, if the customer brought new customers (friends/family), shared the a special or event on Facebook, etc (or reviewed on Yelp, etc) or returned to the business after a long absence.

Web/Mobile applications can easily provide custom customer behaviours to businesses though an API.  Which would enable businesses to, say, give customers punches for making purchases online, or through their POS.  Or provide rewards the same way.

There's actually no end to where you can go; with a little imagination

Businesses can offer rewards behalf of other businesses. 

If your business is one which it doesn't really have anything it can give away for free (e.g. a Realtor); that business could make a group purchase-priced deal to buy rewards offered by another business as a reward to their own customers for exhibiting the desired behaviour (e.g. buying houses).

Web/Mobile applications can become b2b loyalty program market places; where small business can work together to bring their customers back.

And what about employees?  

Punches can be a way of encouraging positive behaviours in employees also.  In the majority of business's employees are also customers.  Rewarding positive behaviours at work can be an excellent way to show recognition and increase employee loyalty too.  Showed up for work early?  Made a customer happy?

Is it Ten Times better?

If implemented right; Yes.  I think it could be.  Especially if small businesses can do it more cheaply than its costing them now.  It's sort of like going from typed print to hyper text (except with customer loyalty).

I've taken my best crack at making Punch Cards that are that much better.

QR Code Based Loyalty Cards

In a nut shell; this has been my primary project for the last 2+ years and I've put a lot of time into building what I think is the Better Punch Card.  I've got all of the core functionality and I just went into early Beta with my first business Babes in the Woods.  I didn't have the resources to hire other people very much, and I've had to cover all of the expenses personally, but I've had most of the right skills and I was willing to do the work.

It's a very early Beta.  This blog post will probably be one of the first links to the website.  

If you are a business, and you don't mind printing your own cards; you can use the software for free.   The application will even provide you with all of the print files for your own branded cards, together with instructions, ready for you to print either on your own [inkjet/laser] printer, if you use business card perforated sheets, or at your local print shop.  Or, if you require, for a variable offset printing.

Each card has a unique QR code, URL and customer registration number.  When employees scan the cards, they get a "Puncher", which defaults to "Punch" the card.  At this point, if the employee only means to punch the card, they are done.

If they are instead redeeming a reward for a customer, they click the appropriate reward toggle (this untoggles the punch, but if the employee wants to punch the card also, they can do so).

If customers scan their card (or enter the URL below the code), they get a "softcard" which includes a QR Code and an ad for the business (for specials and events).  At this point they can either bookmark the page (or better; save to desktop), or they can install a mobile app (still in development).  The can now use their mobile device as their card.

If the customer registers their cards they get access to several more features (e.g. card merge and punches for online behaviours (e.g. share on Facebook).  Customer are required to register if they use the share buttons on specials and events.

A customer can have a softcard for more than one business (of course) but at no point when looking at the softcard for a business does that customer ever see an ad for any other business; including for QR Loyalty Cards.   A few other loyalty programs also provide cards (e.g. Belly Card); but I believe QR Loyalty Cards is the only loyalty program that carries the small business's Branding.

I believe it is the only loyalty program that is completely free both for the business and their customers (although I am also offering a service for companies that want card design, card printing and loyalty program support; which I offer by subscription.  I call it the Full Service Package).

It's still a little bit rough around the edges, but I've put a lot of time in on this project; and I'm very very happy with what I've been able to accomplish.  Try it out; I think you will be too.

Premium Customer Loyalty Program.  Free.