Rob Harker – A Loyalty Leader, self-confessed travel/aviation geek whose wingspan of experience covers 18 loyalty programs across 5 countries over 15 years

An interview by Adam Posner with Rob Harker – Head of Loyalty at Bupa Global

It’s not often when I do the Loyalty Leader interviews that I am overwhelmed with the depth of experience the loyalty professionals I interview have.

This is one of those!

This interview (#25) with Rob Harker – Head of Loyalty at Bupa Global delivers across many dimensions and his experience is deep and wide.

He has been part of or lead 18 different loyalty programs in 5 different countries covering many industries.

He is now Head of Loyalty at Bupa and leading a team who are delivering their new(ish) program Bupa Life Rewards.

Enjoy the read!

1. So, who is Rob (outside of work) + a little on your work biography

I was born in Sydney and thanks to my dad being ex-Navy, we were fortunate enough to travel around quite a lot as a family and spending a few of my earlier years living in California. As a kid, I always got excited about going to the airport and just seeing those massive jumbo jets, and now I am a self-proclaimed, travel aviation geek.

I have a passion for airlines, hotels and travel experiences which got me into customer loyalty back in 2009, where I joined Qantas Frequent Flyer to roll out the first iteration of the Woolworths Everyday Rewards partner proposition. It was a real game changer back then.

After Qantas I joined the Velocity Frequent Flyer team on the day that John Borghetti announced he was relaunching Velocity Frequent Flyer to help his plan to combat the Qantas business market. In 2014 my wife and I packed up our bags and moved to Dubai, to launch and roll out a loyalty program for Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts called Jumeirah Sirius.

I spent a good year or two working with Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts before joining Aimia which back then, was one of the world's biggest loyalty agencies in Dubai. There I was involved in the design and roll out the low-cost airline, frequent flyer programs Saudi Arabia's Flynas, and Air Arabia and their AirRewards program.

I was lucky to step into some consultancy work with Aimia supporting the design of other loyalty programs in the Middle East, from optical programs for Magrabi Optical in Jordan, designing the loyalty program for the Atlantis Hotel and shopping malls, just to name a few.

Moving to London with Aimia in 2016, I led the development and rollout of the Procter and Gamble's Pampers Club program which was rolled out across seven European countries.  I was also involved in the Avis Preferred Car hire program, designing the loyalty program with P&O Cruises and Cunard, but also Coutts Bank in the UK, designing a B2B experiences program for their top tier customers. I moved to Barcelona to build out a loyalty program for low-cost airline Vueling Airlines, which is an IAG carrier.

And then, I moved back to Australia on the back of Covid and I am now working for Bupa Health Insurance with the launch and development of the Life Rewards loyalty program for our health insurance customers.

(Oh my goodness…how many programs, how many countries, how many languages do you speak?)

So that’s five countries, 18 programs, 1.2 languages …English is the one, with the .2 being a little Spanish and Arabic!

2. Tell us about the Bupa Life Rewards program, any stats you can share?

When I joined Bupa, there wasn't a loyalty program. It was a marketplace of random offers and promotions from companiesThe ask from the MD at the time was, do we need a loyalty program?

We started with some research around the globe and domestically and talking with our customers. We were quickly able to understand two key customer pain points and I think these pain points exist in so many organisations today.

The first one being the lack of value perception in our core product.

Our customers said, you know what? I don't see everyday value in having health insurance unless I'm using my health insurance.

The second pain point was, and again, I experienced this all the time is just a lack of loyalty and tenure recognition.

Something so simple as answering the phone call with, you know, saying… thank you so much for being with us for ten years.

So, we took those two key pain points and said, right, we've got to fix those two. There were others but we deliberately focused on those two first.

And we asked ourselves and our customers, what does the loyalty program need to do to deliver against those two key pain points?

Our customers said, we want everyday value, and we want recognition for being a customer for 30, 40, 50 years.

From there we designed Life Rewards based on the positioning – “the more life you share with Bupa, the greater the rewards and recognition”.

Life Rewards is a scaled marketplace with discounted e-gift cards, restaurant discounts, discounted cinema tickets and over 60 retailer brands and big brands where customers can get discounts which don't exist anywhere else.

It also has a tiered structure based on the longer you've spent life with Bupa, there are elevated savings.

Life Rewards launched over one year ago as an MVP and the results to-date have surpassed all expectations. Some we can share include over 500,000 customers in the program today, and that's growing monthly.

In that time, we’ve been able to save our members through life rewards over $1.4 million.

This means we can now make the investment in health insurance more affordable when we make the value of the savings earned from Life Rewards visible to members.

So as an example we can now say to members…”Since you started accessing savings from Life Rewards, you've actually saved $280. Here's how … you've purchased these gift cards, you've seen these many movies, you’ve flown here and saved this much."

We have made the value visible and tangible! (I love this quote)

It's the first program that we've launched in Bupa globally from a customer loyalty perspective and a great opportunity for Australia to shine and benchmark what we should be doing when recognising and rewarding our members.

You know, this is just the beginning. Life Rewards will look different over time. We will launch new propositions and new currencies and all sorts of new measures to make the customer feel more emotionally connected with Bupa as an overall health care partner.

3. What is the most unique element of the program?

If I think about the health insurance industry here in Australia, I think Life Rewards in its entirety is unique!

There is no other health insurance provider today in our market offering a loyalty and a recognition program to the scale that we have delivered to our members and at the speed that we've been able to deliver it.

I think the proposition we provide is the first of its kind, not only for Bupa globally, but also a first of its kind for our industry.

We are now gaining some valuable insights about our members about who the health insurance contributor is, who is leveraging the rewards offered and the verbatim commentary from our frontline team about customer feedback has been a massive win in just over one year of operation.

4. If you had to choose the most important measures of success for your program, what would they be?

There are so many ways to measure loyalty. Don't just measure it one way. Measure it as many ways as possible. We are looking every day for a new way we can measure success and engagement, and how we can do better.

Also, what data are we missing to enable us to get better at measuring?

Some of the key metrics that I take a close look at on a daily, weekly, monthly basis is what is the overall penetration of our health insurance base into Life Rewards.

How many of our members are using Life Rewards? Which segments - are they young singles, empty nesters? Are they 60 plus? The enables me to understand where we need to enhance our proposition and make sure the proposition and offering around promotions and product and partners is relevant for each one of those segments.

Then there is retention. How are we performing around retaining our customers through the Life Rewards loyalty program?

I am also passionate about NPS. We have a process in place now where we make sure to call the customer back when we've identified a problem, and we fixed it.

5. What are some of the challenges you face on an ongoing basis to keep the program relevant/fresh/thriving (internally and externally) and how do you overcome these?

For our members, I think keeping up with their demands and expectations is challenging.

While we might have the best product development roadmap to launch new initiatives and propositions, our customers want it now. They don't want to wait.

With Life Rewards, we want to be able to make sure when a customer does come back, there's something new and fresh or something looks different, or there's a new partner offer on the website.

It’s challenging to be able to deliver new propositions and to communicate these to our members in a timely manner, without missing the boat and letting that ship sail. Because the moment that customers don't start seeing the continual value or the visibility of value, that could potentially lead to a switching conversation around not getting everyday value through having a Bupa health insurance policy.

We've spent hundreds of hours enhancing our program, our tech, our platform, our comms, and the overall experience for our customers.

Internally, I think, and this is probably a pain point for many loyalty owners out there, is constantly making sure that our stakeholders are engaged in our strategy and our vision and plan for what loyalty is for Bupa and what role they play in its success.

Loyalty doesn't sit on one person's shoulders. (Love this quote)

It sits on everybody's shoulders in Bupa to make it work. If it did sit on one person's shoulders, then that that would be detrimental to the program and to the proposition.

 Everybody is responsible for the success of Life rewards.

One of the challenges we face is constantly making sure we're hygiene checking that our people understand what our proposition is, what our value is, what we stand for around delivering loyalty and recognition to customers, but also getting people to understand what value we are trying to get for the business around the success of retention, how we use it to grow our existing base and acquire new customers.

It's always a big challenge in large complex organisations to make sure people are constantly under your wing and absolutely endorsing what you're trying to do.

6. What advice would you give to brands thinking about a loyalty program?

  1. Talk to your customers. Seek to understand what they want and what will drive greater engagement and CLV with your brand. Never assume you know what the customer wants. And when you do talk to your customers, make sure that it’s not something that's a one and done. You constantly must ask your customers, even after the program goes live. What's working well? What's not working well? What would you like to see next? Get your program members engaged in your program. Ask them to be part of test. So many programs don't do that today.
  2. Do not copy and paste what your competitors are doing…. because they might be wrong!
  3. Ensure everyone at the C level believes in what you're trying to achieve, the benefits and value that the program wants to deliver and aspires to deliver. When you are talking to other parts of the business such as the tech people, get them excited and enthused about the program. Because if you don't have that level of support, it's a battle. It's a real battle.

7. What do you think is creeping up on programs that could disrupt them for better or worse?

I think AI and generative chat is going to be a real game changer for loyalty to drive increased effectiveness and efficiencies.  The world of customer loyalty has evolved and come so far over the last few years, loyalty innovation is at the forefront of many companies today to retain customers with the amount of choice and ease of switching between brands, modern technology like AI is changing the customer engagement scenery in many ways in the personalisation, predictive analytics, and the gamification space.

There is also fantastic innovation in the payment space and the adoption of being able to use the loyalty currency across all kinds of customer omnichannel experiences, making sure the loyalty program is core to the member's everyday life and making sure that it can be used across everything they do and touch

8. What’s the most underestimated force behind a program’s performance?

I think the most underestimated force behind a program’s performance or one that's probably not appreciated is, loyalty is never just one person. The skill and breadth of knowledge that a loyalty team have can be responsible for the best propositions an organisation can have.

A loyalty team isn't there just to keep the wheels spinning. I think it's there to drive value and constantly evolve and shape the program.

Loyalty is not just 2 or 3 people who are part of the marketing team, and who just send emails to get people to buy something. It's so much more than that.

I think any loyalty manager out there, must constantly think about how you can show to the business the value the team is bringing to loyalty and the loyalty value being generated across the business!

9. What are three important skills a loyalty program marketer needs?

  1. Walk in your members shoes. Never assume you know what your member wants. Always think 2 or 3 steps ahead.
  2. Spinner of plates. A loyalty marketer needs to find a rhythm and learn how to spin 50 plates at once, because that's what loyalty is about. Engaging the internal team in the program, thinking about strategy, enhancing the proposition and so much more.
  3. The four KPI’s. This acronym is one I live by. Keep People Informed. Keep People Inspired. Keep People Interested. Keep People Intrigued.

10. If we are chatting again in (say) 2 years’ time, what do you predict would be the hot topic related to loyalty programs?

Privacy is going to constantly be taking new shapes and forms and keeping our members’ personal information safe continues to be a top priority for us.

There's going to be constant growing capability in the use of predictive modelling, which means a continual shift and shape change in loyalty data, driving a more enhanced single customer view, driving more personalized, seamless experiences, making the program truly the centre of that members universe.

11. Leave us with a lasting loyalty thought

This interview with Rob Harker has many valuable insights and passionate reminders on what makes loyalty programs a success.

Here are five that made an impression on me:

  1. Loyalty doesn't sit on one person's shoulders.
  2. Do not copy and paste what your competitors are doing…. because they might be wrong!
  3. Make value visible and tangible.
  4. Ensure everyone at the C level believes in what you're trying to achieve, the benefits and value that the program wants to deliver and aspires to deliver. Because if you don't have that level of support, it's a battle. It's a real battle.
  5. The four KPI’s. Keep People Informed. Keep People Inspired. Keep People Interested. Keep People Intrigued.

Have a happy loyalty day!