The Points Whisperer™ (shhhh…)

A pointed interview with Steve Hui –CEO and Founder of iFLYflat

(otherwise known as The Points Whisperer™)

I have heard of a ‘horse whisperer’.

Definition: horse-whisperer. Noun. (plural horse whisperers) A horse trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the horse, based on modern equine psychology.

And now we have a ‘points whisperer’. My Definition (allow me some creative license):

Points-whisperer. Noun. (plural points whisperers) A points trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the points earner, based on modern loyalty program points earn and redeem psychology.

So, there you have it. Steve Hui ‘The Points Whisperer™’, is the founder and CEO of iFLYflat and in my view a brilliant curator and creator of content on all aspects of earning and redeeming points to fly business class.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Steve and discussing the ‘points economy’ with him.

1.Who are you Steve?

I was born in Hong Kong, moved to Australia when I was five and grew up in Sydney. I'm an accountant by profession, so it’s in my DNA to run the numbers whenever I discover value. Points have value and it makes sense for me to make the most of the ‘value’ and help others benefit from the same.

2. Random Question: What’s the ‘one thing’ you would still love to do that you have never done before?

…jump out of a plane, skydive!

How ironic is that, when my whole reason for being is about flying ON a plane (upfront ie Business Class) and helping others to get there, why would jumping out of a plane be my ‘one thing’ … crazy! (Now that’s a topic for another day)

3. Do you travel as much as it seems?

Interestingly, not as much as you might think. About five times a year. I’ve been to 20-25 countries however I see flying more than just being upfront for the free champagne (although that is nice).

The act of travel is what creates the memories. Having said that, my most memorable experience is my very first, first class flight about eight years ago. Up until I was seated onboard, I still did not believe that I had scored a $10,000 flight just through a clever use of points. From that moment on I was hooked.

4. What are the biggest challenges for your business?

  1. Helping people to understand the value of the points they’ve earned. The frequent flyer and credit card points systems are too complicated. Most members of these programs are not aware of what rewards are possible. If they don’t know the value, they have no desire to earn more points in the best way.
  2. Educating members that booking seats with points works differently to paying for seats, so when they can’t find the seats they want with points they give up on the whole thing.

5. What would happen if one day points no longer existed?

Oh well, I’ll find something else to do! (a spontaneous answer to a confronting question and proof Steve is a true entrepreneur who can adapt to change)

6. What’s your view on the current state of loyalty programs
(frequent flyer, credit card or others)?

Credit card programs are in a re-alignment phase to ensure sustainability arising from the recent changes to the RBA interchange fees.

Airlines seem to be selling more seats for money as a priority over frequent flyer seats. On the one hand they are heavily promoting the points earn economy, but on the other they are not providing enough seats for people to redeem their points on. It seems to me they are focusing more on revenue yield vs benefits for points earners and trading on inertia while people don’t realise it. But I think they need to re-focus on a fairer balance to avoid shooting themselves in the foot.

For other loyalty programs, I am not seeing changes or innovation that excite me and they seem to be too focused on transactional/discount offers, which is potentially just giving away margin or seen by their customers as a simple (and boring) discount program.

7. What are the 3 biggest opportunities for loyalty programs
(frequent flyer, credit card or others)?

For Frequent Flyer programs:

  1. Deeper cross-functional benefits of frequent flyer programs to credit cards (as per Qantas) to keep the whole relationship.
  2.  Allowing members to pay for excess baggage fees, last minute flight changes with reasonable points redemptions.
  3. (An idea I floated with Steve) – how about providing members with points for NOT taking carry on baggage. Why? The time lost trying to find place for carry-on bags is sure to be a cost to airlines (time on the ground creating delays further on). PLUS, the hassle and irritation and injured backs from stuffing bags in the overhead carriages.  So, if you incentivise members with points to leave their carry-on baggage (or reduce it) a change of behaviour might just happen! There are bound to be a percentage of travellers who take that up. It seems obvious however maybe there is a disconnect between operations and the frequent flyer program management.

For credit card programs:

1. I’m still not seeing my data being used in a personal way that is of benefit to me. I’d like to be able to choose a benefit with the businesses that I regularly spend with, example: the ability to earn additional points at my favourite bars, café, restaurant or shop – where you can already see that I’m spending money with every week. An example of this is a USA based credit card that lets you select the bonus rewards category.

8. What are the 3 biggest challenges for loyalty programs
(frequent flyer, credit card or others)?

  1. For Frequent Flyer programs it’s about providing enough redemption opportunities for free flights vs enticing members to redeem for products. Members get more value and engagement when using their points to redeem for a free flight than for a vacuum cleaner (when did you last hear someone show their photos of their clean carpet vs their recent holiday to Hawaii)
  2. For credit cards who use points to acquire customers through 100,000 points offers are teaching people to sign up and then cancel. Even with restrictions in the terms and conditions, the culture has already been changed. It’s motivating the churning of credit card customers from one points offer to another and from one bank to another.
  3. A few frequent flyer programs (Delta, Malaysian and recently United) have switched to revenue-based points redemption. In my view - this is the biggest single risk that could become the start of the long-term destruction of value for all frequent flyer and credit card rewards globally. WHY? Moving from disclosing a fixed chart of x points required to fly from A to B, to a variable price of the day means customers no longer know how many points are needed. This means they don’t know how many points they need to save for, and when you have no target – you have no value measurement. As mentioned before, when members cannot understand the value, they become disinterested in collecting points. And the rewards system starts to unravel.

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

If more frequent flyer programs follow towards a revenue-based redemption (like Delta, Malaysian, United), the value of frequent flyer programs will decline.

Then I think the new Apple card with cashback (and other cashback cards) will entice many consumers due to the simplicity and immediacy of the benefit. Consumers will move from points-based rewards to cashback and the points economy will shrink which will have consequences down the value chain.

10. In five years, how will loyalty programs (frequent flyer, credit card and others) be different?

I expect a deep integration (and cross collaboration) of frequent flyer and loyalty programs with customer credit cards and their mobile devices. So that every dollar spent at every business will be tracked, analysed and rewarded. The businesses you spend your custom with will know how much and how often you visit and have automatic rewards designed for you.

11. Finally, what three tips does the Points Whisperer have for those out there collecting frequent flyer points?

  1. There is value in every point you earn. Think of the points as money (AUD3.5 cent to be exact).
  2. Points are not for retirement. Earn them and if you have enough for a redemption use them sooner rather than later and benefit earlier from having that experience (business or first class is better).
  3. Small business owners should consider earning points from paying all their company expenses with the right cards and use the points to travel.

Summary

Steve certainly has his finger on the pulse of points and is watching the evolution of the credit card and frequent flyer programs with keen interest.

He is a master at promoting his offering and the benefits of using points for flying pleasure.

He is the ultimate Points Whisperer™ … points trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the points earner, based on modern loyalty program points earn and redeem psychology!

Have a happy loyalty day!

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