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Last time we sat down with Citi, we heard from the company’s global consumer CMO Jennifer Breithaupt and from country star Luke Bryan about some of the experiences you can access by being a cardholder. On today’s “Talking Points” episode, we’re talking to Mary Hines, Citi’s managing director for customer engagement and innovation.
Hines oversees ThankYou Rewards and tells TPG what customers can expect from the program as it continues to develop. She shares proprietary research behind what drives consumer loyalty, explains how customers will have more options to pay with points via PayPal in June and why Citi cards are great for everyday spend.
For more information on how to maximize your ThankYou points or how to find value through Citi’s transfer partners, consider listening to “Talking Points” episode 6 with TPG‘s associate news editor, Brendan Dorsey.
Brian Kelly: Welcome back to Talking Points. I’m your host, Brian Kelly, The Points Guy. And sorry we’ve taken a little bit of a break… I’ve been off gallivanting from Colombia to Brazil and having a damn good time while doing it. But we’re back today to talk some points with Mary Hines, who is the Managing Director of Customer Engagement and Innovation at Citi. Welcome Mary, thanks for joining us.
Mary Hines: Thanks, Brian, for having me.
Brian Kelly: So your job includes a lot of different things, but maybe most pertinent for our listeners, you manage the Global ThankYou Rewards Program. Correct?
Mary Hines: That’s correct.
Brian Kelly: And so just tell us a little bit about your career. What does a career path look like to become managing one of the world’s largest credit card loyalty programs?
Mary Hines: Well I’ve been in loyalty for over a decade now. I love points, and I think when you are at a credit card company, it’s the most fun job to have is to reward your customers for doing business with you. And we had such success at Citi with our US ThankYou Rewards Program that we extended it to 11 international markets. And we manage it centrally so we are able to deliver a unified digital-first loyalty experience across the globe and leverage our partnerships to deliver value to all of the markets.
Brian Kelly: And so do you have the same airline transfer partners here as you do in … where, Singapore?
Mary Hines: Singapore? There are some differences. Some other markets have local carriers that might not be relevant in the US. We also have some carriers that maybe, contractually, we can’t offer in the US, but we can offer in, say, Singapore or Bahrain or UAE. But we have one platform on which we manage them, so it makes it very easy for both the partners to want to work with Citi as well as our ability to deliver that real-time experience for customers.
Brian Kelly: And I know that answer is probably no, but I just have to ask. How many ThankYou points, globally, are out there right now?
Mary Hines: I can’t share, but I assure (you) billions and billions and billions.
Brian Kelly: OK. Well that’s good enough. Well, I guess, obviously it wasn’t going to be millions, and trillions… I thought it maybe could be a trillion. No, you never know.
Mary Hines: I think we’re a little bit away from a trillion, but we’ll get there.
Brian Kelly: So over the last decade, ThankYou has evolved dramatically. I know I started The Points Guy, it will be nine years this year. The ThankYou Program back then was more, it was one-to-one gift cards. It was really kind of a loyalty exchange from what I remember. But really, what was it, about five years ago or less that you started adding the transfer partners, and then you started adding a lot of them? What was the reason why you guys decided to add the airline transfer partners?
Mary Hines: Well, when we looked across our customer base and what their needs are, travel is really important to them. And the flexibility of either booking through our travel portal, where we have really great value, and a wonderful digital experience, was great, but for some, who were already engaged with another loyalty currency, they wanted the ability to have the points be able to be transferred there.
Brian Kelly: And then you have sites like The Points Guy that teaches people how to do it.
Mary Hines: Exactly. It’s nice.
Brian Kelly: But I could imagine, from a customer perspective, does it add complexities? Because it is kind of difficult. You know, when you’re adding in a partner where the points transfer and people don’t quite know how to use them, does that ever become an issue with your ThankYou members when you’re adding that extra level of redeeming and people may say, “Oh, I want to bring my points back,” or whatever?
Mary Hines: We used to have that challenge because some people would want … They’d find a seat, and they’d transfer their ThankYou points, and then they’d have to wait for them to get into the point bank of Singapore Airlines, as an example, or Jet Blue, and that seat would be gone. Then they’d want to refund them — they’re not refundable, but we’d do it anyway, because they’re good customers. And it created a lot of friction in the experience. And most importantly, we wanted that customer to get that cherished seat that they were using their points for.
Mary Hines: Now we have real time, so with the vast majority of our partners, when you redeem, they’re immediately put into the points bank, and that really eliminated that friction. We’ve also seen, because of that, a significant increase in people leveraging points transfer partners.
Brian Kelly: And from your perspective, as a manager of the program, do you care how people use their points? Or what’s your main motivation? Just to get people using them?
Mary Hines: The most important thing for us is for customers to see value in doing business with Citi. And that’s how we drive loyalty. And different customers have different needs, and we want to have a variety of redemption options to meet their exact need. For many, it’s point transfers, but some people aren’t going to Colombia and Brazil and other great places. They really just want to go to Amazon.com and offset the purchase of school supplies.
Brian Kelly: So, let’s talk about those others. So we’re points freaks over here, we like the airline transfers. But for people… what are the best other ways or the most popular other ways that people use ThankYou points?
Mary Hines: One of the biggest transformations since I’ve been at Citi is how people use their points and how they redeem for them. When I first got to Citi, all of our items were on ThankYou.com. You either went to that site and created an online account and redeemed, or you called the call center. Today over 75% of our redemptions are off our site. They’re either through our mobile app, through our account online, when you’re on your statement, you can use points to cover charges, or we’ve integrated the use of our currency with great partners that are really popular with our customers, like Amazon, Best Buy, 1-800-Flowers, Live Nation. And that’s really been the transformation is … making it easy — especially in a digital environment — is critical to engaging customers. And convenience is important to our customers as in the tangible value. So people like Brian Kelly would never go to Amazon.com because he is not going to get as much value as he is in transfers to Singapore, which then he converts to something else.
Brian Kelly: No, I like flying Singapore, their new first class A380, I think it’s my most-liked photo of all time on Instagram. It’s like your own little room in the sky.
Mary Hines: But some people don’t have that lifestyle.
Brian Kelly: But it’s only from Singapore to London and Shanghai, so especially most people in America are not going to fly to London, like a crazy person like me, to then fly to Singapore.
Mary Hines: Exactly. And some people just don’t have the lifestyle that they’re traveling, and they really want to get use of their points in things that are more relevant to them. And that’s why having the broader way of redemption options enables the customer to really personalize the program against their specific needs.
Brian Kelly: One of the trends I’ve seen with loyalty points with airlines and hotels, and obviously with Citi and the Live Nation partnership that you mentioned, is experiences. Is that an area where you guys are focusing on adding more ways to use ThankYou points for experiences, and if so, what are your thoughts on that?
Mary Hines: Experiences are incredibly important to us at Citi. We want to create the right opportunities for our customers to experience something and then attribute that to our brand. So that is important. And as I mentioned before, you can use your ThankYou points to purchase tickets through Live Nation. We also have through our travel portal, you can redeem your points for a variety of experiences to supplement your vacation. And we always look for new ways in which we can allow people to use their points to get access to those top concerts, sporting events…
Brian Kelly: If you… as we think about the ThankYou Program in the next five years, let’s say, what do you think are some of the big trends, with loyalty in general, and then specifically where we should look for the ThankYou Program to evolve into?
Mary Hines: Continue to see a transformation to our enabling digital redemption options and experiences. We’ve done lots of research with consumers. We recently did a survey of 1,000 US consumers, and having a loyalty program is — 89% said that was a big driver of their decision to do business with a company. And when you looked at how do they want to interact with that loyalty program, being able to do it via a mobile device was also critically important. Over 80% said that was an important factor. When you look at millennials, it was in the mid-90s.
Mary Hines: So when we are looking at our investments, it’s as much as about what we want our customers to be able to redeem for, is how they can redeem it and making it easy. So I think partnerships like I mentioned, like Amazon and Best Buy, we continue to expand with those types of things. We’re in test right now with PayPal and we’ll have that fully rolled out to all of our US customers by June.
Brian Kelly: So it’ll be like a mere cash equivalent cash-out?
Mary Hines: Exactly. So it’s very similar to our experience on Amazon or Best Buy, that when you go to check out and you’re using your Citi card, in this case in your PayPal wallet, you’ll say, “Oh, I have this amount of ThankYou points, which are worth this amount of dollars,” and you can elect to use some or all of it to cover your purchase.
Brian Kelly: So how many 10,000 ThankYou points with PayPal … have you released what the ratio is?
Mary Hines: It’s consistent with our other shop web points partners at $80.
Brian Kelly: Got it. Interesting. Do you have specifically in the transfer partner space, do you have… are there any plans to add more?
Mary Hines: We are always looking for adding additional, and we will…
Brian Kelly: Oh come on, we’re on a podcast. You can just give me a little nod and I won’t tell anyone.
Mary Hines: We will absolutely give you the exclusive when we add more. I can tell you we will be adding more. We just can’t share…
Brian Kelly: Can’t share it at this time.
Mary Hines: Can’t share at this time.
Brian Kelly: Wow. We’re here waiting to hear about it when you do have it. So, a lot of people still have Chase points and Amex, like, what would your high-level pitch be like: “Come to Citi.” So someone who’s never had a Citi card or dealt with ThankYou rewards, like, how do you describe the ecosystem that you’ve built and why people should come on over to Citi if they haven’t looked at it before?
Mary Hines: Well, we have the easiest experience in which you can engage with your program. We want you to. We do everything we can to integrate it into all of our properties as well as our key partners. We’re always adding new ways for people to redeem and giving customers options on how to build a deeper relationship with Citi and get rewarded across that. One of the things that I find most exciting about our program versus our key competitors is you can also earn points by having a banking relationship with Citi.
Brian Kelly: The Citigold?
Mary Hines: Citigold and Citi Priority, if you get rewarded for certain behaviors like having your paycheck deposited and leveraging online bill pay, and you can earn 1,500 points a month for those activities, and when you put that in conjunction with all your spend, you’re really getting a lot of points, and that’s what I think, for people who love points like myself, you just want to get as many as you can and have them in a single currency, so you can really get what you want with them.
Brian Kelly: What’s your travel? How do you use your points? You already said you are a points girl.
Mary Hines: I’m a points girl and I’m a points wife, too. So I manage my husband’s accounts. Mostly for travel, and I leverage your blogs to figure out how to get there. So I struggle … my husband is a big American Airlines customer. We have actually right now about 620,000 points. I can brag about that.
Brian Kelly: That’s a couple of good trips.
Mary Hines: He gets that from both always using his American Airlines Citi Executive Card, as well as he travels a lot for business. And we look to go business class. That’s a treat to us. I never want to use those points for domestic, and you gave me actually great advice is booking them through British Airways. You (can) unleash more options. So we did that on a recent trip to Portugal, which was phenomenal.
Brian Kelly: I have not been to Portugal in 10 years. I went as a college … Well actually, now, I think it’s 15 years ago now. I wish it was 10 years ago that I was in college. Where did you go in Portugal?
Mary Hines: Well we started in Spain, in Madrid, and went through southern Spain, and then into Algarve…
Brian Kelly: Oh, nice.
Mary Hines: … and stayed on the coast for like four five days to relax after heavy sightseeing in Spain. It was phenomenal. The people, the food…
Brian Kelly: Is the food as good as they say?
Mary Hines: The food was amazing. It’s a beautiful place. Everyone speaks English really well. I’d say much more than Spain, and it’s cheap. Like, our five-star, amazing hotel was like $200 a night.
Brian Kelly: Did you use your ThankYou points for the hotel?
Mary Hines: I did, and I got my fourth night free.
Brian Kelly: There you go. Plug that Citi Prestige, which is back…
Mary Hines: Which is amazing.
Brian Kelly: Yeah. I’ve been using my Prestige for – for years. I think I’m probably one of the customers they probably want to kick out because I just went to the Brando Resort in French Polynesia, and I got (a) $3,000 free night.
Mary Hines:It makes it all worth it. I just got back from The One and Only in Cabo.
Brian Kelly: Oh, I’ve never been to Cabo, but that hotel…
Mary Hines: That hotel is amazing. I had never been, but a colleague of mine highly recommended it, and I got my fourth night free. I could barely afford it, but having the fourth night free helped.
Brian Kelly: Do you mostly use the Prestige then for everyday spend or… ?
Mary Hines: I have Prestige, Premiere, and Rewards Plus, and I just started using Rewards Plus. And this is where you round up to the nearest 10. So if you spend $2, you still get 10 points. If you spend $51 you get 60 points. But if I’m going to book a hotel, or an airline, I’m getting five times the points, so I’m putting that on my Prestige.
Brian Kelly: Any last things you want to say to people about the ThankYou program? I think we’ve covered a lot of the history and where you guys are going. Is there anything else, any, like, hidden gems in the program that you wish more people would know about?
Mary Hines: Well I think what I’m most excited about and proud of with our program is you can find those hidden gems because we built the right partnerships, you get access to them. For example, on Amazon, you can buy a tiny house, join a gourmet peanut butter and jelly club. So really anything you want is possible with your ThankYou points. And we have the right products and services to really enable you to get a ton of those points by giving us loyalty.
Brian Kelly: And now with the PayPal relationship, I mean, it’s as close, pretty close … you know, paying the dog sitter, or paying the vet bills, which add up quickly if you’re a Frenchie owner. Very cool. Well Mary, thank you so much for joining us and shedding some light on the ThankYou Program. We look forward to announcing those new airline partners as soon as you’re ready.
Mary Hines: Great. Thank you for having me.
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