Skip to main content

Article 20 min read

Loyalty programs: How they work, tips, and examples

Loyalty programs can encourage customers to continue purchasing from your brand. Learn why that’s important and explore examples you can emulate.

By Halona Black, Contributing Writer

Last updated March 28, 2024

What is a loyalty program?

A customer loyalty program (or rewards program) is a customer retention strategy businesses use to entice customers to continue buying from them. These programs typically consist of discounts, free offers, or other perks consumers earn for repeat purchases.

Any business knows it can’t just open up shop and expect customers to come rolling in—they need to be motivated to buy. In many situations, an excellent product or an outstanding customer experience (CX) will do the trick. Sometimes, however, organizations need a dedicated strategy to entice customers to continue buying.

Customer loyalty programs reward repeat customers with product discounts, special offers, and other benefits. This guide covers how these programs work, their benefits, and how they contribute to positive CX.

More in this guide:

How do loyalty programs work?

Loyalty programs are advantageous to both buyers and businesses. When a consumer makes repeat purchases, it boosts a business’s bottom line. In exchange for this customer loyalty, a business rewards consumers with exclusive benefits, free items or upgrades, early access to products, and more.

Though each type of loyalty program works differently, here’s the general process:

  1. A new customer makes a purchase or gives their information to a company.

  2. The company prompts the customer to sign up for its loyalty program.

  3. The customer signs up and starts to receive rewards for purchases.

  4. As the customer continues to use the loyalty program, they receive better and better rewards.

As we’ll cover later, businesses can implement different types of customer rewards programs. These can be incentives based on a point system, a program that encourages customer referrals, or a system that combines different structures.

Benefits of customer loyalty programs

When businesses start customer loyalty programs, they can expect to see several benefits. Below are a few of the top examples.

A bulleted list showing the benefits of customer loyalty programs.

Boosts revenue and retention

One of the main benefits of customer loyalty programs is that they’re an effective way to increase revenue and customer retention. Loyalty programs entice consumers to stay with your brand and make more purchases to get their rewards.

For example, a shopper may increase their order size to receive a discount or make more frequent purchases to obtain a higher tier in a loyalty program. This helps a business build brand loyalty and increase customer lifetime value (CLV).

Builds stronger customer relationships

Establishing a loyalty program can help you connect and build stronger relationships with your customers. When you go beyond a purely transactional interaction and offer rewards and incentives, it can show customers that you value their continued business and the relationship as a whole.

Differentiates a brand from its competitors

Implementing a customer loyalty program is a great way to stand out from other brands that may not have one. A loyalty program can:

  • Give customers another reason to engage with your brand.

  • Provide rewards that allow loyal customers to purchase products at a lower price than your competitors.

If a customer is trying to decide between two or more similar businesses, a loyalty program may be a key differentiator in that decision.

Encourages word-of-mouth marketing

Loyalty programs can also encourage word-of-mouth marketing, especially when customers are rewarded for telling others about your brand. For instance, you can reward customers with a discount for providing a review on Yelp.

This also plays into referral customer loyalty programs. When a customer refers a friend, for example, you can reward the customer with a free month of service if their friend makes a purchase.

Shows customers you appreciate them

A customer loyalty program is one of the best ways to show customer appreciation. While many programs are based on spending volume, you can get creative with the rewards you offer. Surprise customers with personalized discounts or acknowledge milestones like birthdays with an exclusive sale. Doing so gives you an opportunity to thank customers for their business.

Motivates consumer behavior

These programs can encourage customers to take certain actions. For example, you can motivate customers to sign up for an email newsletter or text alerts by enticing them with a discount code.

Types of loyalty programs

There are several types of loyalty programs, and it’s important to find one that best suits your organization’s needs. Here are some of the most common.

Six icons show the different types of customer loyalty programs.

Points programs

Point systems are among the most popular programs. They reward customers with points for completing designated actions like purchasing or submitting feedback. Customers can redeem points for:

  • Credit toward their next purchase

  • Discounted services

  • Giveaways

Customers can track their accumulated points with a loyalty card, online account, or mobile app. A points program is a fairly recognizable reward format for customers. They understand how to take advantage of it, so it’s an easy way of building customer loyalty.

Tier-based programs

Tier-based programs give consumers rewards based on their level of spending. For example, a business could have a “diamond level” tier that customers can access after spending $10,000 within a year. These diamond-level customers could earn exclusive pricing for your most expensive products and services.

A tier-based program can motivate your customers in lower tiers to make an effort to reach the next level of spending. The more exclusive the reward, the greater the customer appeal.

Mission-based programs

Not every rewards program focuses on tiers and discount codes. If your company is highly mission-driven, you may want to try a customer loyalty program with a cause. Mission-based programs make offers like “5 percent of purchases go towards the charity of your choice.” These programs can be more effective when you partner with a nonprofit organization that strongly connects to your company’s mission.

Spend-based programs

Spend-based customer rewards programs allow businesses to recognize high-spend customers. The concept is simple: The more you spend, the more rewards and discounts you earn.

Airlines, in particular, are transitioning from points-based programs to spend-based systems. It allows them to engage deeper with travelers who pay more for fewer flights.

Subscription programs

A subscription program, also known as a premium loyalty program, is where customers subscribe, pay a fee upfront for a product or a service, and receive rewards in return. Customers can redeem these rewards and use them toward future purchases.

Referral programs

Referral programs reward customers for referring their friends and family. This word-of-mouth strategy can help turn loyal buyers into brand advocates—plus, the referred customer may even refer your brand to someone else in the future. These programs can also reduce your customer acquisition cost because the customer remains loyal to your brand while actively finding more customers on your behalf.

Discover how Zendesk can bolster your customer loyalty

Watch our free demo to see how Zendesk can create an outstanding customer experience that boosts customer loyalty.

5 examples of customer loyalty programs

If you need some inspiration, check out these examples of customer loyalty programs.

Marriott Bonvoy

Marriott Bonvoy Benefits is a tier- and points-based loyalty program that allows members to redeem free hotel nights, meals, and other experiences with points. They can also earn points with car rentals and flights, share points with friends and family, and get free Wi-Fi and special rates.


DSW offers customer loyalty through a tier-based program. The tiers are based on consumer buying behavior and include rewards like free shipping and donating rewards to charitable causes. Tiers include:

  • Club: Every customer is eligible for this tier.
  • Gold: This tier is achieved when the customer spends $200 on eligible purchases.
  • Elite: This is achieved when the customer spends $500 or more on eligible purchases.

Eligible purchases vary based on a business’s specifications, but this added parameter can help drive customers to a desired product or category. In DSW’s case, eligible purchases are “purchases of DSW products such as footwear, handbags, and accessories.”

Delta Airlines

Delta SkyMiles Medallion is a tier- and spend-based program that rewards users for booking flights with the airline. The tiers are based on how much Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) the user spent during the previous year, which they can acquire through flights or partner credit card points.

  • Silver: The customer spent at least $5,000 MQDs.
  • Gold: The customer spent at least $10,000 MQDs.
  • Platinum: The customer spent at least $15,000 MQDs.
  • Diamond: The customer spent at least $28,000 MQDs.

With each tier, the customer is entitled to more and more benefits like travel vouchers, priority service, and complimentary upgrades.

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime is a great example of a paid program. For a set annual fee, Prime members can access several benefits like free two-day shipping, video streaming, music, special deals on Prime Day, and more. This encourages customers to choose Amazon for all their shopping and entertainment needs.

Ben & Jerry’s

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream has a mission-based loyalty program. While the company doesn’t offer benefits like product discounts or gifts, consumers are enticed to buy pints because of shared values. For example, for every themed-pint purchase, the ice-cream company donates profits to charities that are aligned with its values, such as animal welfare, human rights, climate activism, social programs, and more.

Tips for creating a successful loyalty program

Now that you’ve learned about different customer loyalty programs and seen some examples from popular businesses, you’re better equipped to implement one of your own. To get started, follow these top tips:

  • Establish your goals: Determine what you want to get from your loyalty program. For example, you may want to focus on increasing referrals, sign-ups, or revenue.
  • Understand your audience: The key to a successful customer loyalty program is ensuring the rewards reflect your customers’ wants. Take time to understand their needs and what would entice them to come back again and again.
  • Choose the type of program: After setting your strategy, select the program type that aligns with your goals and customer interests. Also, decide whether you want to track it by hand or use customer loyalty software.
  • Market your program: Once your customer loyalty program is in place, spread the word to attract your first members. Consider doing this through email campaigns, messaging on receipts, or pop-ups on your website.
  • Review performance: Monitor how your customer loyalty program performs, and make adjustments based on what you see and any feedback you receive. You can gather insights from your customer loyalty program software or calculate the program participation rate.

While going through this process, take a customer-first approach. When you make every decision with your customer in mind, you’re more likely to find success.

Frequently asked questions

Boost customer loyalty with good customer service

Customer loyalty programs can be the thing that sets your business apart and increases customer retention. However, before you develop and launch your program, you must ensure your customer experience is perfect.

At Zendesk, we are CX experts and have helped more than 160,000 businesses create outstanding customer experiences and develop long-term customer relationships.

Try us for free today to delight your customers and improve customer loyalty.

Related stories

2 min read

Revolutionizing fintech: Unleashing efficiency and innovation with Zendesk AI

Fintech leader InExchange is achieving unprecedented efficiency, agent productivity, and savings with Zendesk AI.

1 min read

What is customer intent? A complete guide

Customer intent goes beyond what customers say—it's what they truly need. Read our guide to learn how AI can help you better understand customer intent.

5 min read

Retail’s next frontier: Elevating customer experience with Zendesk AI

Discover how retail businesses are modernizing CX, delivering personalized services, and boosting efficiency and savings with Zendesk AI.

8 min read

How to build a QA scorecard: Examples + template

A QA scorecard can help you reduce customer churn and boost agent performance. Learn why it’s important and download our scorecard template below.