by Luke Jones
Posted 3/24/2014 12:00 am
Updated 7 months ago
Little Rock’s homegrown Qbot app has had its ups and downs, but the customer loyalty program has successfully used colleges as marketing bases to spread its network.
The Android and iPhone app endeavors to replace individual loyalty programs — usually represented by punched or stamped paper cards — with a single system that users can access with their smartphones.
Sheena Howell, the company’s director of marketing, said the app now has 185,000 users, more than twice the 92,000 it had in March 2013.
“We’ve gotten about half a million loyalty scans since we’ve started up,” Howell said. “We have a quarter million total rewards redeemed through our app.”
CIO Heath Lehman said the user count was “above target,” and that means the app is closer to expanding to a national model.
The app is free for users. Qbot makes money through its client businesses, which pay a one-time $199 to $299 fee for setup, then continue to pay $79 to $149 per month for the service.
Qbot employs 10 full-time workers and up to 10 additional part-time paid interns, Lehman said. Lehman declined to release revenue figures, but said the company is profitable in the sense that “we don’t spend more than we make.”
Qbot is now available in 50 to 60 cities, most of them in Arkansas, Howell said.
“We want to double that in the next 12 months, focusing on major markets,” she said.
Its rising user base is thanks to a marketing model that relies on spreading the apps use from college campuses to surrounding businesses.
Qbot has a contract with Sodexo, a French company that provides food service to many universities. Students can use Qbot loyalty programs at 50 Sodexo campuses, Howell said. Some of these include the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Sodexo isn’t the company’s biggest revenue driver, Howell noted. Rather, the campuses serve as a marketing base.
The company depends on young, tech-savvy students to discover the app in college. They then spread the app’s use by word of mouth to local businesses. These businesses are the app’s backbone, Howell said.
“We find it very easy to get into a new market when we have the campus,” he said.
“Students are early adopters,” Lehman said. “So when you launch in a new city, once you have the campus on board, it’s like gaining a hub of users.”
With many of Qbot’s clients being chain or franchise stores, one problem comes with keeping clients’ employees abreast of the technology.
“We go in and personally train the cashiers, but there is a lot of turnover, especially in quick-service restaurants and casual dining,” said Howell. “So we create videos for management to use … that train what to say to customers. But a lot of times that doesn’t happen. Maybe they hire a new employee that doesn’t go through all the training.”
She said the company tries to contact its clients at three-month intervals to deal with this issue. “Our goal is to train everybody as often as possible,” she said.
Also, because Qbot contracts with individual chain or franchise members, some users complain that their rewards can’t be honored between different stores.
Lehman said he hopes this issue will be resolved as the app gains traction around the country.
“We think the more Qbot gains exposure, and the bigger we get, the less and less of that will take place,” he said.
There have been some software problems, too. On Google’s Play Store, of the app’s 236 ratings, 102 are five-star and 64 are one-star. Many of the one-star reviews complain of connection problems and of the app crashing.
Lehman said the latest version of the app is addressing some of those issues.
Connection problems, he said, tie into data service strength at the client’s location.
“So if there’s a poor data connection, the app functions poorly,” he said. “I think we’ll address that in the next version of the app. We’ll have a different strategy to determine location. That’s our super-secret sauce that we’re rolling out. And I hope that as time moves on, and data networks become more reliable, we’ll have a much better opportunity to serve our clients.”