EMERGING ENTERPRISE 2022

A mission to turn customers into brand advocates

Providing cloud solutions for loyalty programmes, Advocado serves over 700 brands

FIFTEEN seconds or less. That's all it takes for customers to join a merchant's loyalty programme using Advocado's technology, unlike other loyalty scheme platforms that might require lengthy signup forms.

Founded in 2016 by Eric Chia and Joval Gan, the provider of cloud customer relationship management (CRM) solutions serves more than 700 brands in South-east Asia across industries such as hospitality, food and beverage, beauty and wellness, and retail.

Merchants may use different tech products for day-to-day operations - from point of sale (POS) systems and self-ordering kiosks to online platforms - and "the in-built CRM that comes with these tools often becomes inadequate for their needs down the road", co-founder Chia told The Business Times.

"Advocado offers a CRM to enhance these tech products and consolidate their consumers' interactions into a single source. This creates a seamless omnichannel experience for both consumers and merchants."

Advocado's complete solution extends from storefront apps to the merchant back-end and consumer apps. It provides features such as marketing automation, data analytics, customer segmentation, and a "Swiss Army knife of tools" including multi-tier memberships, cashback, store credits, stamps and referrals.

As to how the firm got its name, Chia said: "Sometimes, a very desperate person can be described as a desperado. When we're able to turn our merchants' consumer from a suspect to a prospect to a regular and eventually an advocate, we call them an 'advocado'."

Like fire and water

Before embarking on this venture together, Chia and Gan were actually competing resellers of tablet-based POS systems.

"Joval and I, we're actually like fire and water. Yet our beliefs on how to make things happen, our integrity (when it comes to) how we conduct ourselves and our business, how we treat people with respect and passion, as well as our work ethic, is nearly identical… Diamond sharpens diamond and this is one of the key success factors of Advocado," Chia said.

Today, the firm has operations in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. For the Singapore market, a team of 17 staff serves over 1.5 million consumers across more than 350 brands, including household names such as Awfully Chocolate, Tim Ho Wan and Dian Xiao Er.

"We have established a good foundation in Singapore. With the world turning a corner on Covid-19 and borders opening up, we shall springboard to the rest of the Asia-Pacific," he said, adding that the company's goal is to "empower 50,000 outlets with Advocado by 2030".

Things were not always smooth sailing, especially at the onset of the pandemic: "It was really challenging for us. When merchants take a hit, we take a hit. But when they recover, we recover."

"What is exciting is that during Covid-19, we started working on a new service in Singapore to help our merchants to do more sales online by nurturing their customer base." Merchants now have the ability to sell paid memberships via Advocado, and use marketing automation to drive flash deals and targeted offers to specific customer segments. Said Chia: "The gross merchandise value generated from this has grown by 12 times."

What Advocado did well during that difficult period was to come up with "innovative ideas that didn't break the bank", but proved "profitable and valuable to implement", said Chia. By doing so, the firm managed to reduce its monthly churn from 5 per cent in 2019 to about 2 per cent in 2022.

For instance, during the height of pandemic curbs, some merchants' physical stores could not open but their online systems were not up to par. Advocado worked with them to come up with offers and reach customers through channels such as SMS, email and WhatsApp. It also encouraged such businesses to get their frontline staff - who were freed up as outlets could not open - to build direct relationships with customers and sell directly to them.

Future plans 

Notwithstanding a looming global slowdown, the co-founder is optimistic about the future. "Everyone is far more equipped and mentally prepared now," Chia said, adding that opportunity for the software-as-a-service CRM space is "massive and very much overlooked".

The firm is in talks with a number of strategic investors and intends to explore listing in two years' time, said Chia.

For the next few years, Advocado's focus is to continue building integrations across a range of tech solution providers, grow their alliances in Asia-Pacific and create an ecosystem where partners can have more satisfied customers and generate greater revenue.

Asked about the best advice he has received about running a business, Chia said it is to be clear on a strategy and follow through with it: "How is this strategy helping me grow faster and is this helping me make more money in this specific market? How are we solving (customers') pain points significantly better than our competitors?"

That said, quoting management consultant Peter Drucker that "culture eats strategy for business", Chia noted that the right strategy is not enough, and should be complemented with the right culture.

"Even if you have a winning strategy, unless you have a team of people well-aligned with you, your vision and mission, with processes that nurture and grow this culture, the likelihood of this strategy being successful is near impossible. Your people matter - love them, grow them, win with them," Chia said.

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