Global Card Programmes: Why ‘One Size Fits All’ Won’t Work

The story you are about to read is true; only the names and countries have been changed to protect the innocent.

A Belgium-based card administrator for a North American multinational corporation (MNC) called his in-country bank to order 45 new employee travel cards. The bank called back, saying: “Given that your company’s corporate headquarters has just issued a global request for proposal (RFP) for its travel card programme, we’d prefer to wait till that process is done before we issue any new cards.”

“What?!” cried the administrator, “I didn’t even know our corporate headquarters had issued an RFP! You know more about what’s going on over there than I do!”

Fast forward six months, by which time the MNC has accepted the bid of a competitor bank and wants everyone to get on board for the switch. With the memory of being cut out of the loop still burning fresh in his memory, just how engaged and cooperative do you imagine that administrator is likely to be? With annoyed and perhaps resistant administrators on the ground, just how smoothly do you think that any implementation will go?

Lesson learned: the failure to engage local stakeholders when globalising your corporate card programme can be hazardous to your chances for success.

That is just one of many weights to balance when implementing commercial card programmes across the multiple countries of an MNC’s global footprint. Cultural differences, language barriers, country-specific payment regulations and unique local product needs all make for a complex undertaking. Vendor acceptance adds an additional headache in some countries.

Which is not to say that organisations shouldn’t be looking to take their card programmes global. Quite the contrary, the efficiency benefits provided by consistent product features, consistent global data and a single point of contact practically cry out to companies to go as global as they can and as fast as they can. The question is how to get there in one piece. The path can – and should – vary, depending on where you’re going and what you’re doing.

The VMPS Common Bond

In 2011, US Bank began issuing travel cards in Europe for its North American clients with significant European operations. Although the impetus for creating the new issuance capability came largely from the headquarters of clients, we realised at the time that many decision-makers and influencers would be on the ground in Europe. This prompted the bank to complement its sales efforts in the US with local sales and service crews in Europe to support, provide expertise, and most importantly, listen to the needs and concerns of clients’ European-based cardholders and administrators.

The bank requires similar in-country expertise everywhere that clients take it but does not, however, demand similar organisational structure to achieve it. What matters ultimately is not the structure of the delivery system, but what gets delivered. No single structure works for every customer in every geography. Trying to create such a monolithic structure can result in a ‘lowest common denominator’ that leaves too many customers unsatisfied, or a ‘one size fits all’ suit that ultimately fits no one. As a result, US Bank and others in the sector are devising different ways to achieve the optimal combination of consistent global standards and in-country expertise that it seeks for its clients.

Last January, US Bank was one of four lead banks that joined with Visa and several other financial institutions in launching Visa Multinational Premium Solutions (VMPS). VMPS is a network of banks, each of them leaders in their respective markets, that work together to support their customers’ global card programmes. While each lead bank provides its clients with centralised management and oversight of their global program, it also leverages the network to provide local flexibility and services outside of its own issuing footprint. In the case of US Bank, the  direct issuing footprint covers the US, Canada and Europe, and it utilises VMPS elsewhere to provide clients with a global solution.

Such global partnerships have been tried before. What makes this different is the role that Visa plays in providing consistency across all of the membership. Each member relies on Visa’s global network and on their enforcement of mutually agreed upon product and data standards, including a streamlined contracting process. Most significantly, VMPS members use Visa’s IntelliLink reporting solution for data reporting, which Visa consolidates and delivers through the banks to members’ respective corporate customers.

While Visa provides the common bond that holds it all together, it is a bond, not a shackle. The structure provides strong central systems but also local flexibility. Depending on legal requirements, for example, customers may still need to sign individual contracts for services in various countries, and the system is designed to make that happen as simply and painlessly as possible. The customer gets a strong partner bank to be its central point of contact, but they also get the expertise of the other member banks to navigate the nuances of local currency conversion, document translation and varying rebate/incentive models, to name just a few.

Thus the whole becomes stronger than the sum of its parts, and the parts don’t get so absorbed by the whole as to disappear. The benefits of consistent and unified products, services and data are maximised, because local stakeholders are engaged at all points along the way.

When taking a card programme global, that’s a wise formula to follow. The global card manager will love the efficiency. The chief financial officer (CFO) will delight in the cost savings. And that administrator in Brussels? He just might become the programme’s biggest cheerleader.

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