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Amazing Business Radio

How Brands Can Find a Balance Between Incentives and Emotional Connection

Shep Hyken interviews Mark Ross-Smith a.k.a Mr. Loyalty and the CEO and Co-Founder of Loyalty Data Co, the parent company of He talks about the roles of transactional and emotional incentives and how brands must learn to balance the two to build long-term customer loyalty.

Speaker 1 (00:00):

Welcome to Amazing Business Radio with bestselling author and customer service and business expert, Shep Hyken. Shep will talk with some of the smartest thinkers in business to help make you more successful in your professional and personal life. This is Amazing Business Radio with Shep Hyken.

Shep Hyken (00:16):

Hello, everybody. Shep Hyken here. We’re back with another episode of Amazing Business Radio. We have a great guest today, Mark Ross-Smith, who is a global leader in the loyalty world. He works a lot with airlines and hotels. We’re going to learn everything we can about loyalty programs and how airlines are doing what they do to woo you to want to fly with them. And let me tell you, even if you don’t work for an airline, don’t own an airline, this is an episode you do not want to miss because there are lots of parallels that we can make between that loyalty program that gives us points and perks and any other type of loyalty program or incentive that we have for our customers to come back.

Now, before we get into our program, I want to thank our sponsor TextExpander, which is a tool that allows your team to eliminate repetitive typing, and it’s a wonderful productivity tool. Cindy, in my office, and I mentioned this a few times over the last few weeks, she keeps telling me week after week, “This is great. I’m saving hours of time.” Wow, hours of time. I love that. So we’ll learn more about that at the break.

Before we get into the interview, let me share with you a couple of quick announcements, and they are, if you listen to the show, you know what they are, but for those that haven’t, if you’ve got a question or if you’ve got a story you want to share with me, go to any of the social media channels. I’m there. I’m pretty much everywhere. If it is a question, use the hashtag, #AskShep. I will answer the question there in the social channel on this show, in my newsletter, or on my TV show, which is Be Amazing Or Go Home, and episodes can be found on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Roku, and you can go to, that’s

All right, let’s jump into the interview. Mark, welcome to the show.

Mark Ross-Smith (02:05):

Shep, it’s a pleasure to be with you here today.

Shep Hyken (02:07):

Well, I’m excited because we’re going to talk about a topic that I love to talk about, and that is customer loyalty. And specifically, what gets me excited is that you come from the hospitality, I would say specifically the airline industry. And I don’t know who invented loyalty programs, but I would say probably the airlines are best known for having great loyalty programs, or I guess some airlines may not have such great loyalty programs, but I love what they’re doing.

The goal being, let’s get somebody to fly on us, let’s reward them with some points, or miles as they used to be called, and maybe they still are in some programs. And when they hit a certain number, we give them a free ticket, or we give them a perk, or whatever. So let’s jump right into it. First of all, you are Mr. Loyalty. That is what some people refer to you as. And you’re the CEO and co-founder of Loyalty Data, and your focus is on the airline industry. So let’s talk about what your definition of loyalty is, what it looks like, and what a good loyalty program is. That’s a big wide open question, by the way.

Mark Ross-Smith (03:11):

That’s about eight questions right there.

Shep Hyken (03:13):

Good. I’m going to sit back and let you talk for the next 20, 25 minutes and then we’ll just wrap it up, how’s that?

Mark Ross-Smith (03:26):

That sounds good. All right, part one to that of eight here.

Shep Hyken (03:27):

Well, let’s start there. Tell us about your company real quickly.

Mark Ross-Smith (03:30):

Yeah, so Loyalty Data Co, StatusMatch is our primary product, which is in the airline hotel world. If you’ve got gold, silver, platinum status with an airline or hotel, we will help you get the equivalent value status with a competing airline or hotel. So people that have gold or platinum status in airline world are in the top 5% of travelers globally. These people are responsible for about 40% of airline revenue. So as a group, they’re the most valuable customers an airline can possibly have. They spend more, they fly more frequently. They’re typically in first class or a high-yield economy cabin. They just spend the right type of money.

And so airlines, funny enough, want more of these customers, so we help them get them. It’s pretty effective. And to your point on… Airlines didn’t invent loyalty. I’m pretty sure I saw a quote that loyalty program started in Ancient Egypt and the 1200s. I’ve seen this somewhere. I’ll have to dig it up for your show notes, but it started quite a long time ago. American Airlines really started airline loyalty in the early ’80s, and it’s progressed-

Shep Hyken (04:43):

I think 1983 or ’84 is when it started.

Mark Ross-Smith (04:48):

It’s about the time I came into the world, a long time go. And it was a way to create stickiness, right? Because deregulation, all this kind of stuff and more competition in the market. How do we keep people flying us versus other airlines? So it was all about fly X times, get a free flight kind of thing. And that worked really well. And then in the mid, late ’90s is when airline loyalty programs started to evolve and they split into two functions effectively, and that’s what we see today. And one function is the customer experience slash customer recognition part of it. So that’s the priority check in, the priority boarding, the free bags, maybe the upgrade, the, “Welcome back, sir. You are one of our most frequent flyers.” It’s the soft part of it.

And then the second function is arguably maybe more interesting these days is the business of loyalty. And this is primarily the airline selling a virtual currency, like points and miles, to third parties like banks for a profit. And everyone’s seen the credit cards, or you’ve been on a plane and they’re trying to sell you the credit card, right?

Shep Hyken (05:58):

Every flight. And I think, why is it that they have to spend five minutes telling me about this great deal? I kind of feel like… It’s like in the middle of the movie, they stop to give me a commercial.

Mark Ross-Smith (06:15):

You kind of feel like you want to pay extra to avoid that ad on the plane. Maybe they will one day.

Shep Hyken (06:22):

YouTube allows you-

Mark Ross-Smith (06:22):

We don’t want to give them any ideas here.

Shep Hyken (06:24):

… to opt out of the ads by paying for a monthly fee. Can I opt out of hearing the flight to attendant talk about that credit card? Which by the way, I already have.

Mark Ross-Smith (06:36):

So those credit cards, they make the airlines, collectively, billions and billions of dollars.

Shep Hyken (06:41):


Mark Ross-Smith (06:42):

To the point where these airline loyalty programs, as a standalone business, wait for it, are worth more than the airline itself.

Shep Hyken (06:49):


Mark Ross-Smith (06:51):

Yeah. So that’s why they’re flogging these legs on every flight, and in the terminals and in the magazines, everywhere they possibly can, because they’re basically selling miles to banks. So you spend on your credit card, you earn 100 miles for that transaction. The bank is paying the airline for those 100 miles to put in your account, and there’s a margin on those miles. So America Airlines disclosed in, I think it was 2020, 2021, their gross margin was about 70% on miles, 50% net margin.

Shep Hyken (07:23):

[inaudible 00:07:24].

Mark Ross-Smith (07:25):


Shep Hyken (07:26):


Mark Ross-Smith (07:28):

Gross. Exactly.

Shep Hyken (07:29):


Mark Ross-Smith (07:30):

So what that means is they’ve got a higher margin on selling points and miles than they do on selling you an airline ticket. If you’re on a $200 flight from New York to Miami kind of thing, what’s the margin realistically on that ticket? A few percent maybe. Whereas, you get the credit card and you just put your monthly, just your normal expenses, couple thousand bucks on it, they make more money out of that than you flying. So in some ways, the question now becomes, do airlines want you to fly or they just want you to get the credit card and not fly? Because there is a situation where, let’s say… I know you’re a big time frequent flyer, so you’re spending, I don’t know, a lot of money, right? Six figures a year in first class. You’re a great customer.

So that’s the one hand. And you’ve got John over here on the other hand, he doesn’t fly at all, right? But he is got 100,000 bucks of business transactions going through his credit card every month, but he doesn’t fly. To put you two side-by-side, John may be more valuable to the airline than you are, even though you are the one flying all these sectors around the world. And so that’s why they’re pushing these credit cards because they’re high-margin revenue, basically. It’s a different type of revenue and the markets value that type of revenue differently to they value airline ticket sale revenue.

Shep Hyken (08:54):

Wow. Well, let’s get into the actual loyalty of it all. Our research this year shows that 69% of customers, specifically American customers, I realize you’re… By the way, that accent for everybody wondering is from Australia. However, currently Mark resides in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. But in America, 69% of American customers when it comes to giving a company repeat business, a loyalty program is important to them, versus just 8% that say it’s not, 23% don’t care. So I’ll take it, I’ll leave it, if I get points, I don’t get points.

But let’s talk about loyalty programs. I believe that a true loyalty program is not about points and perks. It’s about getting somebody to come to you regardless of the points and perks. A traditional loyalty program is really a marketing program. What we’re talking about where an airline’s willing to give me a prize for spending a lot of money or flying a bunch of flights is it’s… By the way, I’m not knocking that. Just right up front, I love both of them, but they each serve their purpose. But one I think is true loyalty and the other one is a marketing program. It’s like you give me a punch card if I go to a restaurant and the fifth punch means I get a free meal, is that a loyalty program or is that a 20% discount program?

Mark Ross-Smith (10:23):

They’re both effective though.

Shep Hyken (10:24):

Oh, both very effective. That’s my point is they’re both effective. You’re rewarding me for spending money with you or you’re rewarding me for flying on your airline, for staying in your hotel or whatever. And when I spend enough money, you’re going to give me something in return. And if you spread that out over all the money that I’ve spent, it could equal to a nice little 10, 15, 20% discount, if you will. And that’s the way I look at these things anyway. And I think many people, they’re so loyal to their airline that they’re willing… And I am too. I’m an American Airlines guy. I love my American Airlines status and the way they treat me. They’ve been really, really good to me over the years. And I can have an option of flying on a different airline from St. Louis to Las Vegas nonstop, but almost every time I’ll fly through Phoenix or Dallas to get there and stay on American Airlines. Price is about the same, little inconvenient, but they show me the love.

Mark Ross-Smith (11:22):

That’s a true loyalty proposition, so it’d be a two-way street. You are showing them the love through transacting and being loyal when you don’t need to be, because you’ve got alternatives that are easier, perhaps cheaper at times, but your brand loyal. So I think the loyalty program is working for you and for the airline in this case because they’re keeping you loyal when you’ve got other options. I mean if you’re looking at ROI and how to measure loyalty as a statistic, that’s what you’d be looking at. Is this achieving the goal? Is this creating incremental revenue that otherwise wouldn’t exist? Which is one way to look at it, that sort of delta increase. Or is it-

Shep Hyken (12:06):

By the way, delta increase, no pun intended.

Mark Ross-Smith (12:11):


Shep Hyken (12:11):

Delta Air Lines versus the gap, the delta.

Mark Ross-Smith (12:17):

Exactly. And so I think loyalty programs shouldn’t be designed for everyone. I think this is an important point here. If it worked for 100% of the market, it wouldn’t be effective, therefore it’s got to work really well for a certain group and then kind of well for a slightly larger group. So in airline world, it works really well for people that are business travelers or people have status with an airline, right? Because the benefits are amplified at that top end. And funny enough, people that have money have the ability to spend even more. And share of wallet is something that airlines talk about a lot, like what percentage your business is American Airlines getting? Presumably 100% right now. So you’re very loyal and very valuable to them.

Whereas your friend John over here who spends $10 million a year flying, but he only has 50% of his flights of American Airlines, he’s actually less loyal to the airline than you are, even though he’s seen as more valuable, right? So there’s more that the airline could capture out of him because they’re only capturing 50%. And so this is kind of one of the metrics that airlines look at is share of wallet. And at the upper end of the scale’s, it’s easy to move the needle when there’s more money involved. Versus Julie over here is doing two flights a year to visit grandma kind of thing. It’s not going to shift it too much. There’s few hundred dollars, whereas at the other end, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars.

Shep Hyken (13:52):

But that’s the difference in the status levels too. You’ve got all your different levels and there’s different ways people are hitting them and some people are hitting them because they fly a lot. Some people are hitting because they spend a lot of money on the credit card, as you mentioned earlier. Some are truly loyal, but they don’t fly a lot, but they wouldn’t fly any other airline. I think we’ve got to give them some credit as well. And then I think I’m one of those guys, I spend a pretty good amount of money and I tend to stay on the same airline. I seldom deviate. There has to be a pretty good reason why I would do that.

Hey, let’s take a quick break. When we come back, I want to continue this conversation. And I do want to talk about the difference between true loyalty, like what would… I want you to ponder this question. If the airlines, the hotels, or any company that has a loyalty program that feels that it’s attracting their customers, if they were to eliminate the prize, the perks, would people still fly on that airline? Are they being treated well enough to do so? Because to me, that’s a true definition of what I think real loyalty is. It isn’t about the points and the perks, it’s about the people and the way they treat me. So think about that. We’ll be right back. We’re talking with Mark Ross-Smith, who is Mr. Loyalty. Can’t wait. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back.

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Speaker 1 (16:09):

You’re listening to Amazing Business Radio with bestselling author and customer service and business expert Shep Hyken.

Shep Hyken (16:16):

We’re back on Amazing Business Radio, talking with Mark Ross-Smith. If you want to learn more about what Mark does, go to If you’re interested in seeing how your loyalty in one airline might transfer over to another, or in a hotel, might be worth checking out.

All right, Mark, we were talking a little bit about the difference between what I would call the marketing program of loyalty and the idea of true loyalty. And sure, we want to create incentives for people to come and fly on our airlines or do business with us. And by the way, we keep talking about the airlines. Anybody that has a loyalty program just substitute what you do and the industry you’re in. When I say airline, put whatever you do in that slot, and I think you’ll find that a lot of this information applies to you as well. So Mark, any further thoughts on the idea between… And I believe you used the word manufactured loyalty, which is points and miles, versus… What would you call it? True loyalty or emotionally-connected loyalty?

Mark Ross-Smith (17:24):

Let’s call it the Shep loyalty. The-

Shep Hyken (17:25):

The Shep loyalty.

Mark Ross-Smith (17:27):

Almost blind loyalty. So you’re just going to go with one brand, no matter what, because it’s been sort of branded and ingrained into you over our lifetime. Airlines are really good at this. Everyone’s got that memory of when they’re a kid and their first flight, their trip somewhere. And-

Shep Hyken (17:43):

I remember mine. Yeah.

Mark Ross-Smith (17:45):

Exactly. Everyone’s got that built up in their memory bank somewhere, and they’ve got this positive thought about the airline. And-

Shep Hyken (17:52):

By the way, I got to digress. I remember early… I mean this wasn’t my first fight, but I was like 10 years old and I was going to summer camp up in Minnesota and I had to take a flight. And I got a duffle bag pack with all the things you would do with summer camp, swimsuits, T-shirts. But on the plane I had to wear a coat and tie. My parents made me wear a coat and tie on the airplane. And so all summer long, I’m grummy and grimy and whatever, but when it came time to come back home, put on that coat and tie. And it was this bright green sport jacket. Oh, my god, it was ugly. But I remember that. Boy has airline travel and the way we dress… Hasn’t it? I’m not saying good or bad, it’s just amazing. We can walk on with flip-flops and a T-shirt and shorts, and we’re accepted.

Mark Ross-Smith (18:42):

I’m old school. I like to dress up a bit. I like the service. I like going to the check-in counter and someone greeting me and saying, “Where are you off to today? Oh, you’re off to London. Great.” I like that kind of old-school interaction, the old romance of travel, which means dressing up a little bit, it means no flip-flops and-

Shep Hyken (19:04):

Well, I got to tell you, I may look nice when I get on that long flight, but as soon as we get on, I get comfortable, I will go in the lavatory, if that’s what you want to call it, and I will switch into… I’ve got a 15-hour flight coming up in about a week, and I’m going to be wearing my very comfortable gym pants and T-shirt. Probably sleep for most of the flight if I’m lucky.

Mark Ross-Smith (19:29):

That’s how it should be.

Shep Hyken (19:29):

When my client sees me at the other end though, I’m going to look good because I’ll go back and change. Anyway. Well, let’s go into that a little bit more. You’re a little bit old school on that, but what are your thoughts on… I made the comment marketing program versus loyalty.

Mark Ross-Smith (19:50):

Yeah, let’s talk about the marketing versus emotional element for a second, because I think this is important. Research shows that when people are invested in a brand emotionally, they tend to spend more. Funny that.

Shep Hyken (20:04):

There you go.

Mark Ross-Smith (20:04):

They tend to open more emails, they tell their friends. They roll with the punches when things go wrong. They’re more accepting when there’s delays and things like that on aircraft. And so the question really should be for customer experience and loyalty folks, is how do we get people more invested into the brand? And there’s two ways. There’s a transactional way to get people invested. And so this is where we start thinking about people buying stuff, subscriptions and stuff like that. Because if you’re financially invested, you’re like, “I paid 50 bucks for this thing, I’ll show them. I’m going to fly with them. I’m going to give them even more money.”

And then there’s the emotional way. It’s the old school, you woo the heck out of people. A smile, “Welcome back, sir.” And that emotional part works about 20% of the population. Most other people are driven by transactional-type stuff, financial incentive. And so the question is how do you tap into more of the emotional side of people? Because it’s cheaper for an airline to give away more points and miles to people that fly. I mean, you’re familiar with the book, the Five Languages of Love, right?

Shep Hyken (21:21):

Yes. It’s been Around for a while. Love that book.

Mark Ross-Smith (21:24):

It’s a fantastic book. So let’s think about these five languages and then let’s put it in the context of customer loyalty and to see how do we treat people in a way where they associate how the airline is treating them in their subconscious mind with love, and feelings of love? And that’s how people can get emotionally… buy in to the airline. So let’s go through a couple examples here. So for those playing along at home that don’t know these five languages, there’s the words of affirmation, there’s quality time, there’s gifts, receiving gifts, acts of service and touch, like physical touch. So let’s-

Shep Hyken (22:04):

You have to be careful with that last one.

Mark Ross-Smith (22:08):

Let’s get to that last. Words of affirmation, for example. So if there’s someone, this is how they interpret love and this is how you want them to feel about the airline, you want them emotionally invested into it. And so it’s as simple as, “Welcome back. You’re one of our most important customers.” It’s as simple as that because the way they interpret that sentence is you are kind of boosting their ego, right? You’re saying something really nice to them, and therefore, they interpret that the right way, boom, that sets them on that path.

Another one is quality time. And we’ve all had this where the cabin crew or someone from the airline, they sit next to you and they just have a little conversation with you. “Oh, you’re going to Miami today? How long are you there for? Oh, you’re visiting your parents? Oh, that’s lovely. When did you see them last?” It’s just this 60-second conversation about their life that is genuine. And then after that conversation, these people think, “Well, that was nice. Unexpected. It’s not every time the cabin crew come along and have a little conversation with me. That was nice.” And that over time, consistently over and over and over starts to build that feeling of love, that investment that person has in that brand because they associate that conversation with the brand with what they’re doing at the time, which is probably being in an airplane. And-

Shep Hyken (23:35):

And by the way, that airline flight attendant that that conversation represents all other flight attendants on that airline. Because when the passenger eventually talks about this to their friends, they go, “They are so friendly,” and it wasn’t a they. It was a he or a she.

Mark Ross-Smith (23:54):

Exactly. And they go tell their friends and suddenly, it spawns out from there. And that one interaction with that one cabin crew is that’s how the other 20,000 camera crew operate, right? So it’s very, very powerful in that sense. Let’s get to the touch one, which is your favorite. This is as simple as a handshake.

Shep Hyken (24:17):

No, I didn’t say my favorite. I said that’s the one we need to… A touch on a shoulder or a shaking of the hand.

Mark Ross-Smith (24:25):

Exactly. It’s a shaking of the hand. It’s a gentle tap on the shoulder, saying, “Goodbye. Thank you for flying. Great to see you again. Oh, I love your jacket today.” They’re small moments, it’s three seconds of time, but it’s done in a genuine way. And so in some ways, these five languages of love translate into the customer experience loyalty sense, it’s a bit of a revenue hack really. Because if you can manufacture people’s experience in this way, or help manufacture it, they start to spend more, they start to open their emails more, they start to tell their friends good things. If something goes wrong, they’re more forgiving, which is a big thing in the airline business. If you got delay or you lose your bag or something, the last thing you want is someone going on Facebook or Instagram, “This damn airline did a-”

Shep Hyken (25:18):


Mark Ross-Smith (25:19):

Exactly. Whereas, “Hey, I was on this flight today and this happened,” and suddenly it’s this great experience. And if you look at all the things on social media, people like the good things more than the bad things.

Shep Hyken (25:32):

No doubt. By the way, I remember getting off an airplane and getting a text immediately saying, “We’re really sorry your luggage will not be in the baggage…” I can’t remember the exact message, but they told me then it will be on the next flight. They’re going to take it to my hotel. Please give them… And I thought to myself, “This is the best lost baggage experience I’ve ever had,” and I was so happy to tell everybody about it.

Mark Ross-Smith (25:58):

That’s awesome. There’s a lot to say about getting things wrong, like you lose your bag, and then the way that they handle that, the way they kind of make up for it in your mind. And it didn’t really cost them anything, they just sent you a text, right? Whereas some airlines they throw miles at you and say, “Oh, sorry. Here’s…”

Shep Hyken (26:15):

Yeah, they think that that’s a bandaid. By the way, and I know you talk about the love languages and all that. I’m holding in my hand. Nobody can see this because we’re audio-based, but I’m going to turn it around and I want you to… Can you see what that is?

Mark Ross-Smith (26:31):


Shep Hyken (26:32):

That is a thank you card from American Airlines. This card, and I asked the flight attendant, it says, “Welcome. We value you as a passenger or a customer. Thank you for flying with us. Have a wonderful day, Kelly and your DFW, Dallas-Fort Worth crew, from American Airlines.” This was on every seat of the plane. I said, “Do you do this on every flight?” “Only when I have time to do it.” But think about the connection that she made with those. And the flight wasn’t totally sold out, so it was easy for her to… The first-class cabin, everybody got one and then sporadically throughout the cabin, the other people. But I thought, “What a cool touch. This is somebody I want working for me.”

Mark Ross-Smith (27:19):

People listening can’t see the card, but I saw the handwriting is very beautiful. This is a handwritten note.

Shep Hyken (27:26):

Right, it’s a handwritten note.

Mark Ross-Smith (27:27):

If we’re talking 50 of these things, my hand’s going to get sore after two. En masse that’s hard to do.

Shep Hyken (27:35):

But I was impressed. I was so impressed. So I know we’re running out of time. And about now I’m going to ask you the final thing, and maybe it’s something that’s tied to the five languages or maybe it’s something extra, but is there one last nugget of information you’d like to share with us related to loyalty?

Mark Ross-Smith (27:53):

There’s one thing I’ve learned in the airline loyalty time I’ve been in this business, and that is I’ve had the most value from being a customer of the airline. So obviously, I’ve worked for airlines and I work in the industry, but actually being a customer. So that’s having status on airlines, that’s flying 50-100 sectors a year, that’s actually experiencing the product, being in that middle seat next to two screaming babies on a Friday night, trying to get home, you’re tired, everything’s going wrong. Going through these motions I think is fantastic training for learning how to improve the customer experience and the loyalty experience because if you can nail these not-so-great situations for people, if you can make them a little bit better and brighten their day, bring a little bit of joy to their life, then the rest, it’s all down there. It’s all easy from there. So I’m a big believer in being a customer of your own product.

Shep Hyken (28:47):

Yeah. So when you’re a customer and you’re truly a customer, you learn the good, you learn the bad, and you figure out how to make it all that much better. Just to kind of wrap this up, I’ve been writing a lot about recently something I wrote about way back in the 1980s, and that is companies that actually force their executives to go onto the front line and become customers, or become call center agents, or go out with a salesperson and just sit there and shadow them, so they could see what’s happening in real life on the frontline, what’s really going on. And not enough companies are doing that.

Mark Ross-Smith (29:26):

I think it’s super critical. I think every company should be doing that. In fact, not just a taste. I think they should be living and breathing it all the time.

Shep Hyken (29:33):

Yeah. Recently, and I wrote about this as well, the new Starbucks CEO here in the US has decided that every month he’s going to take a shift as a barista on the frontline to figure out what employees and customers are experiencing. I think that is so cool. So anyway, this has been a great conversation, Mark. Thank you so much for being on the show. Really appreciate it. This is why we call it Amazing Business Radio. You’re awesome.

Mark Ross-Smith (30:01):

You’re awesome, Shep. This has been fantastic.

Shep Hyken (30:03):

Well, thank you. And I hope that we get to continue this conversation down the road. Well, everybody, that wraps it up. Another episode and another interview, and we will be back next week. And I promise you with another interesting, fun-filled, fact-filled informative interview. So until that time, this is Shep Hyken, reminding you to always be amazing.

Speaker 4 (30:27):

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