Delta customer loyaltyIt continues to amaze me the opaque nature and arcane rules that govern frequent-flier and airline marketing programs in general. I had the privilege—or nightmare—of dealing with Delta reps to change a ticket that I had purchased last fall. I have more than 1.5 million miles with the airline and am considered a “Diamond Level” traveler. So you would think I would be considered a valuable customer and there’d be austere guidelines for those who engage with me and those of my loyalty program status to create engagement and enhanced loyalty.

Yet that continues to not be the case.

As I proceeded in my attempt to change the international ticket, I was told the value of the exchange would be far less than the original ticket. Of course I then asked a simple question regarding the rules governing this decision. The customer service rep did not know. She placed me on hold once, twice, and then eventually a total of nine times. Finally, she admitted that she did not understand the rules of the ticket refund and therefore could not explain to me why I was only receiving a partial credit for the ticket. These arcane rules are attempted obfuscation. Eventually, most customers trying to change a ticket capitulates and acquiesces to the obtuse rules that even the airline doesn’t understand.

We all know that the culture of an organization determines the method by which customers will be valued and/or engaged. Yet I am continually amazed that airlines, due to a perceived or real lack of competition view their customers as an expendable asset. Airlines make it difficult for customers to truly embrace their organization. They also make it very difficult for their own frontline representatives to do their job. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a call center representative or a ticketing agent in this arena. As  companies incessantly change the fine print in their terms and conditions of ticketing and frequent-flier programs, the somewhat challenging and stressful endeavor of flying commercial becomes far more complicated. In an industry we count on for certainty, flying becomes a great unknown.  The state of continued stasis damages the bottom line and brand loyalty.

Most airlines realize that there is a lack of competition. They are very focused only on keeping the frequent  travelers engaged with the organization. We recently witnessed Delta, which I am most familiar with as my 1.5 million Sky Miles can serve as proof, changing the rules of their Crown Room policy to favor the frequent traveler. However, the most engaging parts of a loyalty program are the aspirational pieces. We know that travel has a very high perceived and actual value, and most frequent travelers redeem their miles for travel with their family or significant others. So to limit the number of people an airline allows into the exclusive travel areas is very myopic. They should carve out places where family members can join the higher-level travellers without running afoul of the limit on the number of individuals you can take into the high-level areas.

I know this might sound somewhat pretentious; as if from someone who has a hoity outlook on this industry. Yet it continues to be frustrating trying to engage in customer loyalty with this organization. The most challenging piece of any engagement with Delta is that if you push enough, spend 30 minutes on the phone, and get vocal with your anger, sometimes, depending on your status, they might just stoop to allowing you to do what you initially wanted. In this day and age of amazing customer databases, Delta—and any company interested in meeting customer expectations—has to realize that it’s easier and more engaging when you are clear from the jump with your communication to customers.

Airlines seem to be stuck in an antiquated paradigm where individuals do not have a voice. But, as we’ve talked about in the past, this view is quite myopic.

A 20-year-old, soon-to-be college graduate may not be traveling very much now. But in five or six years, that person could be the new “Diamond” traveler. Certain airlines still make it arduous for her to engage with this nebulous system. The airlines have terms and conditions and staff that, at best, do not create an opportunity to enhance the current and potential behavior of this young customer. It seems to only be the airlines that continue with this very unfriendly customer perspective. Most brands have programs in place to value customers—or they are trying to put in place programs that are customer-centric. It is odd to me that someone who has as many miles, travels as much with Delta and has all of the private-label credit cards would be treated in such a manner. I can only imagine how frustrating and difficult it must be for that lower-mileage college student.

This is something that we will address at the 2014 Loyalty Expo. We will be examining the successful tactics of the inaugural Loyalty360 Award winners and, with comparative data from other companies using customer loyalty programs, presenting a very unique white paper on best practices in this arena. We’ve examined the whole market and we will present facts, statistics and insight to shine light on what loyalty leaders are doing and how the general market is reacting to their programs.

Our sincere hope is that every organization with interest in enhanced customer loyalty will pay attention to the report. Some need it more than others…looking at you here Delta.

About the Author: Mark Johnson

Mark is CEO & CMO of Loyalty 360. He has significant experience in selling, designing and administering prepaid, loyalty/CRM programs, as well as data-driven marketing communication programs. 

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