With winter making its last stand, I am itching to switch gears, quit railing on the airline industry for its confusing and myopic customer loyalty practices.  One of my key words for the new year was “Positive,” yet that seems to have ebbed in focus. I received an email today from Delta about upcoming changes to Sky Miles program and all of a sudden I’m like Michael Corelone in the third (and horrible) entry in “The Godfather” saga.

            “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”

            What’s the problem now? A fair question you might be asking yourself after my recent “Back of the Bus” rant about my skirmish with Delta customer service reps who didn’t understand the language of the Terms and Conditions that were giving me fits as I tried to trade in an unused plane ticket.

            The answer to the question can be found in the first line of the message I have come to call “Obfuscation Redux.” Positioned just below a photo of grass-roofed huts on a beautiful beach beneath Delta-blue skies is the following 17-word pronouncement: “Better rewarding those who spend more with us and making it easier for you to redeem miles.”

            What could possibly be wrong with that? The answer: Everything.

            First, I have to confess to being taken aback by the overtness of Delta saying they are rewarding customers not for loyalty but for spending more money. It feels like a cash grab. I realize that I’m receiving this message as a top-tier customer and that the message will change for customers at other levels, but there has to be a more sublime way to communicate. I also realize that every business should be explicitly focused on making a solid profit, as that allows them to do the “things they need to do.” Yet does BMW reward you MORE when you pay sticker for the price of that new M5 or if you get a discount? They do not and should not. You bought their product. End of story.

            This goes back to the same old complaint about airlines in general; the lack of perceived value of the customer. The whole experience just feels ugly, no matter how much money I spend. The confusing ticket offers with add-ons that raise the price. $25 for a bag, now it’s $50 for a bag. The TSA. The whole cattle call mentality. The fact is that I am a Diamond medallion and I have no idea what these changes are, and how I should understand them. When most industries are moving to simplify and enhance their reward point structures, this is the EXACT opposite move. It’s OBFUSCATION.

Tiered reward systems are obviously based on those customers that pay more. But what am I getting for my extra dollars? What about price sensitive customers who may still fly an inordinate amount with this airline, yet may not consider others, especially when similar flights to a similar destination from a similar airport may have different reward opportunities. This is where the program could be challenging for Delta.

More and more people I speak with use two or three airlines. This could be the impetus for others to consider flying alternatives as the ability to earn the travel award (as we know that is the one of the highest perceived awards/rewards in the industry and has great aspiration and motivational merits) continue to gain traction.

Second,  The “easier for you to redeem your miles” bit is followed by an overview of the plan and then the dreaded Terms and Conditions. How many people ever read the T&C’s they get in the mail, let alone ones that seem to change every week? It is like my cousin who seems to be on a new fad diet each week, all the while asking what diet I am on… Um none, just try to make it do the gym periodically.

Simplicity and transparency. These are two key ingredients for brands wishing to retain and engage customers with loyalty programs. Trying to ascertain the value of these changes is difficult for me. I just can’t put my finger on exactly what they are doing. It feels like a shell game.

And guess what? I do this for a living. I am a professional in the realm of loyalty marketing. I might just know more about the ins and outs of customer loyalty programs than any other living human. And still-still!—I cannot figure out the specifics of what is being done allegedly in response to my feedback. If I’m this stymied by the Terms and Conditions, imagine what a lesser experienced customer might be experiencing.

That’s what I’ve been doing quite a bit—trying to look at customer loyalty programs through the eyes of others. And of course I go back to my example from my previous Delta drubbing—the young college student who cannot afford to travel very much now but one day might just be a great customer. Customers should aspire to higher levels of spending because of greater rewards. This sort of deliberate obfuscation with truth hidden behind a wall of indecipherable legal gibberish is aspirational nullification.

It’s like food. If you can’t figure out what’s in it even hundreds of words of explanation, you shouldn’t eat it.

I can’t and won’t swallow what Delta is feeding me here and I believe other customers will choke on this as well.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I am sure the top tier customers will continue to remain loyal—even more so.  And I realize you want to keep the best customer happy, yet as I opined in my last piece, what about that 25-year-old recent college graduate (I should say 22, yet I was a bit late in attaining my degree as most know)? Those are the people that could leave. The challenge is that Delta does not have the detailed behavioral data on them and if they leave, they will probably not raise their hand and let them know they are out the door. 

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