My treatise of all treatises has been interrupted this morning by something much more mundane, a customer service call with United Airlines.
Fliers like me fall into a funny category. We are the hard to measure incremental dollars. It is exactly what a loyalty program should capture, but it's not easy to track what that actually gets the program provider. My back of the envelope math suggests that United made $2,000+ incremental revenue of me each year. That's the amount I could have saved by flying the better route and the better price on a different carrier. Instead, in the aim of maintaining my status, I flew on United.
For the past twelve years, I have hit Gold, which on most airlines entails 50,000 miles. The big difference for me is that most of the miles were spent as though it was my money. A good 70% were business travel, but it was for my business, so each trip was evaluated and each dollar mattered. The extra dollars I could have saved would have been felt, versus the more coveted travelers whose companies pay or the most coveted travelers, consultants, who get other companies to pay but keep the perks of flying the most expensive class of tickets.
No Status for You!
On my customer service call looking into two fees that I had never had in the past, what I found out is that I have no status for 2014. I flew 24,497 miles in 2013, which is 503 miles short of the lowest level, Silver. There was a site that allowed travelers to pay for miles to get them to the next status level if they came within a certain number of miles. I feel like I saw a piece of direct mail about it to my wife.
My error? I assumed. I assumed that my loyalty was automatically worth something. That it would be recognized and rewarded by at the very least a bump to Silver. How foolish ultimately, as the rules are the rules. All I can think is how nice to be so spoiled and entitled as consumers to find this strict adherence to clearly marked rules unacceptable. But that's the new customer service reality. It is no longer about adhering to your rules. It is about performing up to the new global standard.
Now that I have zero status, I have zero incentive to stay loyal. I might has well see what is the best return for not only the $2,000+ incremental dollars but the annual travel budget. It's one thing if the company offers the best of the best, but in United's case they are lacking in so many ways, for example:
- *If* the planes have Direct TV, it is $7.99.
- Wifi is available on a paltry number of routes and is $23.99 for most flights
- Extra leg room seats are $80+/pp on routes where JetBlue charges $40 (and gives a TV).
- Non-premier customer service calls generally go overseas.
- And, prices aren't actually that good
As it's easy to my ego protective state of assuming I mattered, I'll bypass a few more woe is me comments and skip to what I'd do if I were them.
1. Know Your Customers
A) Look for people who have obviously shown loyalty and bucket them, e.g., 2 or more years, 5 or more years, 10 or more years. Have a few basic criteria for each bucket, e.g.., minimum status level, maximum status level, and average status level. Goal: simple but meaningful segments
B) Their customer service history - number of times called, issues unresolved or escalated, refunds processed, etc. Goal: how resources intensive are they and are they introvert customers or extrovert customers.
C) Get some sense of their digital self - are they connected, public, chronic complainers, able to offer real insight. Goal:
D) Assign a score or have multiple scores based on miles, dollars, consistency, service, digital; make the data simple to read and intuitive. Goal: a universal way for anyone to understand a customer in one quick look.
E) See What They've Received And Score It- when was the last upgrade? Average number of perks (e.g., upgrades) last year, in the last x years. Goal: have they been rewarded and are they feeling loyal. Create an index of perks to x (trips or miles) so you know their sentiment.
F) What What Has Changed in Their Life - Are they buying for different people? Did they go from one ticket on non-business trips to two or three or four (like us with twins)? Maybe they didn't get an upgrade because they started flying with their wife and didn't want to be separate? Maybe they have had a kid or kids. What has the data said about their flying change. Did they relocate? A lot of this data is easy and inexpensive to append. Goal: Combine other relevant data to act as triggers and ways that let you take action in a way that feels more personal than messaging by status level.
2. Look for Deviations
Set alerts for any changes or the possibility of change. The data will tell you what a person's typical frequency is. Are they not taking certain habitual trips? Have they started to trend differently? Goal: Know almost before they do what may be happening so that you can take action.
3. Take Action And Proactive Acts of Kindness
Let's take someone like myself who has given 10 years of loyalty for what used to involve an upgrade or two (until the program changed and my route no longer qualified for free upgrades) and earlier boarding (now available for $300/yr via a credit card). In my case, they could have, in an ideal world, given me a year free of status in recognition of past loyalty and life events. Or, they could have sent me a note about my status and instead of saying click here to pay, they could have just given me Silver. Finally, they could have actually been proactive about communicating my shortage instead of assuming that I knew exactly where I stood. Just as I shouldn't have assumed, I don't think they should have either. With data aggregation and triggers, they could help create loyalty - timed discounts along with unexpected but appreciated rewards - from status to lounge visits.
It's easy for me to suggest what should be done, but United is a huge corporation, that despite the pretty pre-flight videos, has to operate on the lowest common denominator. That means individual employees are not empowered to help individual customers. Empowered is a culture change, it's a management change, and it means an incentive structure where service matters. Is it possible? Absolutely. Just look at Chase Bank or Best Buy. I actually have loyalty to a bank, and why? No special program but an intense culture change that has saved me some money, some time, but more than anything makes you not loathe a commodity business.
If a 20 year pilot whose airline goes under must start from zero at a new airline, do I really expect less mission critical pieces to be better run?