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Customer loyalty: When systems don’t match and the difference of a single person

airlineCustomer loyalty. A key component of many corporate marketing strategies and an important area of focus for most. It’s a key ingredient to a company’s long-term sustainability and a puzzle most attack through partnering up with customer loyalty companies to create programs – from large to small, simple to complex – to encourage customers to keep coming back. Yet, despite all of the planning, strategy, and systems that get put in place to enhance customer loyalty, it often all still comes down to the details and individual experiences. As a result, it really pays to invest in the basics:

  1. Make sure the loyalty program aligns with the product or service itself – activating loyalty rewards should be seamless and deliver the experience promised, otherwise, you could potentially do more harm than good
  2. Invest in the people at the front lines dealing directly with customers – at the end of the day, they are your biggest asset or liability when it comes to ensuring customer loyalty. A single person can make all the difference in a positive or negative way.

To highlight both points, I’ll draw upon an experience I had a little while ago with an airline that has engaged another company to run their loyalty program.

The airline in question is one I’ve flown with for the better part of my life. I’ve also been a member of the airline’s loyalty program for well over fourteen years. For a recent trip, I booked all our flights on my points through the loyalty program. Part-way through our trip, we needed to change our itinerary and a fantastic representative from the loyalty company helped us. The experience was seamless and pain-free. Amazing, really. The only consideration, the agent pointed out, was that to accommodate the changes we needed, we needed to upgrade to executive class and pay for the points difference. Completely understandable, we did. He further explained that the new flight class had to be applicable to all flight segments although we had unfortunately already flown one flight segment; however, it also meant it would be applicable to all remaining flight segments. Still understandable. No problem. The representative was able to secure all of our business class seats for us, save the last leg from Beijing to our final destination, so recommended we call back and see if another agent would be able to secure the seats at a later date in advance for us; however, if not, the airline’s gate agents could be able to change our seats for us upon our arrival at the Beijing airport. Again, no problem – we were just relieved we were able to get our itinerary adjusted.

We had an incredible trip and flight experience throughout our trip. Along the way, we would call the loyalty company to check in on whether we might be able to secure our business class seats prior to running after our connection in Beijing. No one was able to, but each representative we spoke to assured us that the airline’s gate agents would be able to do the upgrade for us provided the flight wasn’t full and the seats were available.

Empty cabin

Fast forward to our arrival at the Beijing airport. We arrived at a chaotic gate counter and soon realized that perhaps the previous assurances from the loyalty company were strongly misaligned with the expectations of the gate agents. After a few failed attempts at contacting the loyalty company and a series of rather disappointing and surprisingly aggressive exchanges with a number of the airline’s gate agents, we boarded the flight without our seat changes completed. The agents had confirmed that the seats were available (which I later saw for myself – the business cabin was nearly empty – as you can also see in the photo to the right); however, each agent further insisted the business-class itinerary and receipt we provided were not valid grounds to provide us a seat change. A note specifically requesting the seat change needed to be specially noted on the file. We were to take it up with the loyalty program company. Not a great experience. Certainly not one that was seamless and aligned. Clearly, the two systems were not talking to one another, nor were the policies around how to manage seat changes such as this the same for either company. Apart from that, the brusque manner by which we were dealt with were reason enough for me to consider ending my long patronage of the airline and to cancel my loyalty program membership. A loyalty program that customers are not able to activate according to what they have signed up for greatly undermines the value of being part of a loyalty program… and a customer.

Upon my return home, I followed up with the loyalty company, who recommended I follow up with the airline. I would need to follow up with the airline via a written submission through their site. I should get a response within 4 weeks or more. I submitted my inquiry as to whether they might be able to broker the possibility of me getting the balance of my unused business miles back for our last flight segment. I was pleasantly surprised. The airline wrote back within the week. Unfortunately, the response was less than desirable. Below is an excerpt of the response:

… I regret to say, we show no notes attached to your booking from (the loyalty program) requesting a complimentary upgrade on your return flight. The (loyalty program’s) agent who originally booked your upgrade did not attach the required airport upgrade request to the file. Without the request, the check-in or gate agent were unable to comply with your request.

I can appreciate your disappointment in not receiving the upgrade and while we are unable to provide a partial refund on the mileage used for the upgrade, as a gesture of goodwill we would like to provide you with a one time saving of 20% off of the base fare on your next booking…

Incredibly, throughout our trip, I had spoken with no less than 5 different agents from the loyalty program, all of whom confirmed that by looking at my file, the gate agents would be able to see that we had paid for business class bookings with our additional miles and would be able to upgrade our seats for us. A significant difference in opinion from what appeared to be the airline’s expectations. Further a complimentary upgrade suggests it is free. Not exactly the case considering we had paid for the upgrade. Then there was the consolation of the token 20% saving off the next base fare. Requiring me to fly with the airline again without resolving the problem and having me collect additional miles towards a loyalty account that I might not be able to activate. By this point, I wasn’t interested in the prospect. Further, the savings, even if I opted to fly around the globe to Australia, were a fraction of the cost of the fare difference between business class and economy class tickets or the equivalent miles to dollars conversion.

The net result: I had become a dissatisfied customer. I was ready to cancel my fourteen year old membership and also stop flying with the airline. But first, I decided to follow-up with the loyalty company one more time. What’s that they say about tenacity?

Enter Yuki. A manager with the loyalty company’s customer service who as luck would have it had previously worked with the airline and then moved on to the loyalty company – having served a tenure of over fifteen years combined. Fantastic, he understood the systems for both companies. Yuki empathized. Our experience had been quite unfortunate. He would take it up internally to follow-up on the policies between companies around loyalty program related upgrades, which he later confirmed did not outline the requirement for representatives from the loyalty program to leave notes for gate agents for customer upgrades to be completed. Rather, by booking executive-class loyalty program seats, customers booked executive-class seats for all flight segments within the trip. In all his years with the loyalty program company, Yuki relayed that he and his teams had never needed to leave a single note on a customer’s file for upgrades. He was going to take it up with the airline internally, and in the meantime, would refund my miles while also looking into what else he could do to rectify our situation.

This was all that was needed. One person who cared to listen, understand, empathize, and finally to directly address and resolve the issue. One person to turn around an entire experience that was nose-diving towards a lost customer and future flights for the airline. Instead, since the experience, I ended up on a plane an average of every two weeks for the next six months. I flew with that particular airline for nearly all the flights.

Yuki is the reason I’m still a member of the loyalty program and the reason I still fly with the airline. He later followed up with further updates on what else he was able to do for us. The experience was unexpected and exceeded every expectation we’d had. As one person, Yuki made it his business not only to resolve my situation, but also to help close the communication gap between the airline company and loyalty program. The loyalty program company is lucky to have him as an employee. I was lucky to have encountered him.

Who said one person can’t make a difference?

UPDATE: The airline responded to my tweet in regards to this blog post as did the loyalty program company. Their responses below:
twitter

What’s interesting about these responses is how vastly different they are, which further highlights the disparity between the level of customer service sophistication of the two companies.

For the airline, it’s fantastic their response is timely and attempts to keep things positive. What it lacks is the appropriate level of empathy and understanding to properly address the terrible experience that my husband and I had previously experienced. How is one to interpret “interesting” in this context? In essence, it mirrors the attempt the previous airline agent had provided in her response to my original submitted inquiry through their site, leaving much to be desired and adding insult to injury. As for the loyalty program company… perfect. A perfect response that addresses the previous issue, demonstrates empathy, and ends on a positive note.

What this demonstrates is that there is a tremendous training opportunity around customer service and providing the appropriate kind of response in dealing with out of the ordinary circumstances for the airline. So, to the airline, A for effort. C- for actual output and results. Still a ways to go, but at least they are in areas that are highly amendable and trainable. Maybe they should borrow Yuki for a week or two.

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