I had a recent holiday travel experience which got me thinking about loyalty programs.  Here’s what happened:

I traveled home to see my family in Nebraska on American Airlines, Forrester’s preferred airline and the airline where I have all my miles and am currently a Platinum Advantage member.  Due to a delay on my return connection out of Chicago, I didn’t land back in Logan until about 12:30am on 12/26/07.

In getting off of the plane, I dropped my hat and did not realize I was without it until I was already at baggage claim.  Of course I could not go back through security to look for the hat, so the security agent indicated I should ask the baggage attendant for some help.

I explained what had happened to the baggage attendant, Linda, and she immediately indicated that there was nothing she could do.  I continued to try to explain that I was sure my hat was between the gate and security and just needed some help finding someone to retrace my steps.  I’m not sure if she wasn’t listening or didn’t care, but she indicated I was providing her "improper information" and she could not help me.  I mentioned that I was an AA Platinum traveler in hopes that that might help her come to my aid.  In response to this information she replied, "I don’t care who you are or how much you travel." 

The end of the story is that another baggage attendant eventually came out from "the back room" and called the gate agent to look for my hat.  The gate agent found my hat, tossed it to me through security and I and my hat are now living happily ever after.  Except!  That I am really bothered by Linda’s mantra "I don’t care who you are or how much you travel."  Now the idea of a loyalty program is that you DEFINITELY care how much I travel and I’ve found that my fundamental weakness as a traveler is that I really want people to care who I am. And to sympathize with how wearying travel can be.  Suddenly this story made it very clear to me that marketers trying to engender loyalty are very much focused on the wrong thing: points, miles, incentives, rewards.  They are completely neglecting the emotional part of loyalty.  You know, that connection you feel to the corner deli or local dry cleaners who already knows your favorite sandwich or has milkbones for your dog in a dish by the door.

So I think any marketer building or maintaining a loyalty program can learn heartily from this example.  Your focus and budget will do much more to actually create loyalty if you invest in your customer’s experience rather than on the currency of your rewards program.

I *want* to do business with the firms who treat me like a person.  Who try to recognize the things I care about.  Frankly, I find my miles with American a constantly accruing currency which I have very little opportunity to redeem and therefore don’t perceive as much of a benefit.  As much as I travel for work, I’m not really looking to travel *more* even if for personal reasons on a free flight.  I bet many frequent travelers feel the same.  What I would absolutely love instead, is if being a Platinum traveler meant that someone would see me stumbling out of a crowded plane with my arms awkwardly full of new Christmas gifts and luggage and would say "Welcome Home" instead of a stentorian "I don’t care who you are."

But then I think everyone is entitled to a little graciousness from their neighbors, whether or not they are a "Platinum" anything.



Thank you everyone who responded to my rallying cry for better customer experience in loyalty programs.  On my latest travels, I’ve gotten two "good mornings" and one "I like your hair cut" from flight attendants.  So I’m counting those niceties as credits back to American Airlines to help them climb out of their current deficit with me.  I did receive a reply to my email to American and wanted to share it with you all.  Sounds like they are trying to incorporate "being nice" into their standard training, at least for baggage attendants.

January 5, 2008

Dear Ms. Van Boskirk:

In spite of our best efforts to ensure our customers enjoy pleasant, trouble-free
travel on American, there will be that inevitable occasion when there is a problem.
We expect our personnel to be sympathetic, resourceful and flexible in resolving such
unavoidable difficulties. I am sorry your experience in Boston last month was

Given the number of customers who fly with us, on any given day misplaced items turn
up. At the same time, we receive reports on a daily basis from customers who have
lost items. We wish we had the staffing resources available to be 100% successful at
locating a missing item in response to a customer inquiry — regrettably we don’t. I
am truly sorry.

Still, we expect our personnel to be cooperative when our customers report a missing
item. I was disheartened to learn of your experience with our baggage service
employee. There is simply no excuse for rudeness| Rest assured that we have
forwarded your email to our General Manager in Boston for an internal review. Thanks
for your candid feedback.

Meeting the highest expectations of our customers is our primary goal,
Ms. Van Boskirk. Your concerns and comments will assist us in reaching that
objective. Please don’t let this disappointing experience discourage you from
traveling with us again. We are working hard to ensure that your overall travel
experiences with us are good ones.


Angela W. Dean
Customer Relations
American Airlines