Everything we learn through our training and experience is put to the test during a time of crisis as loyalty program management becomes full of unknowns. Even short of a crisis, our true character is on full display when we are under pressure. For a retailer spending millions of dollars annually to communicate a brand promise to elevate "the customer" above all else, the way they respond in tough times is like taking truth serum, leaving the customer without doubt as to how much the brand really values them.
Loyalty management put to the test
The crucible of the COVID-19 crisis is the ultimate test of a brand promise to evolve daily toward customer centricity. In the time since social distancing and shelter in place became part of our vocabulary, we've had the opportunity to witness how some of our favorite brands are behaving in this season of uncertainty and, yes, panic.
The Wise Marketer and Loyalty Academy had a packed agenda of events in the first half of 2020, and COVID-19-caused disruptions impacted us immediately and across the board. Early on the morning of March 10, I was on my way to board a flight to Ireland to present at the Irish Loyalty Awards. Fortunately, I got word that the conference was being rescheduled before I boarded the flight. Unfortunately, the timing was such that I had to ask Jet Blue and Aer Lingus to help me recover travel fees.
I wrote about the disappointing tale here as the interactions that ensued with the two airlines left me befuddled and out of pocket some significant money. While I thought the airline's hesitancy to refund fares was symptomatic of the confusion that reigned (still reigns?) in the early days of COVID-19, I found they had already published a new policy for the times on their websites: all change fees would be waived — no ifs, ands, or buts — apparently, except mine!
The how not to of loyalty management: the blame game
A 6 week update: Jet Blue chose to blame Aer Lingus for the problem and ultimately washed their hands of the situation (a COVID-19 metaphor). Meanwhile, Aer Lingus hasn't responded to repeated attempts to contact them and resolve the situation. The inflexibility of these two carriers burned mental bridges with me and I wonder how many other frequent flyer members around the world experienced the same pain.
All of this was happening in the same week when my inbox (yours too, I imagine) was being flooded with messages from brands ranging from Best Western to Chik Fil-A to Silverspot Cinema to Starbucks informing me of their planned ways to help me through the crisis. We wrote about that here if you want to see what we learned.
The contrast in my experience reading how some airlines and hotels were adjusting cancellation and refund policies, and the particular circumstances I encountered with these two airlines eroded my trust in the offending brands. Elective change is one thing, but failure to adhere to published policies left me feeling like a seagull on the tarmac: "We didn't see you down there, sorry you got squished".
Next on my "to do" list was to reschedule a workshop planned for Dallas in May. Like so many of you, we had to move an event which typically gathered hundreds of people together to a date in the future. An Omni Hotels property was our venue and, even though it was common knowledge that travel was being shut down for the foreseeable future, the hotel demonstrated little empathy for the situation, refusing to refund our deposit and making it difficult to reschedule the event.
Winning loyalty versus fighting for business survival
Here's the rub. By their own admission, the Omni could not host the June event due to governmental order, so we were living a shared experience. Responding to my request to offer re-scheduled dates in fall 2020, the hotel came up with nothing satisfactory. We asked to move to 2021. The hotel refused. At that point, we asked for a refund of our deposit and were rebuffed again. We sent e-mails directly to the property (now closed) and to their headquarters, but to make a long story shorter, we have no date and the hotel is keeping our deposit. How does that impact the future possibility of booking events with the Omni in the future?
I realize that travel brands all over the world are going to face some very severe revenue and profitability shortfalls because of COVID-19. The pain is universal. I also realize that it will be "best customers", especially upper-tier loyalty program members, business travelers, and loyalty event managers that will help speed their recovery.
The choices brands are making during this period of time will have a lasting impact on many consumers and heavily influence the way they spend their money in the future. I've shared just two stories and there are a few more. I'm sure you have your own tales to tell. Share them with us if you do at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may even feature your story.
Fortunately, we have also noticed some extremely admirable behaviors from other brands, so after stepping down from the soapbox, we'll also share those stories when loyalty program management was 'handled with care'.
All in the name of Loyalty.
Mike Capizzi is the Dean of the Loyalty Academy and a Certified Loyalty Marketing Professional™. A frequent traveler with over 2 million miles on Delta alone, he looks forward to calmer days and the re-scheduling of the B2B loyalty conference in Dallas at a new hotel!