The Covert Side Of Building Loyalty: How Far Do We Need To Go?

The fiercest battle for the hearts and minds of the world's most valuable travelers isn't being staged publicly, but rather in the very quiet and often covert initiatives of major brands that literally drive the concept of loyalty off the charts.

I'm sure WikiLeaks could uncover some startling backroom memos and emails that reveal the depths to which brands are conjuring plans and activities to build loyalty from their top revenue-producing customers.

Name the brand and odds are that it has something in place that is designed to extend services and benefits beyond those stated at the highest level of its published programs.

Taking care of your best customers and delivering the kind of guest experience that consistently thrills and delights requires a level of service that some brands have seemingly decided to reserve for a select few. So few, in fact, that in order to make these select travelers feel even better about their privileges, they're invited into a secret society. Shrouded in secrecy and graced with privilege. Just as importantly, these covert offerings are kept quiet so as to not alienate the masses and the thousands of other customers who are valuable, just not as valuable.

When the George Clooney movie, "Up in the Air," made these kind of elite programs a central character in its plot line, it added to the considerable mythology and mystique that already surrounds them.

While the program featured in the movie was fiction, its premise was rooted squarely in the very real American Airlines Concierge Key program. And, other offerings that are seldom publicly talked about or even acknowledged can be found throughout the travel industry. United Airlines Global Services. Continental Chairman's Circle. Delta Executive Partner. Starwood Ambassadors. Hyatt Courtesy Card. Intercontinental Royal Ambassador.

These programs are generally reserved, by invitation only, for those customers who truly generate a lot of revenue to the brand or have the power to advocate its use in significant ways. The goal here is to influence share shift, increase use, grow satisfaction and, ultimately, drive revenue.

No doubt it's a tough playing field made more challenging by today's increasingly savvy traveler. With consumers having access to endless streams of information, greater competitive perspective and countless tools by which to evaluate the brands they interact with and the services, prices and privileges they receive, it's never been more difficult to deliver the kind of recognition that is truly differentiating.

Our always-on technology has bred an impatience in consumers and a strongly growing belief that their willingness to share data with you (and that which your brand collects on them) should be used to fuel a better service and customer experience. We're entering an era where brands are expected to provide not only an instant response but one that is informed and anticipates a person's needs. No doubt the recipe for making people feel special has never been more complex or more vital.

That's the challenge these elite level programs are designed to address, which is why they have all almost universally built themselves around high levels of very personal attention and recognition.

The true concept of privilege is definitely on display, with reports that members of these special programs have received everything from use of flight simulators to walk-on roles in episodes of "Seinfeld." But, more than anything, what you hear reported back on blogs and message boards is the way these brands meet the ordinary, but vital, travel needs of customers. Private phone numbers. Dedicated travel planners. Private entrances at check-in. Access to the head of security lines. The ability to anticipate missed connections and to have a person waiting at the gate with solutions and tickets in hand, even if it's on a competitive airline.

While I find it both ironic and telling that the ultimate reward that is being provided and is most appreciated at this covert level is simply a level of service, caring and attention that we all crave (and, in many instances, expect) from a brand, it's clear that your basic loyalty program with its stated rules, pre-set levels and standard privileges is no longer enough for your most valuable customers. They need to be distinguished from the masses and require the kind of recognition, privileges and services that make a statement about their value to your brand.

As covert as these programs may appear, there's nothing covert about how they treat those invited to the inner circle. Loyalty is indeed a currency, and brands need to go ever further to earn it.

2 comments about "The Covert Side Of Building Loyalty: How Far Do We Need To Go? ".
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  1. jacquie whitt, January 3, 2011 at 12:59 p.m.

    Please take heart. There are some travel companies that treat every single customer, from the hippiest backpacker to the silver-spoon fed executive, as if they are the one and only, with elite, preferred, privileged, loyal, special, reserved, exclusive, distinguished, invitation-only, valuable & appreciated status with access to every service & benefit available by default.

    Maybe one day, they will make a movie about us.

  2. Elizabeth Weisser, January 3, 2011 at 10:28 p.m.

    I'm all for brand enhancing and consistent treatment of all customers where the customer is left with the feeling s/he is the most valuable.

    However, the reality is that 80% of profitable airline (or hotel) revenue is driven by the employee/travelers of a very small number (less than 20%) of corporate accounts. It's pure segmentation. And, it's about company profitability. Focus the most coveted and meaningful rewards on the most valuable who can make a difference to the bottom-line.

    That's not to say ignore the masses who fill the hotel rooms and airline seats at little to no margin, there is a growing need to provide consistent service levels that are in keeping with your brand values, online and offline, when traveling and when at home or the office.

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