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Where has the magic gone with loyalty programs?

Written by Ravindra Bhagwanani on . Posted in CEO Blog

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21 December 2015

As for many of you, Christmas is the time for me when memories of childhood come back, of that magic surrounding these days. And there is an interesting link with loyalty programs, at least for me.

While the two words “magic” and “Christmas” are commonly linked, my linking of the word magic with loyalty programs might need some further explanation.

As a matter of fact, at one point you want to explain to your children what you do in your professional life. Now if you happen to be a train driver or a ballet dancer, this is pretty straight forward and children’s fantasy is full of pictures around such professions. But if you are born as FFP consultant, this makes things a bit more difficult. And close to impossible when you try to explain this even in French, where no appropriate translation for FFP exists. They have some term for frequent traveller program – “programme de grands voyageurs” -, but here frequent becomes “grand”. Big or large. What about small persons? So you see the problem…

The solution I’ve found is to call Frequent Flyer cards “magic cards”, remembering how my personal relationship with these programs started. There was indeed some magic in there. And I’ve discovered myself explaining the principle of these magic cards as it used to be: You went to the airport, showed your card and flew for free. Yes, a bit simplified and adapted to children’s ears and brains, but not really so far from former reality.

And now I am looking at our Christmas tree at home with some sadness and wonder where all the magic has gone. The magic of Christmas I don’t really feel anymore in any shop and traffic jam ahead of Christmas. And the magic of most loyalty programs.

You went to the airport, showed your card and flew for free. Let’s have a closer look at that.

You went to the airport: You may still go to an airport today, but you better not try, in most places, to find a human being there, willing and happy to help you with an award reservation, taking you through all travel options and finding the best solution for you. Today, at best you can find a phone number, which will you connect to a call center in India – or Morocco for the French speaking people (actually, where are Spanish-speaking call centers located?) – and you will have to pay an extra fee for making a booking through them. But chances are higher that you give up before even getting to that point of paying because there is general and mutual lack of understanding.

You showed your card: Flying Blue is just the latest major program to announce that they will phase out physical membership cards for base members. Funny, that was my first FFP card I had (Fréquence Plus, I mean, of course). Yes, times are changing. A companion of over 20 years is disappearing. Like that. No magic trick, just a victim of yet another cost saving initiative. My loved magic cards becoming magic digital cards. It will become more and more complicated to explain to my children what I am doing. Already the consulting part is a bit virtual, but now also the cards become virtual. Soon there won’t be any toys for children at Christmas anymore either and we will tell them their gifts have become virtual? Sounds sad to me, but that is where we are heading to, no?

You flew for free: Yes, award flights used to be free flights. Today, in many markets you pay more in taxes and fuel (!!) surcharges than for a revenue ticket, making awards pretty useless. There is obviously also endless creativity when it comes to invent additional charges. You were loyal your whole life, you’ve done exactly what you were told and then when it comes to get what you deserve, you are punished. I just hope that no loyalty manager educates his children according to such principles applying in his program…

It would be so easy to get some magic back into the loyalty game, but most loyalty professionals today seem to focus on how to destroy whatever might remain of that magic. That is a shame, but probably more than just one missed opportunity, too.

But of course, I wish you wonderful and peaceful Christmas. And if at one point you feel that famous Christmas magic and see the joy that magic creates in the eyes of children, you just close your eyes for a second and think that many loyalty program members still dream of such a magic relationship with their programs as well. And then please think as well what you can do yourself to make their dreams come true.

Like that, one day my children perhaps won’t need to be ashamed to say that their father works with what remains of the magic cards, but that they might be proud to say that their father works with truly magic cards. And more importantly, that they will continue to use and love the magic cards themselves.

Happy magic holidays to everybody!