Shep Hyken's Customer Service Blog

Is the Company’s Loyalty to the Customer Temporary?

Lost LoyaltyThis article might be perceived as a rant, but stay with me because I think you will agree there is a very valid point and lesson at the end. I’m frustrated that a customer may show intense loyalty to a business, and that business may reciprocate with appreciation, until there is a change of circumstances that causes the customer’s buying habits to change – none of which have to do with doing business elsewhere. The airlines offer a perfect example of the point I’m trying to make.

My friends who travel a lot tend to fly on one particular airline. Many of us qualify year after year for the highest elite status. I would venture to say that if these airlines couldn’t give away the perks of free upgrades and their mileage programs, they would be forced to offer value in other ways. Maybe it would be more comfortable seats and free entertainment options. Maybe it would be free luggage. By the way, these are offered today by certain airlines to all of their passengers. No loyalty needed. But, these airlines do have the perks and the mileage programs, and my friends – including myself – are loyal to the airline that takes care of us best … because we fly on them the most and reach their highest level.

Since the mid-1980’s I’ve been flying on my preferred airline, and I’ve only missed their highest level one time, the year after 9/11 when my business slowed a bit. I’m anticipating keeping this level of travel up for at least a few more years, hopefully more. That’s at least 25 years, so far, of hitting their highest status. They take great care of me (usually). The perks are nice. The special phone number they give me to reach top level support for reservations, flight changes and more is really the ultimate perk. But what happens if or when I decide to retire? What happens to all of the loyalty that I’ve given them?

Back to my friends. Some of them have decided to retire. And when they do, all of their perks come to a screeching halt. No longer do they get complementary upgrades. No longer do they have access to the special phone number for help. No longer do they get taken care of like the VIP they were for so many years. My friends didn’t defect to another airline. They are still loyal, but just don’t fly as much.

One of my friends was sick and had to stop flying for several months. In that time, he lost his elite status due to the infrequency of him taking a trip. He never lost his loyalty toward his preferred airline, but even after pleading his case, they abandoned their loyalty toward him.

I’m not picking on a particular airline. To my knowledge, this is the way it is with most airlines.

So, here’s the lesson we can take away from all of this. Most, if not all, of us have customers who have been doing business with us for many years. We treat them with the loyalty and respect they deserve. But what happens when they retire, move on, or have some change in circumstances that causes them to reduce the amount of business they do with you? What do you do with them? Do you abandon them?

Our neighborhood grocery store loves us. Our three kids are now grown up and we’re empty nesters. Does that grocery store resent us because our weekly purchases have dropped dramatically? I doubt it.

Does the restaurant that used to see us on a somewhat regular basis with our kids resent us because we now only show up as a couple versus a family of five? I don’t think so.

No, the grocery store and the restaurant still love us, and have never made us feel any less loved because we don’t spend as much with them. We are still loyal to them and they treat us just as well as they always have.

Maybe the airlines and other businesses can learn from this. I hope so!

Shep Hyken is a customer service expert, keynote speaker and New York Times bestselling business author. For information contact (314)692-2200 or www.hyken.com. For information on The Customer Focus™ customer service training programs go to www.thecustomerfocus.com. Follow on Twitter: @Hyken

(Copyright © MMXV, Shep Hyken)

 
  1. This is a great example, Shep. It seems like it’s a misnomer to call airline frequent flyer programs loyalty programs. You’re right that they’re really not.

    PS. Many airlines have a lifetime threshold where you retain certain perks after reaching a certain number of lifetime miles. Does your airline offer this? (Just curious on how that factors in.)

    • Hi Jeff – Agree that many loyalty programs are actually marketing programs. As for the loyalty perks, the airlines will not (to my knowledge) give out their highest level to people, just because of their lifetime miles. For example, at American Airlines, you are always a Platinum member after hitting a milestone. But, you always have to earn their highest status, Executive Platinum, if you want to retain that high level.

  2. Salim Idriss says:

    Hi Jeff
    You are totally spot on in your article. I have encountered such behavior with not only with the few airlines that I use consistently but even with hotels that offer loyalty programs ( With some hotel you can buy more point = you buy your own loyalty!!!).
    And I have always had this question in my mind: Would they still treat me as a valuable customer or decline the VIP treatment just because my business slowed down or I retired?

  3. Interesting thought. I blog about customer service, mainly in the restaurant industry (but of course tips apply to most industries). I appreciate loyalty – people that support my blogs, share on social media… When they stop, I don’t stop appreciating their support. I guess in many industries we are just disposable – the mentality of “what have you done for me lately” is often the case. Great to find your blog.

    • Hi Sonja – Thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your point of view. And, I’m going to look up your blog. Thank you again!

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