Servicing Rewards Programs

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Like many air travelers, I’m in frequent flyer programs with several airlines. Lately, I haven’t been flying enough to actually receive rewards, but it’s fun to think I might someday earn a free trip. So it didn’t surprise me when one airline emailed me, warning me that my account was at risk of closure because my travel was not frequent enough to meet their expectations. It seems I had not flown with them in eighteen months, which warranted me getting the axe.

To keep my frequent flyer account in good standing, their solution was simple: redeem miles. I don’t have enough to cash in. The next solution was to take a trip. Nope. What other options are there? I could buy miles; that would solve the problem. What, buy miles for a reward I’ll never receive? Next. Sign up for their credit card. No thanks; I don’t want any more. By cashing in 500 miles I could receive a magazine subscription. Though I don’t want any more periodicals to read, it would be worth sacrificing the miles to keep my account active. Unfortunately, none of the magazines they offered were remotely interesting.

The airline intended to reward me for flying with them, but they irritated me instead. Such is my experience with most rewards programs: I give up in frustration before earning my prize. The only exception is my office supply store, but they make me jump through so many hoops, I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it.

I recalled that with another airline I donated miles instead of losing them, so I called to check. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to ask. I gave the agent my rewards number so she could access my account, but it didn’t work. My name didn’t help, nor did my credit card number. Then she asked if I’d flown in the past year. She could access my account by my flight. I reminded her I had not traveled with her airline for the past year and a half, hence the reason for my call.

“Oh, it can be with any airline; it doesn’t have to be ours.” Incredulous, I remembered a trip from last summer. I found the flight information and gave it to her. Ironically, it was with her airline. Now able to access my account, she gave me an update, “Since you’ve flown with us in the past eighteen months, your frequent flyer account is not going to be closed. You’re all set.”

I confirmed what I thought I just heard, shook my head in dismay, and thanked her. I wasted close to an hour to save a business relationship I wasn’t all that interested in to begin with. The agent wasted about fifteen minutes trying to help a customer who didn’t need help but thought he did due to an errant email. I doubt I was the only one.

I wonder how many other frequent flyers received the same message in error. How many customers did the airline coerce into doing things they didn’t want to: cashing in rewards, buying points, booking trips, signing up for a credit card, or subscribing to magazines? How many hours of agent time were wasted on people like me who were prompted to call when they didn’t need to? How many travelers with legitimate concerns waited extra time on hold because agents were busy with customers who didn’t need to be calling?

I wonder how this affected their key call center metrics. Did average hold time and speed to answer go up? Did customer satisfaction take a dip? (Mine did.) Did call abandonment increase?

I wonder about the agents. Did they end up working faster to complete more calls in queue? Did they become frustrated over customers who didn’t need to be calling, but did so because of someone’s error? Did they need to skip breaks or work extra hours to handle the extra load? Did frustration with their employer increase because of this fiasco?

Of course, the scope of the problem is conjecture and these questions are speculative, but I have to believe I wasn’t the only one. I fully suspect there were ramifications for the call center, its managers and supervisors, and the agents who work there.

Customer service is hard work – and some companies make it harder than it needs to be.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.  Read more of his articles at

[From Connection Magazine March 2013]

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