How many of us have signed up for customer loyalty programs only to find out they really did not provide as much value as we had expected? Recently I was able to put my travel related customer loyalty programs to the test and I was extremely impressed.

When I was a sales and marketing manager for Dell, I traveled extensively from 2005 to 2008. Since Dallas was my outgoing destination and my territory was primarily around the southwest and southeast, I decided to focus on using American Airlines, Hertz, and Hilton properties as target service providers.

Why American Airlines?

Many folks asked why I didn’t use Southwest Airlines. First, I knew I would be flying enough to earn status which would make me eligible for First Class upgrades. When you travel for a living, having the opportunity for an upgrade makes all the difference, especially on those late Friday afternoon or evening flights. In fact, once I made Executive Platinum, I was flying First Class almost every flight. What also surprises folks is that the Love Field Airport, where Southwest flies out of, is actually closer and easier to get to. Don’t get me wrong, I love Southwest and recently had the pleasure of listening to Paula Berg describe the great things they are doing in social media to connect with customers. However, I also know the director of social media at American Airlines. Both of these companies are making great investments in customer engagement. I also chose these three loyalty programs  based on experience, word of mouth from peers, and knowledge of how their programs worked.

Why Hertz?

First and foremost, I love with Hertz that I can hop off the bus at the rental car terminal and just head to my car and go. In smaller airports, such as Oklahoma City, I just walked into the parking garage and drove away. No paperwork, no car inspection, and no one to talk to other than the gate attendant to get to my first meeting. Second, once I figured out to use the “#1″ in my reservations, the points started racking up. When I earned President’s Circle status, I was often times getting great upgrades. In fact, once in Tuscon, I was upgraded to a Mercedes. What made it even better is I was there for a few days so actually had time to enjoy it. All these little things made it more pleasurable to travel.

Why Hilton?

Although my preference would be to stay at a full-service Hilton, as companies started watching expenses, it made the Hampton Inn a very attractive choice. In fact, many of their locations were actually new, so they had modern ammenities, clean rooms, and quick access to the internet. The Hilton Honors program was easy to use and often had preferred check-in lines at their larger hotels, reducing any wait time. As a traveler, we hate wasting any time that we can’t be focused on selling. As far as upgrades at the full-service Hiltons, I often was upgraded to a suite at the Hilton downtown Austin with a great view.

Great Customer Service Desks

More importantly, the preferred status customer service departments have always been top notch. Not only do they receive outstanding customer service training, but all three are staffed in the US with native english speakers making it easier to comprehend conversations. In fact, when I booked my Hawai’i trip, I had a wonderful conversation with the Hilton Honors rep who actually worked somewhere virtually in Dallas. We started talking about how she earned her way to become a virtual customer service rep and she talked with such enthusiasm about the wonderful work experience she has had at Hilton revealing strong employee loyalty as well. I do get a bit frustrated with the phone trees and poor voice recognition programs at times, but thanks to mobile web apps, they have enabled more self-service inquiries to take place. I do believe all three of these companies should develop their own iPhone application.

Back to the Trip

A year ago, I scheduled a trip to the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the big island of Hawai’i using points. Luckily I had that type of time window as it it helped dramatically in the first class availability. I spent seven days there with my wife and used points to fly first class, stay in an ocean front room, and was able to secure a convertible mustang for the entire week. To top it off, Hilton Honors gave me fourteen $10 meal vouchers and fourteen water vouchers which reduced the overall food costs. In this economy, everything counts. This definitely made all that past work-related travel worthwhile, even though I was getting paid as an Account Executive to do this.

So why do I share this story? First, to offer hope for all my traveling peers. Second, to provide examples of loyalty programs that actually came through and met and exceeded my expectations. Lastly, to provide an example to other companies. Not only will I be loyal to all three of these companies for a long time as a result of this experience, but I will also share this story with others who are considering which service providers to leverage.

What stories do you have about great loyalty programs? I would love to hear from you.

  • keith knox

    Mike — Glad to see that you like Hilton. They are a client of mine and hope you don’t mind me sharing your blog.
    –Keith

  • keith knox

    Mike — Glad to see that you like Hilton. They are a client of mine and hope you don’t mind me sharing your blog.
    –Keith

  • http://www.mikemerrill.com/ mikedmerrill

    Keith, yes I’m a big fan of Hilton. I was a Diamond member for sometime. Is Hilton’s marketing arm local to DFW? I know some customer call centers are of course.

    @mikedmerrill

  • http://www.mikemerrill.com Mike D. Merrill (@mikedmerrill)

    Keith, yes I’m a big fan of Hilton. I was a Diamond member for sometime. Is Hilton’s marketing arm local to DFW? I know some customer call centers are of course.

    @mikedmerrill

  • Mark Mares

    Hilton STINKS! I spent three years getting 134,000 points and because I worked for a few month for a franchise, they took my points away. CANCELLED my Gold Status.

  • http://www.mikemerrill.com Mike D. Merrill

    Seriously? You worked for a Hilton Franchise? Was there some rule you couldn't earn points or carry over existing? I can see where they may see a conflict of interest, but that doesn't sound right at all.

    Was this recent? I'm so sorry to hear this. I always had good service. In fact, often times they would upgrade me to the suite, especially when I was in Austin.

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