Customer Loyalty Is Easy, Yet Some Brands Just Don't Get It

Delta Might Want to Take Advice From JetBlue, Orbitz, Hertz

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I'm a frequent traveler. By choice. Even in these days of predictable flight delays, less predictable baggage-handling snafus, elimination of in-flight meals and snacks, and endless waits in long lines on the tarmac while flights take off or disembark passengers.

I make trips to the nation's capital at least nine times a year. That's a round-trip air ticket, plus rental car for each visit (oh, and I've traveled to Washington twice within the past three weeks). I'm a pretty regular customer for anyone who's paying attention.

Hertz is. Every time I bid on Priceline for a rental car to be picked up at Dulles International Airport, I get a nearly instantaneous reply from Hertz accepting my offer, virtually regardless of the amount bid. It's turned me from an Enterprise-by-choice customer to a Hertz-by-choice customer. Not bad, considering how often I rent cars, including during holidays, when they charge a premium.

I recently noticed Hertz's Connect service offers hourly rentals in New York with rates as low as $8.50 an hour, a la Zipcar and other competitors. Smart move, considering more and more consumers are reducing their carbon footprint through less reliance on cars. For this, I applaud Hertz. Some brands get it. When the marketplace changes, and it always does, it's critical to remain relevant and customer-focused. Innovation is essential, particularly these days.

Which is what makes me particularly baffled by the recent experience I had with Delta. Besides D.C., I book at least another five or six trips annually. Recently, I bought round-trip air tickets on Delta's website for the July 4th weekend. Only three days later, the fare was reduced by $100 total. I immediately called Delta to request either a refund of my old ticket so I could purchase a new one at the lower fare, or a refund of the difference. I was told it was against "company policy." Would that be the company policy against keeping customers happy?

Orbitz and countless travel sites guarantee your purchase at the lowest rate, and have for some time. They want to ensure you're a satisfied customer, and they definitely want to provide a compelling reason to return and use their site the next time you're booking travel. It's a pretty simple formula for creating brand loyalty. What part of it does Delta not understand?

One might expect, as a customer, that you'd receive better treatment and select benefits by booking directly via a company's website over an aggregator site intended to sort and compare competing travel offers and rates by emphasizing lowest fees. It's a market opportunity for airline brands to differentiate themselves and offer consumers advantages for choosing their brand over other options. JetBlue gets it. It actually charges a $15 fee for booking on a site other its own. It also charges nothing to have an existing ticket reissued at a lower available fare.

And, like Hertz, JetBlue is an innovator. Its JetBlue Promise Program is a policy that refunds flights or vacation packages in full to anyone who's been laid off recently since making travel plans. How's that for counteracting the "uncertain" for those unfortunate enough to experience difficulty during these uncertain times? You can call it recession marketing, as some have. I prefer to attribute it to JetBlue's exceptional customer focus, which has always been core to its brand experience.

Despite the economic downturn, I'm planning to keep up my aggressive travel and flight schedule. I figure I'm a catch and a keeper by anyone's standards for customers these days. I think I'll pass on Delta from now on. JetBlue -- or anyone else -- are you listening?

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Sedef Onder is owner and managing partner of The Halo Project.

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