The Miles Paradox: Can a free benefit actually decrease customer satisfaction?

by Holland-Mark | December 24, 2009

Ah, the holidays. With my parents in Austin and my in-laws in San Francisco, I’ve picked the most convenient location of Boston in which to reside. Accordingly, the holidays call for the dreaded task of finding a flight to one coast or the other. I pay it up and suck it up, comforting myself in dreams made of miles earned, upgrades enjoyed, and status galore.

And yet, every time I try to enjoy said benefits, I find a frustrating set of fees, blackouts, lack of seats, and general irritation. Customer Service Reps scoff at my 25,000 miles. When they call out those with my hard-earned Gold Status, everyone in the waiting room gets up. A moot point, because the Triple Platinum Executive Czars who boarded before me have already filled the overhead space with blazers and once, an oversized foam cowboy hat. My frustration turns quickly to anger. All in all, I can’t remember the last time I had even a barely satisfying experience with anything that comes with any sort of travel rewards program. I imagine many of you have felt similar pain. Slowly but surely, I launch into a tirade of how much I hate X Airline.

What’s interesting is that these are “free” benefits. They are given to me and shouldn’t impact my opinion of the airline. I should be thankful for what I get. Regardless, I can’t disassociate the two, and my opinion of their customer service and care decreases. This happens because there is an expectation of benefits that comes with granting someone “status.”  But the people within the status system continue to increase — mostly because everyone clamors for entry-level status for basic benefits of boarding and baggage that we should get anyway. The airline answer to this conundrum is to continue to add higher levels of status — rather than raising the barriers to status. Unless you are at the highest levels, you are generally disappointed with the perceived benefit of the status you do have. The same follows with miles.

As only the airline industry is capable of, they have built a system that simultaneously increases their costs and decreases their satisfaction levels. I’d much rather a system that doesn’t give me a mirage of benefits. It’s ok that it takes 50,000 miles to buy a ticket. But don’t run around showing me a 25,000 option. I think only 10-15% of people should board the plane early, so if that means there’s no “gold” status, then so be it. Make rewards feel like rewards, not a hassle.

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