Frequent flier fangirl

I’m fiercely loyal to several things in my life: My family, my college, my employer, my cat…and my airline. That’s right, I’m going on record: Delta Airlines might be my all-time favorite brand out there. Think it’s weird to be so loyal to an airline? I’ll explain.

The purchasing process

Let’s start with the basics — it’s sexy to be an airline. Definitely one of the better choices as far as consumer-facing brands go. Sure, you can be loyal to other brands. But buying a bottle of shampoo or a box of tissues doesn’t produce quite the same exhilarating zing as buying a plane ticket does.

Today, the process of buying a ticket is quicker than ever (particularly via mobile apps), and the delight and dopamine boost it brings remains a treat. In an instant, your state shifts from then — before you had a ticket — to now, a state that includes a future destination. Something to plan for. An undefined journey.

Airplane tickets also challenge you to spend time in a totally new way. They force you to make choices that shake up your routine. You’re invited to experiment and to play. How will you fill your schedule? What will you eat? Where will you stay? Who will you meet?

That’s why buying a plane ticket is one of the best purchase experiences in the world. The companies that sell them don’t sell destinations; they sell possibilities. Do you choose adventure or relaxation? Friendship or business? In a matter of minutes, you can choose to transport yourself from one place on the planet to another different place. Then you just show up and just go.

VIA THE SKY.

I travel so much now that even this loses its novelty. I sleep through the pre-flight announcements and no longer pay attention at takeoff (though I still thoroughly enjoy landings). And while it’s easy to forget all the good stuff about flying when you’re delayed for hours on end or stuck on hold with a customer service rep, I still believe Delta handles the entire customer journey better than any other company I interact with on a regular basis.

Designing the customer experience

Travel is designed around change. Every part of the customer experience is about moving people from one place to another. Pilots and flight attendants start the day in one city and end in another. The whole industry is built around a state of flux. As a result, (more so than in other industries) it’s important for airlines to be agile, reactive, and fluid. Flexibility is key. And Delta gets that. Change is built into their DNA.

The problem, of course, is that change is not built into an average traveler’s DNA. Yes, there are some frequent fliers. But I imagine Delta’s loyalty program, like any superuser community, comprises only the top 5–10% of all travelers they see on a daily basis.

For many people at airports, the experience is infrequent or irregular, which may make it a little scary (particularly with threats of terrorism looming around every corner). Chances are, if you’re going somewhere new via an environment that’s uncomfortable, it’s likely that you feel a fair bit of anxiety around the whole experience. Add to that weather uncertainties and airplane technical difficulties and you just end up with high stress all-around. (And you wonder why people drink at airports?)

Change is hard. Stress has a tendency to bring out the worst in people. With all this in mind, when you take a closer look at an airline’s average customer base, a new picture begins to emerge: Their entire job is to mitigate anxiety and panic. The smartest thing they can do is to build consistent habits that add stability.

Agents of change

In other words: Airline employees are change management agents. The best ones out there get this. That’s why there’s so much comfort built around routine. The process of boarding. The mind-numbing drone of the pre-flight safety check. Even the peanuts. (I mean…if you can’t at least count on a mediocre in-flight snack, the people may revolt.)

All of that is table stakes for airlines today. But where Delta stands out is in the customer delighters — the things you didn’t know you cared about until suddenly when you have them, you can’t imagine living without them. Like archaeologists at a dig site, Delta excavated every moment of traveling and uncovered common artifacts and tokens of each passenger’s experience. Then they turned those into routines too.

That’s why you receive a push notification at the exact moment your bag is loaded onto your plane and why you’re thanked for being a Medallion Member right when you board. It’s why they answer customer service calls on the first ring and respond to every single Tweet, complaint or otherwise. (And let’s be real, most Tweets about airlines are complaints).

Just when you don’t think it can get any better, they do it again. Last week, I received an email reminding me that I would be out of NYC on Election Day. It included a link about how I could file my absentee ballot. I was so floored with this attention to detail that I forwarded it to three different people.

Truly, it’s a brilliant strategy.

Building loyalty

One of my favorite interactions with Delta was when I was tapped for a focus group in NYC a couple of years ago. I had the privilege of attending a brainstorm about how to improve this already-great experience. When I got home late that night, I was so excited that my husband feared I would quit my job on the spot and go work for them.

Yesterday while wandering through LGA, I got another peek at my favorite company and stumbled upon an employee information fair. As a huge organizational development nerd (not to mention a Delta superfan), I knew I needed to crash it. Twenty minutes later, I was engrossed in conversation with an internal comms lead about how they manage an employee intranet for their 80,000 employees.

We can learn so much from brands that approach the customer experience in such a deliberate manner. With every flight I take, I hope a little bit more rubs off on me. That’s why I like to pay attention not just to the big things companies do — but to the little moments that add up with every flight booked and every frequent flier mile accrued.

Loyalty is hard to come by these days. Winning it takes perseverance, ingenuity, and patience. Well played, Delta.