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You know what happens when you book a flight from DTW to SFO with about a week’s notice? You end up in a middle seat. Luckily, because I’m a high-ranking member of Delta’s customer loyalty program, my middle seat was in the exit row near the second door on a Boeing 757, so I didn’t have a row in front of me – just two flight attendants facing me in their jump seats.

One flight attendant looked at her app and started thanking us and telling us how we stacked up compared to each other in terms of status and miles – it’s a thing we frequent travelers love to do. We compete to see who benefits most from the airline’s customer loyalty program. Remember the scene in the 2009 movie Up in the Air with George Clooney where they throw loyalty cards on the table to compare who has more status? We actually do that! But without cards, because who carries cards anymore?

I fly approximately 100,000 miles a year and average two nights a week in hotels. I’ve flown 1.4 million miles with Delta Air Lines. And in my row of six people, I ranked number two, with a two-million-miler beating me out. I’m treated incredibly well based on this loyalty. It makes a big difference at midnight on your fifth flight of the week.

The other flight attendant then says, “I wonder how many miles I’ve flown?” So we calculated it. The answer is 35 million. 35 million!! 5,000 miles per round trip, 13 flights a month, for 45 years. And if I estimate the number of passengers she has taken care of in those 45 years, I’d guess 17.5 million (250 per flight, 156 flights per year). This woman is a hero. She’s earned all the Tiffany & Co. or Tumi gift cards (the gift the airline gives out when passengers hit a million miles). And we all owe her a big, giant thank you.

Loyal Customers Can’t Exist Without Loyal Employees

Airlines, hotels, and retailers have a pretty strong loyalty approach that many customers love. If you’re a frequent traveler or buyer, you get deals, upgrades, points, and most importantly, special attention. But how well do these companies reward their most loyal employees? I’m talking about the ones who serve 17 million passengers. The ones who clean over 125,000 guest rooms or fold over 550,000 shirts in a lifetime. You need to recognize these people just as much as you recognize your most frequent customers. Why? Your customers’ experiences are mostly defined by the front-line employee they interact with, and if that person is disgruntled, forget it. It’s your job to make sure they feel appreciated each day, each shift, each flight.

Companies spend millions to identify the habits of their most loyal customers, and millions more targeting them with promotions and advertisements. But how much do they spend on identifying their most loyal employees? The ones who give their all to make customers feel welcome, appreciated, and better off when they leave than when they arrived? The ones who take extra care in onboarding the new coworker? The ones who can diffuse any tense situation? The ones who make you laugh each shift? From what I know, based on the work we do to help organizations prioritize their people, there isn’t enough effort in cultivating and sustaining employee loyalty initiatives.

Your Customer Experience Will Never Exceed Your Employee Experience

So I challenge you. In addition to identifying the top 10% of your customers, identify the top 10% of your frontline employees. And the top 10% of your frontline managers. Let’s be honest, these people are the real reason you’re killing it on comps this year. Employee loyalty must be a priority. Recognize your people. Reward them, give them more opportunity to contribute, and listen to them. Give them the tools and resources (and yes, labor hours) needed to be successful. Train them, grow them, invest in them. You need to keep them, dare I say, even more than you need to keep those most loyal customers. Because without them, you have no loyal customers.

Then identify the next 10%. These are the people who, with a little extra investment by you , can join the most loyal. Invest in them, too.

I’m hoping I’ll hit two million frequent flier miles during my career as a consultant. Since I’m sure to interact with countless more flight attendants on this quest, I’m asking the airlines, hotels, and retail stores everywhere to reward employee loyalty. Keep your people happy (bring on the next free Tumi suitcase). Value them. Invest in them, because your customers expect and need the kindness of the professionals who keep us safe and loved – at 35,000 feet, at the midnight check-in in the hotel lobby, and at the store where we have to buy the deodorant we forgot at home.

Which frontline hero made a difference in your world recently? And how well was the company taking care of them?

August 8, 2018


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