ytlayoLoyalty Goes Both Ways

I was a big fan of United Airlines, once. Hometown airline, friendly skies, better planes than all those DC9s (Yeah, they’re called MD80s, but they’re really DC9s.) American was flying.

Then came the bankruptcy and I stayed loyal. Flew at least 25,000 miles per year, never complained when they ran out of my meal choice—back when there were meals—or my preferred seat wasn’t available or they had to gate-check my bag. When we sold our company and the new owner wanted us to use American, I found ways to keep on flying United.

And after the bankruptcy, when my favorite airline was back on its wings, what thanks did I get for sticking with them through thick and thin?

Um, how to put this in the nicest possible terms…..oh, yeah….nothing.

No free tickets. No pile of bonus miles. No free drinks in coach. No reward for keeping the faith while United was asking passengers to refill the beverage carts and sealing wing cracks with Krazy Glue. (Yes, Mr. litigator, I know it wasn’t really Krazy Glue, but that sounds funnier than Elmer’s.)

As a result, I started splitting my miles between United and American, maintaining 25k status on both for most of the past decade. Except last year, of course, which was a terrible year for racking up miles. I didn’t qualify for premium status on either airline in 2009.

United dumped me from the Premier list for the first time in almost forever. American renewed my unearned Gold status and won my loyalty for this year, and next, and the one beyond….

Loyalty is mostly a one-way street in the business world, which makes it a lot like life, and that creates all kinds of opportunities for companies during the current recession. Years from now, we’ll be reading about the ones that figured it out, marveling at their success.

Here’s a preview. Somebody is keeping track of the customers who are staying loyal this year and making plans to give them a reward when rewards are affordable again. Whatever the reward, the company that reciprocates for customer loyalty will be the exception, not the rule.

Whether it’s banks and credit card companies assessing new fees, airlines billing for previously included (meals, pillows, checked bags, aisle seats, air, toilets) amenities, hotels tacking mandatory resort fees onto room charges or private clubs adding special assessments, the business world today is teeming with schemes to skim extra bucks into the till.

Tough times call for desperate measures, or so it seems. However, now that the economy is turning—yeah, really it is—where will the rewards go?

This isn’t just a question for businesses, of course. Whether it’s a volunteer group or a charity, a family challenge or a friend in crisis, the situation is the same.

When times are tough, business owners and vendors and clients and friends all put the arm on each other, chanting the mantra that we’re all in this together. When times get better, only a few will remember that pledge, and profit from it.

Make a list. There’s somebody you’ve been leaning on during the recent unpleasantness. When things get better, you’re likely to forget about it. They won’t.

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