Dear      Sandeep Dube, Vice President – Delta Air Lines (Customer Engagement & Loyalty)

CC:        Denise Pickett, President, U.S. Consumer Products & Services at American Express; Edward Bastian, CEO, Delta

From:   Chis LaVictoire Mahai, Managing Partner, Aveus and a long-experienced customer with both Delta (2+ million miler, Diamond Medallion Member since the category was created) and American Express (member since 1982).

 

Mr. Dube,

I will address you since your name is on all my Delta Diamond correspondence. And I think it is important for Ms. Pickett and Mr. Bastian to see this as well.

On September 26th I received another in a series of regular email communications alerting all Diamonds of – yet again – changes required to qualify for status and/or changes in perks tied to status levels. The most obvious change jumped out of the note: Diamonds must now spend $250,000 per year on American Express to qualify for the “MQD” spending waiver. Silly me – I thought that just had to be a typo. From $25,000 per year to $250,000. I was so stunned that I completely missed the point – partly because it was never clearly stated in your message – that if I continue to spend $15,000 per year on Delta tickets, this change will not affect me. What you said was, “Based on your qualification history, this change will not impact how you qualify if you continue to earn MQDs like you have in the past.” Say, what?! You have to research to figure out what that really means. No wonder people missed it.

Based on all the news reports, this change evidently knocks out a lot of Diamond fliers. That is exactly Delta’s goal. So while I may not be affected (this time), I’m still disappointed and disturbed that Delta continues this “death by a thousand cuts” approach to say to their most loyal fliers, “You’re not really all that special to us anyway.”

After years of raising the bar for qualifying and lowering the benefits of being a Diamond, this time it appears you’ve gone too far for many folks. Seeing all the tweets, texts and online posts, this change appears beyond the pale for many Delta fliers.

Believe me – I get it. You need to cull the herd – a group of your making, I might remind you. Years ago when Delta established the Diamond status, I distinctly remember a conversation sitting in the Tokyo Narita club with several other newly minted Diamonds. (Yes, many of us know each other. You should think about that.) We all could see that you created a huge problem for yourself and your customers by establishing a frequent-flyer status that allowed too many people to qualify. You were clearly on a path to disappoint as you tried to adjust your way out of the situation you created.

This is what happens when you over-value your brand, product, and customer experience, and underestimate your competition. You disappoint. And when the tension created becomes untenable, people start to find alternatives. Some loudly (check the online conversations about these latest changes if you don’t believe me!) and some quietly. Even if not immediately affected, you send shock waves of uncertainty through your customer base.

To date, many Diamonds appear to have put up with your culling tactics because while – each year – the status becomes a little less meaningful and a little more challenging to qualify, it still has been a relatively good deal. It’s not one decision but the combination of decisions that signal your intent to push out or down some of your most loyal customers. And watch out Platinum status members. You know where this push down will lead, and you’ve already seen your status diminish over time.

From my experience, the vast majority of frequent-use customers prefer to be loyal. I’m not talking about the bargain hunters that look for the cheapest deal for anything. They aren’t your target, nor are they the focus of your frequent-flyer programs. Loyal customers lose faith when you value your brand, product and experience above their interests.

The timing of this change for Delta is unfortunate for a few reasons:

  1. Most Diamonds must do some international travel to meet the miles requirements and the (old mere $25,000) Amex spending requirements. And you know what? Today, international travel options are so much better. The experience on many international airlines tops anything Delta offers, and usually at a lower price.
  2. With the exception of most U.S.-based airlines that demonstrate little understanding of customer experience, there are more and newer options that do understand their customers, and do match what they offer to the way their various customers want to buy.
  3. You’ve been raising your prices, lowering the likelihood of an upgrade, and like many airlines, cramming more people into smaller seats, to the point where the value is questionable. What can a flier do? Just buy the first class ticket at the start. Many of those prices are coming down, too. No loyalty required.
  4. Atlanta: Yes we Diamonds know Atlanta. We know it is the busiest airport in the world, thanks to Delta. Another reason you’ve given your loyal customers a reason to elect another carrier to avoid a route with that connection. Nothing against the great city of Atlanta, just the overstuffed airport experience.
  5. Last and maybe the most important lesson for you, Delta: Diamonds are likely your most sophisticated, savvy travel customers. You’ve trained us well, just in time to meet some of the more interesting competitors showing up. We have learned what to look for and how to compare, so we are well equipped to find the best alternatives.

I will qualify for Diamond in 2018. But the continual changes, some affecting me, some not, have me thinking about my options. I’ve already done the searching and the math and know I can fly first class, with truly exceptional service, on other great carriers to my furthest destinations, at lower costs. And I can decide with very clear information about how I want to fly – and who I want to fly – in the U.S.  I’m already thinking about how to use my 2018 “status” effectively while switching my buying patterns to others. I am pretty sure I’m not alone. Remember, we Diamonds know each other, and we are talking.

For those Diamonds reading this note, and who choose to work to qualify and remain with Delta, great for you. You’ll probably, finally receive the benefits that were promised when the Diamond Medallion status was launched. It will truly be an elite service for which you’ve decided the cost and qualifying requirements are worth it. And lucky me, at least this time around.

I do want to acknowledge the terrific, and I mean that sincerely, Delta staff. You (assuming some are reading!) are truly awesome and I’ve seen you in the best and worst of times. To the flight attendants, pilots, ground crews, gate agents, and the truly helpful team on the Delta Diamond Line, you do amazing work and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  You come through time and again, even when corporate policies place you in challenging situations.

Finally, American Express isn’t off the hook with these changes. One wonders what is in that agreement. As noted above, I’ve been a card-carrying member of Amex since I was a neophyte in business. I’ve put up with all the terrible administrative rules and customer experience challenges because I thought it was the card to carry – and I wanted the miles. Of course, like most business people, likely any Amex carrying person, I have other cards. So many options are now available that have more flexible and convenient miles programs. I spend a lot with Amex today. That will change, too.

In closing, Mr. Dube, Ms. Pickett and Mr. Bastian, this situation and note makes me sad. It feels like the slow, painful decline of what was once a promising relationship. It’s so easy to make jokes about terrible airline and credit experiences. I have no interest in that. I want to be loyal. I want to understand and fairly value the relationships I have with various companies. What I really wish for in this instance is that Delta and Amex get their act together, decide who they want to serve, and do it openly and in coherence with all the advertising they do that says they love their customers. Fairly value your customers in the mix with what you think of your own brand, product and experience.

You all have my contact information if you want to talk.