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Flightdeck Notes Build Loyalty

Rob Geller, Director of Consumer Marketing at MCI, who attended the database marketing seminar that Paul Wang and I gave in Washington in September, showed me something very interesting. While he was flying cross-country from Colorado Springs on United, the flight attendant handed him a business card from the Captain of the plane. The card said:

Mr. Geller,

As one of our Premier Exec’s, your business is greatly appreciated. If we haven’t said so lately, “Thank you for flying United.”

Captain Westmoreland

MCI keeps Rob so busy traveling that he racked up more than 100,000 miles on United last year which puts him in United’s top customer bracket. He is used to first class treatment, but this card really surprised and delighted him. What Rob experienced was a customer loyalty-building program originated three years ago by Hart Langer, Senior Vice President for Flight Operations for United Airlines.

Most large companies, like United, have built customer databases which keep track of their top customers. They have every intention of providing recognition and appreciation to these good customers. Few companies, however, have figured out exactly how to go about it. United, it seems to me, has scored a bullseye.

United’s program is a purely voluntary one. As an employee-owned airline, United pilots are part owners of the company, and have a keen interest in its success. The participants in the “business card program” do so voluntarily and at their own expense. Captains purchase their own business cards, and hand-write their notes to the key customers in flight. They rely on the cooperation of the flight attendants, who initially bring the passenger manifests to the flightdeck. These manifests flag the 100K flyers and the other Executive Premiers. The length of the flight and the inclination of the Captain determine how many cards can be prepared and distributed. Once the cards are hand-written, the flight attendants deliver them, while performing their cabin service.

Some pilots have found creative ways to distinguish their own business cards. Some have designed jackets with photos of the flightdeck on the front and a space inside for their card and a message. “You have to be careful with the form of greeting”, said San Francisco based Captain Rich Selph. “When two premiers sit together you can’t write the same thing to both of them. But most people really appreciate receiving the card…It’s one small way to show appreciation and differentiate United from the competition.”

As Hart Langer explained, “What is really exciting about this is that the reaction these business cards elicit from our customers is well out of proportion to the cost and the time involved in writing them. It certainly requires some initiative on the captain’s part, but the results are definitely worth the effort.”

Captains have received letters from grateful passengers saying, “I was overwhelmed to receive your card” and “thank you for the attention you gave me”.

“I liken getting a personal note from the captain of your flight to sitting at the Captain’s table on a ship”, said 747 Captain Lew Meyer. “It doesn’t happen very often, so when it does, it’s special.”

Notes from the flightdeck have a special impact, and have generated documented business for United that might not otherwise have existed, according to Langer. They reach a segment of United’s customers that is small in numbers — 5.2%, but which accounts for nearly 22% of the company’s bottom-line. “Corporately and personally,” he said,” efforts like this make all of us winners.”

Replicating United’s Program

The goal of database marketing is to build customer loyalty. Everyone knows that, but few have figured out how to do it. It is more than just giving out gold cards or monthly statements. To be really successful, a loyalty program must involve employees throughout the company who know who the most important customers are, and treat them as such. Hertz Number One Gold Club is one example. For their customers, they put the customer’s names up in lights, open the trunks of their cars, start the motors running before they get there, eliminate the need to wait in lines or sign forms. Their best customers are really treated well.

Wholesaler-distributors take their best customers on week long trips for golf, hunting, skiing. At these occasions, all the top employees of the wholesaler-distributors, and the CEOs and spouses of their largest customers get to know each other well. They build relationships that affect business for years to come.

When you are designing your marketing database, if your are really interested in building loyalty, you must go through a series of steps:

  • Use RFM or lifetime value analysis to pinpoint your top 20% customers, and your second tier 20%.
  • Let these top customers know that they are the top. Give them gold cards and other symbols of recognition. Let the second tier know what they have to do to join the top group.
  • Let your employees know who these top customers are. Give them easy ways to identify them. American Airlines, for example, prints GLD (gold) on every ticket issued to their top customers, so that flight attendants and ground personnel can recognize them immediately.
  • Create imaginative ways to reward these top customers. United’s Flightdeck Cards is an outstanding example. There are hundreds of others. Figure out what your company can do, and to it!

Arthur Middleton Hughes, vice president of The Database Marketing Institute, has presented 28 seminars on database and email marketing.  Arthur has also authored several books includingStrategic Database Marketing 4th Edition (McGraw-Hill 2012). He and Andrew Kordek, chief strategist and co-founder of Trendline Interactive, are hosting a two-day Email Strategy Study Group in Fort Lauderdale  March 26-27, 2013, featuring group competition for email marketers responsible for subscriber acquisition, lifetime value, ratings and reviews, boosting their email budget, and doubling their ROI.  To learn how to attend the Study Group, click here

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About Arthur

Arthur Middleton Hughes has published over 200 articles on Database and E-mail Marketing. Click Here to read them.

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