Every year, or at least for the last thirty years or so, I have flown thousands of miles across Europe, occasionally to the USA and sometimes even to the Far East. At one point I was a member of three different frequent-flyer programmes at the same time: BA (gold), SAS (gold) and KLM (silver).
Now, to be honest, it’s pretty difficult to distinguish between the major airlines in terms of the levels of service they provide. They all try their best and mostly succeed, but there are some things that happen that are outside the control of all airlines, and whether you are a gold, diamond or platinum member, or all three stuck together, there’s nothing that can be done – that passenger who doesn’t turn up so the crew has to search the hold to unload his bags and then we miss our slot … you remember, I guess we’ve all suffered at some stage.
With regard to the last sentence, you wouldn’t believe some of the reasons why passengers don’t get on the plane after checking their bags. There was one family who checked their bags at Heathrow and then went to Gatwick to try to catch their plane!
So, why is it that I try to fly BA wherever possible? Well, apart from being patriotic, BA seems to understand that the gold members are its most crucial asset, and without them profitability would tumble quicker than the share price of Ratners after a famous remark that proved to the English public that to some extent you can con everyone all the time.
If you’re not English or are less than thirty years old, you’ll have to ask someone about this. Basically the head of a jewellery chain said publicly that his products were not of high quality, comparing them with a sandwich. Anyway, Ratners no longer exists, making me wonder what happened to the Data Warehouse I helped design for them.
So, how does BA get my loyalty? Firstly, they understand what a drag flying is to the business commuter, and try to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Good manners, patience and a willingness to listen go a long way to heighten the flying experience and cost BA nothing. Even when BA isn’t going to do anything to help you, they do it in a nice way, and when they are going to help, they have the ability to do it in a big way. Let me give you an example.
A few years ago I was hardly looking forward to a trip to New York. Sure, it was business class and on the upper deck of a 747, but it’s still a long, dull flight. Now BA does tend toward the miserly when it comes to upgrades, and I’m sure they have their reasons. Many are the times I have flown in economy on flights where business was almost empty, to be met with a firm ‘no way’ when suggesting that I move myself into the empty and more comfortable accommodation. However, when checking in for my 747 flight to New York, to be offered an upgrade to Concorde was a bit special, and a personal dream of mine was realised – well done BA.
Now before anyone in BA starts laughing, I know that this upgrade worked for BA as well, as undoubtedly business class was full and they managed to squeeze one extra bum on a seat, but at least they knew enough about my flying history to select me for the upgrade, so that’s not too bad.
This of course makes a good story but hardly takes any breathtaking conceptual thinking. More to the point is this second example, which shows what good marketing can achieve when relevant data is available.
Early in 1998 I started a project in Tel Aviv to build a Data Warehouse for a mobile telephone provider. To meet my part of the commitment I travelled to Tel Aviv at four-week intervals for a six-month period. As regular as clockwork, I reserved a business class ticket from Gatwick to Tel Aviv, which cost in the region of £700 if I remember correctly.
One day I got a classy brochure from BA announcing a new service from Heathrow to Tel Aviv on a new Boeing 777. You see, BA had been tracking my visits to Tel Aviv, had guessed them to be for business purposes and had predicted when I would go next. My historical behaviour allowed BA to predict my future behaviour. They suggested that it might be more convenient to fly from Heathrow, and pointed out the greater comfort of the 777 for a long flight.
Of course, when asked so politely, a British gentleman will not refuse, and most certainly won’t ask the price difference!
So my next trip was a huge success on the 777, and once you’ve flown on one, it’s awfully difficult to go back to those older planes, and so BA succeeded in moving me to a different airport and a different aeroplane simply by making me happy. What’s in it for BA? Well let’s just put it this way: the price of my ‘new’ flight was significantly different from the earlier ones!