Starbucks took a disturbing lesson from Delta Air Lines and now there's trouble

It's rarely worth engaging customer emotions and then changing your tune.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Front of a Starbucks

Loyalty is relative.

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I've become very sensitive to anger. Almost to the degree that I'm sensitive to loyalty. When loyalty is betrayed, I get very angry. Because trusting is one of human beings' greatest dreams and needs.

I'm moved, therefore, by this tale of so many people experiencing great anger -- anger at the lack of loyalty emanating from their greatest friends.

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I know this because I read this headline: "USELESS: Delta Now Charges Over 500,000 SkyMiles One Way For Some Economy Travel."

I should have noted that these people's greatest friends are large companies that "reward" customers for their "loyalty." 

What a concept, a capitalistic concern telling you it'll reward you for dedicating your deeper emotions to it. (Why hasn't Apple ever thought of that?)

As often happens, it was airlines leading the way in squishing the concept of loyalty. When things were bad, they enticed customers with all sorts of promises. The sort of promises that politicians often offer. You know, promises of free stuff in return for your continued vote.

And then the airlines change their minds and incite enraged headlines partially written in capital letters. But airlines aren't alone in this subterfuge.

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One of the latest companies to follow suit in this freedom pullback is Starbucks.

Should you have never committed yourself to an exclusive dating relationship with the coffee chain, the whole idea of its loyalty program is to collect stars. The more stars you have, the more free stuff you get. It's like being a Hollywood agent, really.

Imagine, though, the desperate pain when you now realize you need 100 stars for a free coffee or tea instead of 50.

Imagine, too, having to collect 300 stars to get a free protein box instead of the previous 200.

I know this is now a national issue because The New York Times fulminated: "Restaurant Chains Make It Cost More to Be Loyal."

We all pay some sort of price for loyalty, I suppose. But The New York Times insisted things were truly troubling. It quoted one newly-loyal Starbucks customer as uttering: "Are you kidding me?"

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Perhaps you'll make a choice as to which of the betrayed you sympathize with more. Is it less angsty to wait a little while longer for a free cup of coffee than to wait for a free economy class flight to, say, Dubai? I suspect so.

What's perhaps more twisted is the way some companies have tried to slip those changes in, hoping that their customers -- their most loyal, loving customers -- won't notice. After all, customers just push a few buttons on their phones. They don't even think about it, right?

But back to the angst.

The Times quotes a stunned Kate Hogenson, principal consultant at the Mallett Group which consults in the area of, oh, brand loyalty.

She mused: "I was shocked at Starbucks. It looked like something that had been written by their lawyer, and it was buried in the holiday time period. They had an opportunity there to tell me all of the great things they were adding to the rewards program."

She added, in pained tones: "But what people saw was that the points needed for a basic coffee or a latte went up."

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Isn't it just the worst when your lover sneaks around on you? What is it that companies have yet to learn about delivering bad news? Find some good news that goes with it and present that first.

I prefer to offer you bad news neither in drip form, nor coated in foamy milk. When companies aren't making enough money to please their CFOs and investors, they're going to whip that free love away, as if they never loved you at all.

Perhaps, then, the best advice one can muster is not to let your emotions get carried away.

Airline loyalty programs? They're fine if you fly a lot and enjoy manipulating every last nuance of the rules in order to, finally, sit on a plane and delight in the idea that you didn't pay.

But you did pay. You paid with your loyalty. And how many brands truly, madly, deeply deserve that?

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