31 January 2017

R.I.P. Air Miles

A little background

I'm not sure when it all started but the Air Miles program has finally reached a point where it's almost dead to me. And, from what I can tell, it's already dead to many others from a quick scan of social media and the webisphere.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not just a disgruntled customer of Air Miles, I was a big fan of the program for many years. In fact, I worked closely with LoyaltyOne, the corporation that runs the Air Miles program, on many projects: Launching the program in Canada with Safeway in 1992, bringing customers into the Incentives program in the late 90's early 2000's, worked on branding projects through my creative agency, and launching gift cards on their platform with my last startup.

In addition to working closely, I have also been collecting reward miles since 1992 and have been an Onyx member since inception, I'm still unclear on the Onyx program and what it means exactly... I could never fully understand the benefits.

Although I have never used my reward miles for travel, I have redeemed for numerous gift cards and tons of household items. In fact, I've lost track of all the things that I've redeemed for. In all those transactions, I have only had issue on one or two of things I've ordered and the customer service was always top notch in finding a quick remedy.

I have watched their program grow over the years and I was always impressed with the program as well as the many talented staff they employed. LoyaltyOne have had some very smart and dedicated people working for them over the years. From the outside, it always appeared to be a well oiled machine and well run. Which is why I am so baffled at what the program is today. And, baffled is the best way to describe how I feel about the program now because I just can't make sense of why things are the way they are.

You will see I use the word baffle a lot, it's justified and intentional. And, the perfect word to describe how I feel about the Air Miles program today. 

Many of the retail partners have been involved for a long time and I've been a loyal customer of these retailers over the years; Shell, Safeway, Bank of Montreal, American Express, Fountain Tire, Rona, Lowes, Rexall, Staples and more. I used to base (somewhat) my purchasing decision on the fact that I could collect Air Miles.

User experience in decline

When it came to redeeming my points, I enjoyed going to the web site and selecting merchandise. This changed over time however, and I've enjoyed it less and less with every visit.

Typically, online stores get better with age, they iterate and learn from use of their customers. Not Air Miles, they seemed to make changes based on their needs, not those of the customer - it's the only way I can describe the downward spiral of the experience in dealing with their site as a customer trying to redeem reward miles. Frustrating.

Here are some of my observations on the evolution or de-evolution of their redemption store and if they really wanted to improve customer satisfaction, they would maybe consider improving on these points:

  • Adding merchandise that cannot be redeemed with reward miles, but only with cash, with no way to filter those results out. Why would I even want to see this when I'm attempting to redeem points and have expressly clicked on links to this effect. The first 3 items in my search to redeem my points, cannot even be redeemed with points! This has been on for some time so I can only imagine that some people are buying these items. If you had a separate category, where I could earn Air Miles on purchases, I would likely shop there, but not when I'm looking to redeem. 
  • Creating a split program, dream rewards and cash rewards. This is just baffling and confusing - I can only imagine there is some benefit to LoyaltyOne, because it is not customer centric at all. It's just plain confusing for the customer. Software can easily manage the disparity in the values of the programs, why they put the onus on the customer to help them manage their bottom line is beyond comprehension and a lazy patch to the issue at hand. 
  • The browsable space on the redemption site is still confined to single pages, so each search only shows you 9 (!) results unless you select view all (which you have to do each time). It's 2017, each search result should be display the entire category on a single page. This is not rocket science and will greatly improve the customer experience.
  • Redemption searches are confined and not reflowable to fit the size of the screen. They are still building their site to a specified width, again, it's 2017, not 2003 - customers use a variety of devices including second screens, mobile devices and laptops. This is called responsive design, not a new concept nor method and not using this is both frustrating to use and dates your site. 
  • The Air Miles app allows for viewing but not redemption (or at least did before it stopped working). What is the point of the app exactly then? Why bother? Maybe this has been corrected, I can't tell because my iOS app doesn't work.
  • The web store has removed the "wish list" function so you can no longer put something onto a wish list that you'd like to save points for. This decision baffles me, and can only be justified if you consider the needs of the company rather than the customer. 
  • The viewable area of the redemptions (the part I'm interested in) vs. the rest of the site (what you're trying to promote) is abhorrent and riles against any sort of customer focus. Have a look here what you've actively searched for is hidden 'beneath the fold', requiring scrolling and the information you are not looking for fills the page. Most good commerce sites, put search results ahead of their own navigation.
  • Finding the small text links to actually redeem your rewards is now a chore - the language obfuscates the process - not hiding it, but also not making it intuitive. It's three or four clicks before I see the first available merchandise. Why frustrate users in such a manner? You need to consider the reason customers are coming to your site in the first place.
  • The Air Miles redemption site is probably the slowest online store I have ever visited, with nearly a minute to refresh categories within the store. This has been the case since day one, I have complained a number of times to no avail, no follow up at all. I actually get the sense that this is intentional to curb redemption. 

Using their web site is like using the MVP of a brand new startup company - so much needs to be done to satisfy the customer and it's all designed from their own view, not the customers. But with a startup you know it will get better, they listen to their customer and iterate. It's almost as if Air Miles is going in reverse from a web development perspective as their user interface and user experience has gotten worse with time instead of better.

Decline in customer service

Yesterday, I noticed I hadn't received an order so I called their toll-free line. I was on for just a few minutes before a service rep was able to help me - the call took 17 minutes with the result of them crediting back my Air Miles so I could make the purchase again. However, the service rep could not complete the transaction without an override from the supervisor - I was put on hold to speak with the supervisor... for over 4 hours. I waited for 4 hours and 6 minutes before hanging up.

While I was on hold, about 1 hour in, I called the toll free number on another line and explained that I was on hold for over an hour. The service rep explained that there were 6 calls ahead of me and to keep waiting as it would be quicker. Well. I don't know what it was quicker than exactly, but, I resorted to social media and tweeted the following:

 "I finally gave up on my #airmiles service call after 4 hours. What's going on @Pearson4loyalty?"

The response from Air Miles was to DM them with details, which I did. Their DM response was to phone back to the same line I waited on hold for the previous day.

Let me clarify this: after waiting 4 hours on hold and complaining, they said to call back, using the exact same number and process I did the first time. All I could do was laugh.

What happened to this once great, service-oriented company? I always remember being really impressed by the quick resolve and eagerness to help from their customer service staff. Mistakes happen, you can tell how good a company is by how they react to mistakes far more than you can from any marketing they do. LoyaltyOne used to excel in this area, which is why I was such a big fan for so many years.

The people at Air Miles do care though, my issue was finally resolved and an apology was made. I'm sure that these customer service escalations are not the norm. But combined with the horrid online experience there's not much left to hold onto.

Final breath

Over the last year we've seen a number of frustrated customers vent publicly on social media and in court. I've started using alternate loyalty programs and begun changing my shopping habits. Once I exhaust the few Air Miles I have left, I am going to minimize the program and not worry about collecting, I will basically ignore it. Was fun while it lasted.

It's no secret that most customer loyalty is based on service, customer experience and satisfaction, the fact that a mature (read pioneering) loyalty company is making these basic errors, is completely baffling to me.

R.I.P. Air Miles

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