Sometimes a thank you just isn’t enough.
This was the case with the first iteration of TrueBlue, JetBlue Airways’ customer rewards scheme. “It was supposed to be a thank you program,” Dave Canty, the airlines’ director of loyalty marketing and partnerships told attendees at the Colloquy Loyalty Summit.
The program’s limitations, however, didn’t leave its participants with a sense of gratitude. Redemption options were limited to JetBlue flights. Its award currency – “segments”, which were awarded based on the length of a trip and whether a participant booked online – expired 12 months after acquisition, regardless of how often a member actually flew. Competitor programs were more robust. And by Canty’s own admission, the program was plagued with member fatigue and inflexible administration.
Through a program it called JetViews, the airline sent 15,000 of its customers a survey asking what they wanted out of a loyalty scheme. The survey quickly spread beyond the original 15,000 targets. Its proposed offerings were debated in online forums.
When administrators at JetBlue discovered the forums, “We decided to have a bit of fun with that,” Canty said. The company sent out another survey. Actually, it sent two surveys, with slightly different proposed offerings. Then executives sat back and watched offerings listed within the two versions debated online.
Responses showed that customers wanted to be more involved with the program, but were frustrated in their attempts. They wanted to earn points for other activities aside from flying, for instance. Or they wanted easement of seat restrictions.
There was a similar level of buzz within JetBlue. In order to relaunch the program properly, the airline required buy-in throughout the entire enterprise, starting with the inflight crew and airport staff all the way through the backend departments. And that was before it brought on a partner to design the program.
In January 2008, JetBlue sent out seven requests for proposals for a system which offered flexible rules-based parameters, sophisticated accounting functions, configurable partner interfaces, operational monitoring and controls and a robust analytics platform. The system had to support a 100 million transaction database.
And by the way, the window for the system relaunch was 10 months.
The near-universal response among companies approached was that the deliverable dates couldn’t be guaranteed. Most of those that didn’t say that were blunter, letting a succinct “You’re crazy” serve as their response, according to Canty.
Comarch, a system integrator based in Poland, was one of the few that didn’t think JetBlue’s management was out of its collective mind. It responded with a proposal in seven days – a turnaround time that impressed the airline, which made its final selection 30 days after it sent out its request.
The next step was to inform the existing TrueBlue members that their program would be changing. JetBlue’s approach was twofold: Through member communications it teased a structure that would offer more award flights, more points and “more to love”. But it also promised participants that the points they’d accrued in the original program were safe – and that anything earned under the new rules could, at least for a while, be applied to the original rewards structure.
To further buy-in among its staff, JetBlue designed a trivia game which mixed general knowledge questions with questions about the new program. “That allowed us to measure the education of our crew members,” Canty said. “It got to a point where they understood the program and became advocates.”
The consumer-facing portion of the program launched on Nov. 9 of last year, one year after Comarch made the system relaunch deadline. The new TrueBlue features a points-based currency, which allows it to offer bonuses for a variety of behavior, including taking pets on a flight, signing up with American Express for a co-branded card, or interacting with partner merchants. It addressed participant frustrations by eliminating blackout dates and seat availability restrictions. And the points do not expire, provided participants make at least one qualifying flight per year.
Fliers have responded well. Total enrollment is up 50% on a year-over year basis, and the program’s attrition rate has improved as well. Sales of points jumped 50%, and participants are actually using their points for short- and mid-range flights, which means they’re more engaged with the airline.
TrueBlue’s most recent innovation launched earlier this month, when the airline debuted The TrueBlue Community, and online forum that allows travelers to connect with each other. The original plans had called for inviting six million members to join, but JetBlue stopped after the first million, as it had achieved its goals and was content to let the forum grow organically.
The Community represents an ongoing effort by JetBlue to listen to its customers. As Canty put it, “We won’t debate, but we will share our point of view.” If a participant persists in making negative points, the airline will reach out offline.
JetBlue considers customers’ ability to express themselves freely as adding to the program’s credibility. Does this open up the possibility of malcontents taking over? Perhaps, but the community polices itself, Canty added.