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The Critical Points: Why and how to speak up if you think a loyalty program made a mistake

Jan. 10, 2020
8 min read
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Each week in his column “The Critical Points,” TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.

Loyalty programs have become complex over the years. Earning and redeeming points or miles along with recognizing elite benefits often fall to front-line staff or phone agents who may not know the rules themselves. As a result, it's almost a requirement now that a program's terms and conditions cover 5,000+ words. Unfortunately, these documents typically grant a program broad discretion to do what it wants and include disclaimers telling us, the members, that we have little control or recourse on what the program does.

With this being the case, how are loyalty programs held accountable?

There are regular (but not constant) reports of loyalty programs encountering technical glitches or a property or airline making a mistake. If this happens, it is your duty to all other members of that program to speak up.

To be clear, speaking up doesn't mean being belligerent. It means approaching the situation in a tactful and respectful manner — be it a phone call, Twitter interaction, email thread or face-to-face conversation with an agent. Far too often I see people who are technically in the right (as far as the rules go) but face little to no progress because of their attitude. Other times, the customer does not actually understand the rule they think is being broken.

Let's dive further into why and how you should speak up, including an example of what happens when you do it right.

Why speak up

Given the complexities and loose wording in some programs' terms and conditions, airlines and individual hotels have a lot of wiggle room. Some might argue that a small minority of hotel properties and airlines have looked for ways to avoid benefits and award availability that could hurt their balance sheets. (There are several properties across all major hotel chains which are well-known for hiding award availability when standard rooms are available). However, there are also clear IT glitches where award space or benefits are not executed in accordance with published policies.

And since there is no loyalty program oversight committee or regulatory body, this leads to situations where the public needs to hold loyalty programs accountable.

How to speak up

Let me start with a statement that I hope is obvious: If you are not 100% sure a loyalty program is in the wrong, you need to start with a question rather than an accusation. In fact, beginning with an inquisitive attitude is probably a good stance to take in any situation — even when you are certain that a mistake was made. I can't tell you the number of cringe-worthy complaint emails I've read in my first seven months of working for TPG. In many cases, an angry author rages against a loyalty program, only for us to reply that the he or she has misunderstood the rules.

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Not only is your credibility is shot; you also risk being flagged by the given program.

Simply put: Make sure you actually understand the rule you think is being broken. If you don't, feel free to ask for guidance from fellow points-and-miles people, like those in the TPG Lounge Facebook group.

When I encounter an issue with a loyalty program, I typically follow these steps:

  1. Review the terms and conditions to see if my issue is addressed, either directly or indirectly.
  2. Confer with colleagues to determine if the program may have made a mistake or if anyone has experienced a similar situation.
  3. Take a question (not an accusation) with evidence to the appropriate channel of the loyalty program.
  4. Elevate to as high a level as possible if the situations isn't resolved satisfactorily while always maintaining civility and manners.

Here's what happens when done right

Earlier this week, I was looking for an escape to a warm environment with the family, and I searched for an award stay at the Confidante Miami Beach, part of the Hyatt Unbound Collection. I found something I hadn't seen before: Points + Cash was the only redemption option available, not a points-only award stay.

Because a standard, 1 King Bed room was available at the property, the room should be available for booking with points, according to the terms and conditions of the World of Hyatt program:

"Standard-room Free Night Awards may be redeemed only when standard rooms are available at the Standard Rate at the selected hotel or resort. Standard-room Free Night Awards are not subject to blackout dates at Hyatt hotels and resorts."

Things can get a little tricky here based on how a hotel defines a standard room, but I know this specific property well. Because a 1 King Bed room is the standard room and because it was available at the standard rate, I knew that it should also be available for points.

When I dug in a little further, I found out that a normal point redemption was available for both Friday and Sunday night over the holiday weekend. However, it was not available on Saturday night — which also happen to be when cash rates spiked.

After I spoke with some of my TPG colleagues, we agreed this was an odd situation and perhaps shouldn't be the case. This doesn't mean a hotel was intentionally doing something to manipulate award availability, but it meant I had enough evidence to reach out to Hyatt and ask for clarification on why the property wasn't available for points across the holiday weekend. Hyatt gave the following response:

"[We were] able to notify our global contact center who worked with the hotel to resolve the issue. It was a technical issue and not an intentional effort to limit award availability."

I did a quick search to verify this statement, and indeed the availability was properly loaded for the holiday weekend.

Armed with the proper evidence, confirmation from colleagues, and a polite question to Hyatt, the situation was resolved, and the holiday weekend was correctly made available for award stays. In this specific case, the hotel is going for over $400 per night before taxes and fees, which amounts to $1,484.28 for the three nights. That same stay would only set you back 45,000 World of Hyatt points, giving you a very nice redemption value of 3.2 cents/point — or could also be a fantastic use of the annual free night certificate on the World of Hyatt Credit Card.

Bottom Line

It's incredibly important to speak up when we see something awry in a program. To be frank, no one else is going to advocate on your behalf, and loyalty programs need to know we (as a community) will keep them honest. TPG often advocates on behalf of our readers, and we're always happy to take a look at any situation you're facing where you think a loyalty program may be making a mistake.

In return, we need to approach these situations with tact and make sure we're in the right as customers. As frustrating as some situations can be, it's critical to refrain from bringing out the pitchforks in a knee-jerk reaction.

I've seen countless resolutions in favor of customers when loyalty programs make mistakes:

  • Jake F. didn't have 2,000 Bonvoy bonus points post after each stay and called support, which manually applied them.
  • Julie B. was denied access to the Sheraton Lounge as a Platinum member but had property management correct the process.
  • Steve A. had $3 from a Marriott dining bill not post on Dec. 31, 2019, which caused him to miss the $20,000 spend threshold for 2020 Ambassador status. He reached out via e-mail and was granted Ambassador status.
  • Howie R. had Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) incorrectly post to Delta from a partner Aeromexico flight. After a Twitter conversation, the correct MQMs were eventually applied.
  • TPG Senior Editor Nick Ewen was asked to pay more points for a Marriott Points Advance reservation, but ultimately had his originally-booked rate honored — and wrote a guide for you to do the same.

The common thread? All of these were approached in a direct yet respectful fashion.

There are plenty of other stories out there just like these, and while complexity in loyalty programs can lead to mistakes, they can also be successfully resolved.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, feel free to reach out to us if you want expert analysis of how to proceed.

Featured image by Portland Press Herald via Getty
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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