As I sat in Atlanta wondering if my flight home would be cancelled (thank you, winter 2014), I began questioning how far my loyalty status would get me in rebooking for the next morning’s flights.

You see, when it is at all possible, I try to fly with my preferred carrier. It’s not that I think their planes are better or their pilots are safer, it’s that I think they take better care of me as a customer. As I build status with the carrier — a measure of my loyalty — I enjoy a better experience.

Airlines reward customers in several ways: preferred seating, reduced or eliminated fees, onboard drinks, Wi-Fi coupons and special club lounges, just to name a few. Oh, and they give miles to redeem for future flights. But on this occasion, my loyalty is rewarded in knowing that, if needed, I would have some priority in rebooking my flight.

Other loyalty programs come in many shapes and forms. A local frozen yogurt store lets customers earn points for future discounts. The local grocery store gives points toward a discount on gas.
Agriculture is no stranger to loyalty programs. Cooperatives return profits to their user-owners. Seed companies have given away potentially billions of hats and jackets over the decades. But as I was waiting for my plane, I realized that most of these loyalty programs mainly benefit the company—usually by trying to secure a future sale (either offering a discount toward a future purchase or a trip to the Bahamas) or by turning their customer into a walking advertisement. Very few loyalty programs try to improve their customer’s experience.

Loyalty is an established working relationship between you and your customers. Think about loyalty as a two-way street: as you help your customer, they help you. So, how exactly are you helping your customer? Are you providing them with a better experience or product?

In thinking about how you can build a stronger relationship with your customers and how loyalty can be strengthened, consider creating barriers that prevent competitors from mimicking your offerings. Price discounts are easy for competitors to copy and match. But providing loyal customers with premium seating or priority rebooking is much more difficult to replicate.

When you ask your customer to do more business with you, always think about how you can provide them something in return. Challenge yourself to treat your loyal customers to an enhanced experience.