Skift Take

It's no surprise that travelers are starting to place a higher priority on customer experience over loyalty programs, considering how uncomfortable air travel has become. Google's data just proves it.

New findings from Think with Google, the marketing data and research arm of Google, suggest that travel loyalty programs are less important than customer service in decision-making during the booking process.

The data, presented this month from Google and Greenberg’s High-Value Traveler Research, suggest that customer service, an easy-to-use website and even online reviews are a higher priority than loyalty programs when frequent travelers consider a travel booking. Asked for the top three consideration points when booking travel, 60 percent of study respondents indicated that customer service is the most important factor. Some 55 percent of respondents said that an easy-to-use website was among the most important factors while 50 percent said it was online reviews.

Only 46 percent of respondents in the study placed loyalty program in the top three factors when considering a travel booking.

This data may not be surprising to those familiar with trends surrounding younger travelers and their booking habits. Multiple studies have shown that travelers in their 20s and 30s value experience over loyalty when making a booking.

Virgin America, for example, enjoyed a near-cult following among younger travelers because of its stylish branding and dedication to a unique in-flight experience. For many, those virtues far outweighed the value of earning a few points in American’s AAdvantage or an occasional upgrade with Delta Skymiles.

Customer service – particularly in the airline sector – has also recently been a sore spot for many frequent travelers who can’t tell the difference, considering sometimes-cramped cabins or off-putting service, between legacy U.S. carriers. By creating a point of distinction in customer experience, carriers like JetBlue, with its free Wi-Fi, have been able to attract many travelers outside of the traditional loyalty program circuit.

The customer experience problem will only get worse as legacy carriers continue to race to the bottom in terms of on-board product. Both American and United this year have invested heavily in aircraft with both tighter seat pitches and smaller bathrooms – a development that even flight attendants despise.

And as that trend continues, brands may find their loyalty programs playing a shrinking role as travelers choose to make booking decisions around product and experience rather than loyalty program.

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Tags: frequent flyers, google, loyalty

Photo credit: JetBlue's customer experience may start to pay higher dividends if Google's predictions are true. JetBlue

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