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Loyalty Q&A: How SkyMiles is evolving to better serve members

June 22, 2019 Loyalty No Comments Email Email

Prashant Sharma arrived at Delta Air Lines six months ago with a mandate to take the popular SkyMiles loyalty program to even greater heights. At a glance, a banking and financial services executive might seem like an unusual choice for an airline. But Sharma’s deep experience in payments, loyalty programs and analytics at leading consumer finance organizations can be particularly valuable in his new role at Delta.

Delta has spearheaded change in airline loyalty by increasing the transparency, flexibility and personalization of the SkyMiles program. Looking ahead, the focus is on making the program even more engaging and, as Sharma says, “more human” for the millions of existing and prospective members. Sharma’s experience in the credit card and payments sector, with its emphasis on loyalty, technology and data, has prepared him well to lead Delta’s Loyalty team on this journey.

Delta News Hub recently spoke with Sharma about his experience, his role and what’s next for Delta’s loyalty program.​

DNH: Describe your role and responsibilities.

PS: I lead the Loyalty team at Delta, which is a very exciting role. My team’s responsibilities include owning and enhancing the Delta SkyMiles program that is so important to Delta’s most valuable customers and developing and growing our strategic partnerships that deliver even more value and unique experiences to our members. We’re focused on building an engaging and intuitive program that makes our members feel understood, recognized and rewarded. It’s part of a broader mission at Delta to become a trusted consumer brand that listens to customers and responds to their needs and wants.

My team also has responsibility for Delta’s credit card partnership with American Express, which we recently renewed for 11 years. The Delta-American Express credit card portfolio allows card members to earn miles through their everyday activities and gives them access to benefits when they fly Delta like free bags, Priority Boarding, Delta Sky Club access, Medallion Qualification Miles and more. This partnership is a great example of two leading consumer brands coming together to deliver exceptional value to our joint customers.

How did your previous experience prepare you for your current role?

On the surface, banking and airlines seem very different, but once you open the hood you would be surprised to see how similar many of the opportunities and challenges are. They’re both established industries looking to reinvent themselves by becoming more customer-centric, adopting digital and design thinking. In recent years, a lot of my focus was on looking at all our processes, whether internal or customer facing, and redesigning them to be more efficient and customer friendly. That is similar to what we are doing across Delta in pursuit of our goal to not just be the best airline but to be a trusted consumer brand. More and more, customers’ expectations for any industry are being set by the intuitive experience they have in their digital lives. We must aspire to exceed these expectations.

Also, the financial services industry has been on the forefront of using technology and data, which is very relevant to us at Delta as well. Effectively leveraging the data from our SkyMiles program, along with our strategic partnerships, can help us deliver better value and personalized service to our members. At the same time, we have the responsibility of safeguarding our customers’ personal and travel information that they have trusted us with – again, similar to the focus on information security in financial services.

So, I feel there are many relevant skills and experiences I bring to this role to complement the rich talent in the organization. However, I come to this role with a great deal of humility and excitement about learning new things. I am fortunate to join the team at a time when we have tremendous momentum and a position from which we can lead the transformation of our customers’ experience.

What’s next in the loyalty space at Delta?

We’ve come a long way in creating more opportunities for people to earn and, increasingly, to redeem miles, whether it’s to pay for an upgrade on a flight, a premium cocktail at a Delta Sky Club, or to attend the Grammy Awards as part of SkyMiles Experiences.

Our partnerships add even more value. We’re partnering with leading brands like Lyft, Airbnb and TicketMaster, so customers can earn more miles doing things they love. Of course, our members continue to enjoy redeeming their miles for travel with Delta and our global airline partners.

Perhaps most importantly, you’re seeing us make our policies more intuitive and customer-friendly. We’re listening to members and it’s vital that we bring flexibility and fairness to our program. Recently we launched Reclaim My Status, which allows Delta SkyMiles Medallion Members, who have experienced a life event that has temporarily affected their ability to travel, to resume their status with us. This program was developed based on customer feedback – we want members to know that we value their loyalty and are there for them even when the unexpected happens.

What about technology?

Technology is core to everything we are doing. It is technology that has made it simple for our members to use their miles for a seat upgrade or to link their SkyMiles and Lyft accounts. By doing the hard work behind the scenes, our technology actually makes us more human. We are now better able to capture our members’ preferences and use that data to make more relevant offers, upgrade them to the right seat, etc. Of course, there is opportunity to do more. Our customers tell us a lot about themselves and, with their permission, we need to use that information and blend it with our technology to provide a journey that’s more intuitive, seamless and enjoyable. And, most importantly, we need to link this information to all 80,000 of us to provide a more personalized experience when our members fly Delta. The exceptional service we provide is what sets Delta apart and the most important way we make a member loyal to Delta.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

For us, it’s important that we build a brand of trust with consumers. This can be challenging in an environment where consumers are exposed to a lot of brands and a lot of information in their lives. The programs and brands that will win are those that consumers trust to always have their best interest in mind, and that deliver relevant and timely value to them.

Of course, first, you must get the basics right; we lead the industry in providing exceptional service in the air and on the ground. Then we need to demonstrate that we have our members’ backs. Every program has rules and processes. However, it’s important to avoid becoming rigid and instead listen to members and demonstrate flexibility to accommodate their unique situations. We have made tremendous progress in this regard and will keep doing more. Doing all this well will create the platform for us to engage with our members more broadly and be their trusted partner not just when they are flying Delta but as they go about their lives having experiences and building connections.

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