Breaking Up (Isn't) Hard To Do

“It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It is the customer who pays the wages.” – Henry Ford”

Let me begin by saying the opinions and experience being shared within this article come from my perspective as both a customer and a business owner.

I am a brand loyal person.  I always have been. 

My first camera at age 11 was a Canon.  Guess what brand I still shoot with?

My first car was Honda…and I’ll say that about 10 out of the 15 cars I’ve had were either Honda or Acura.

And when it came to hotels, I was a Marriott guy. I LOVED Marriott properties.  My aunt had a makeup shop for years at the Marriott on City Line Avenue here in Philadelphia.  I remember the arcade they had set up there for kids on the second floor. I was hooked on Marriott from that point.  My favorite Marriott property hands down is the San Francisco Airport Waterfront.  It was the first property I’d stayed at that had one of the new M Lounges.  The view was great (and as a photojournalist, being able to photograph planes landing and taking off at the same time was fantastic), and the staff was friendly.

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I was a proud Marriott guy…until last week.

In the last year or so…Marriott has been making a lot of changes to their Member Rewards program.  Taking more and more perks away, giving you less and less bang for your buck.  The typical corporate BS that you hear more and more about.  And granted, I don’t travel nearly as much as I used to, and I’m nowhere NEAR as much of a traveler as my friends Ray or Chris…both Platinum for Life rewards members. But, when I travel and pay for it on my own dime, it’s been Marriott.  Always.

For people who travel for work, and spend long periods of time away from home and family, it’s not about the rewards level as much as it is the perks that go along with it.  Those little perks can go a long way to help you keep a better mental outlook.  Those upper rewards level perks mean you can generally grab a cup of coffee in the concierge lounge long after the Starbucks in the lobby closes.  It means you can take your client to the M Lounge for a quiet talk when you don’t want to yell just to hear yourself over the din of the lobby bar.  It gives you a slice of normalcy while you’re away from home. If you travel, you get it.

So back in the spring when my wife was traveling for work, she called me and said we’d been downgraded from Gold status to Silver.  It was the first I was hearing about it.  We were given no heads up, and I was a little miffed.  I knew we hadn’t been traveling as much for work in the eight months leading up to that time, but I also knew our status wasn’t due to reset when it did.  After talking on the phone with people at Marriott customer service, they told me there was some kind of Gold Elite challenge, and if we stayed six more nights before the end of June (this was in early April) – they’d bring us back up to Gold Status.  Knowing I had a week’s stay at a property in Boston in June, and with my wife’s schedule…we’d easily do that.  I wasn’t thrilled we got bumped, but…they at least made it easy enough for us to get back up to where we’ve been for the last 2 or 3 years.

I never gave it another thought until this past week when my wife and I were making plans for a LONG overdue vacation.  In the last year we’ve lost friends and her mother to cancer. We’ve been working our asses off and decided it was time to spoil ourselves a little.  We’d talked about going to Hawaii last year, but with her mother getting progressively sick, we pushed.  After assessing what we’d put away to take a once in a lifetime trip for ourselves…we booked our vacation.

First thing to do was secure our reservations at the Marriott properties where we wanted to stay.  We were going to spend 8 nights in Maui, and 4 nights in Kauai.  Everything was booked, deposits paid.  I logged on to our Marriott account page to confirm a couple of things, and that’s when I saw it.

We were still at Silver level. Not only were we still at Silver Level, but we were was missing about a week’s worth of stays.

So, off to Marriott I call to find out what’s going on.  I end up on the phone with Jose from Member Rewards.  Jose was…let’s just say, unhelpful. He proceeds to tell me that the challenge wasn’t six nights, but six STAYS!

WUT?

What the hell is the difference between six nights and stays?  Beyond that, I confirmed with the woman three times back in the Spring that it was, indeed, six nights.

I was livid.  I felt like I was just taken in on a bait & switch at a used car dealer.

So, naturally I asked to speak with a supervisor.  Jose proceeded to tell me he WAS the supervisor.  I informed him that I’m guessing there’s someone above him.  I also stated that I was not asking for anything more than what they had already promised.  A brand promise is still a thing, right? Next thing I know, I’m on hold waiting to talk to someone at “Elite” member services.  The last thing Jose said to me as he put me on hold was, “Now, don’t hang up.”

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So, I waited on hold.

5 minutes….10 minutes…20 minutes…30 minutes.

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I knew what kind of game he was playing, and I had all day…so I waited and started a Twitter thread, constantly dinging both Marriott and Marriott Rewards. I eventually tagged Hyatt as well, seeing if they were interested in our business.

“It’s hard to have a relationship with 30k people in a field, but we try. And they feel things. There is emotion there” - Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden

Hyatt responded within 10 minutes…WHILE I was still on hold with Marriott, and while Marriott’s own social media team hadn’t found the time to answer me back.

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Finally, Antonio from “Elite Member blah blah blah” gets on the phone, and acts like he doesn’t know anything about why I’m calling.  Which was suspect, considering he parroted some things back to me that gave away his hand.  But ok…I’ll play along because I still have some level of confidence that they will uphold their promise to us as long-standing Rewards members.  After about five minutes, I asked him a very simple question.  If it’s “impossible” to move us back to the level where we rightfully belonged, how would Marriott feel about losing a large amount of money from one customer all at once?

We’re talking about two weeks at two properties on our vacation before spending a single dollar on food, drinks, etc. That’s not taking into account other business stays we have scheduled between now and the end of the year.  So, let’s round that off to about five figures between Q4 and the beginning of Q1, 2019.

Was Marriott really willing to lose that level of investment from a single customer because, “We said stays, not nights”?

It would seem they were.

While our money isn’t a lot to a corporate entity that measures success in millions if not billions, let’s start to add up how much money we’ve spent at Marriott properties in the last 15 years. Then let’s add up how much money we WOULD have spent at Marriott properties over the NEXT 15 years.

See, Jose & Antonio are not the problem. They are directed to stick to the provided script. And rather than bring in someone above them and say, “Hey…this guy is legitimately pissed off, and is about to pull their reservations…what can we do?” They just stick to the script and get frustrated and rude when you won’t take what’s written as the final answer.

I asked once, “Antonio, I just want to make sure you’re ok with losing this much money in a single phone call?”

Antonio didn’t have much to say.

“Are you sure there’s NOTHING you can do to keep our business?”

He couldn’t even find us an upgrade.

So guess what I did? I reached out to our travel agent. I asked her to send us all the Hyatt Properties on the two islands we’re visiting.  I talked to Jessica at Hyatt Guest Care support.  Jessica has been kind, courteous and super helpful in helping us get started with THEIR Rewards program.  Including starting us at their Gold level (Explorist) based off of our NEW reservations at their two Hawaiian properties and the current points we have with Marriott.

My perception as a customer? Hyatt wants our business more than Marriott does, regardless of our longevity, loyalty, or brand ambassadorship.  Marriott owns so many hotel chains that they don’t care that they’ve lost one long-standing customer who was brand loyal to a fault.

Will Hyatt mess up down the line?  Probably.  As business owners, we all do.  The difference is knowing and realizing when you have a longstanding customer, and what you’re willing to do to keep that type of loyalty.

We recently purchased a gas fire table for our deck from Wayfair. Not a major purchase, but not a tiny purchase either. We received a Thank You post card in the mail. No solicitation, just thanking us for our business. Completely unexpected, and very much appreciated.

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Friends of ours lost their dog recently. They are Chewy customers and had their dog food set up for auto-ship before she passed. They reached out to Chewy to see if they could return the latest shipment. Not only did Chewy give them a refund, they encouraged them to donate the food to a local shelter, sent two sympathy emails, AND sent flowers. Chewy took the business-customer relationship, and made it personal.

In this day and age, brand loyalty is PARAMOUNT in keeping good business relationships no matter how large or small the customer is.  Small things go a long way and don’t need to erode the bottom line to be both impactful and memorable.  Making customers feel like their business and support of the brand is appreciated will take you SO much further than saying “I can’t”, “I won’t”, or “Well, we said six stays, not six nights. You obviously misunderstood.”

Oh no, Marriott…It’s you that misunderstood.  And because of that, you lost a substantial chunk of immediate money and countless dollars that have yet to be spent. Worse than that…you lost a loyal customer.

Or as you might say, “You’ve been downgraded from Gold Elite Status.”

Hi...I'm BP Miller, and I'm a Photojournalist

About 9 months ago, I put a little post-it note on the top of my computer screen.  It simply said:

“write article about going places without your camera”

Problem is…I seldom leave the house without at least A camera.

When I write…I must be inspired to write.  It’s one of the reasons I don’t post personal blogs very often.  If I FORCE myself to write an article or a blog post, I find it turns into a train wreck.

The post-it sat there for about 2 months until I got annoyed looking at it, and then I wrote the same idea to myself in an email (a way I tend to remind myself of things), where it continued to sit for even more months.

Then my mother-in-law passed away in January, and everything stopped.  No work, no social time with friends…just supportive husband mode.  It was during the events surrounding the funeral that I had an ill-timed epiphany on why I never wrote the article.  It was because I sadly needed an event like this to write it with authority.  To HAVE that experience of being forced to leave my camera behind.

Frannie (my mother-in-law) had been dealing with her cancer struggles for 5.5 years.  We knew the end was coming, and in the end, it came quickly. 

There were times during those last visits to the hospital that my mind would just NOT…SHUT…UP!

While the family was standing around the hospital bed, all I could think about was how the shot would be framed and how this is a story to be told.  I know it sounds heartless, but believe me when I tell you…it’s just where my head went. I’m not proud of it, mind you…but without the help of pharmaceuticals, it’s where my mind just automatically goes.

I was always close with Fran.  She was “Mom” when my own mother was still alive, and fully took up the mantle of “Mom” when my own mother passed nine years ago.  I know plenty of men out there who can’t stand their in-laws.  I was lucky enough to marry a woman whose own family has always treated me as one of their own.  I think that’s why I couldn’t shake the mindset I was in…because this was part of a story, it just so happened to be part of mine.

Needless to say, I did NOT take that particular photo. 

Fast forward two weeks to the family visitation and funeral.  I did NOT bring my camera with me (it was more of an internal struggle than I’d thought it would be). And, we had 4 hours of family visitation over a period of 12 hours and then the funeral itself.  Anyone who’s gone through this knows the routine and how weird it can be when the line stops moving…it’s just this awkward moment of staring at someone you’ll never see again in your life.  But of course, I’m staring at the facial features, figuring out how to light them and so on.  I tried to block those thoughts out of my head, but let’s face it…that just made it worse.

During the evening of the first visitation, the family (18 in all), were waiting for the first visitors to arrive.  I could only do so much to help out, so I stayed off to the side and do what I always do.  I watched people.  I saw shot after shot after shot pass in front of me…feeling helpless and frustrated without my moment-capturing appendage.  I couldn’t do much other than to be a comfort to the family…but I could do this, damnit!  This is my superpower.  Find a fleeting moment in time and tell the story that surrounds it.

It really is the only thing I’m good at.  Take that away from me and I feel like Samson after his hair was cut.

Tom (my father-in-law), was sitting alone, near the box that contained Fran’s ashes.  He was obviously trying to psych himself up about meeting all these people that were about to file in.  I broke.  With the large church serving as the background of this very sad scene…I pulled my iPhone from my suit pocket and started to frame the shot without being obvious.  At that very moment, my wife happened over to sit down and check on him.

“click”

              My wife Michele talks with her father Tom shortly before guests arrive to pay their respects to his wife Frannie, who had passed away on January 16th, 2018.

            My wife Michele talks with her father Tom shortly before guests arrive to pay their respects to his wife Frannie, who had passed away on January 16th, 2018.

At once, I felt both pride and shame in myself.  I couldn’t stop myself from making that picture.  I stole from them a moment that wasn’t supposed to be seen by anyone other than those family members surrounding them.  A child trying to be emotionally supportive of a grieving parent. It’s a shot any of us would have taken had we been on the clock.

But at the same time, I made a picture that I knew both my wife and my father-in-law would be ok with me making.  I knew this image would speak to them both.  The baby of the family; the youngest of five children, supporting her father with love and compassion.  Frannie & Tom had always been two of my biggest supporters, pimping both me and our services out to anyone who would listen, and hanging a lot of my work in their home.  They’d both understand, as would my wife.

As a person though, I still felt badly about making it.  It bothers me that I can’t shut my mind off to events like this.  That I can’t stop looking at life through my viewfinder eyes.

Photojournalists don’t have 9-to-5 jobs.  When we’re off the clock, we’re not REALLY off the clock.  Our minds are always looking at the world and inadvertently trying to figure out how to frame what we’re seeing.

I always think of the meme involving a photographer, his significant other and the sunset.

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We just can’t shut our minds off…it’s not just simply what we do, it’s who we are.  It’s as much a part of our DNA as anything that’s formed naturally.  Every single one of us were CALLED to this profession.

I’m not proud of what I did, but at the same time…it IS what we do.  We regularly interrupt these moments of solace and grief of other families in the name of news.  It’s what we get paid to do.

But it still sucks that I can’t shake this feeling that I’ve done something wrong, even though everyone in the family liked the picture.

I have a hard time leaving the house without a camera…I have a hard time looking at that image and wondering if I made the right decision in that moment. I have a hard time knowing that for the rest of my days on this Earth…I can’t just enjoy a sunset, or be there fully for my wife during a time of great sorrow without seeing an internal meter pop up in my head.

Hi. I’m BP Miller, and I’m a photojournalist.