In 1970, economist Albert O. Hirschman published a wide-ranging treatise on the two choices consumers face whenever the organization they’ve been loyal to declines in some capacity. While his short book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, began with an observation about inefficiencies in Nigerian rail transport, his extrapolation was broadly applied to political movements, personal relationships, migration—and businesses.
In short, you have three choices when a company no longer lives up to your expectations. Instead of Nigeria, imagine an American airline company that you fly with regularly. You keep noticing issues. Every flight seems delayed. The seats aren’t as clean as they used to be. The Wifi never works. Let’s not even talk about the food…
What do you do? According to Hirschman, you’re either going to:
- Start flying with another airline (and potentially leave all your points on the table)
- Write an email to customer service, hoping that it makes its way up the chain to management
- Grudgingly remain—you’ve been with them so long anyway, and maybe you’ll get another free upgrade at some point…
Throughout his book, Hirschman offers insights into the choices consumers face on a daily basis. You can apply his insights to any industry—including rewards programs.
The real cost of loyalty
Given that “loyalty” is in the title of Hirschman’s influential book—a term he relates to patriotism in political environments, as well as the adjacent brand loyalty, where consumers remain loyal to certain companies despite deficiencies or competition—his ideas perfectly describe the options that rewards card holders face when their points are devalued.
Let’s look at the three options in more depth.
Leave the company, thereby losing all of the value you’ve generated.
Exiting is indicative of capitalism writ large: look to competition if a company devalues you. Losing your points is not ideal, which is why many consumers endure devaluation. They feel helpless and so remain in a relationship that benefits them less as time goes on.
Companies know that consumers in their closed system are unlikely to leave. At the very least, Hirschman writes, they’re best positioned if they have a combination of alert and inert customers. Alert customers might engage in the next option, voice, while inert customers will continue to float their operations without any input—whether of the third option, loyalty, or due to inertia is unimportant. The point is they hang around.
Hirschman also brings up the issue of retention, writing,
No matter what the quality elasticity of demand, exit could fail to cause any revenue loss to the individual firms if the firm acquired new customers as it loses the old ones.
This is why points devaluations are an obscured but key component of most rewards programs. Loyal consumers frustrated with devaluations can leave, but in terms of scaling (or at least retaining the same number of customers, and therefore value), the issuing company has all the leverage. Because they (and only they) control the true value of points, they can let new customers in at will. The most loyal consumers would fare best not leaving their points on the table or remaining blindly loyal, but by using their voice—which, unfortunately, has its own challenges.
The ability to voice your frustration or opinion in hopes of changing or improving the relationship—in this case, being given the value you deserve.
Voicing dissent is political in nature: when your frustration reaches a climax, you demand change. Whereas exiting is often silent, voicing an opinion is the opposite. At its best, voicing offers a framework for the company to identify the issue and choose to solve it, or not.
Hirschman sums it up succinctly:
To resort to voice, rather than exit, is for the customer or member to make an attempt at changing the practices, policies, and outputs of the firm from which one buys or of the organization to which one belongs.
This can be done through individual complaint, group petition, or any other appeal to higher authority within the company. While in politics this sort of objection can land you in legal trouble (depending on geography and culture), the most standard response when it comes to large corporations is silence.
Individual petitions rarely result in anything more than a polite response that doesn’t fix the issue (if you receive a response at all). In rewards programs, the most loyal customers will continue to have their points devalued because that’s how the system is constructed. Change only occurs with group petitions, and even then it has to reach the level of considerable economic damage to the company.
In most situations, the voices have to be quite loud to make a difference.
Remaining loyal in the hopes that things will turn around on their own.
Hirschman believed loyalty could give more weight to voice, provided that customers are willing to wait out the period of deterioration for change to occur—as well as believe their voice can affect change within the organization.
While loyalty is presented as a third option in his framework, Hirschman notes that it is, in fact, tethered to voice. As he frames it,
A member with considerable attachment to a product or organization will often search for ways to make himself influential, especially when the organization moves in what he believes is the wrong direction; conversely, a member who wields (or thinks he wields) considerable power in an organization and is therefore convinced that he can get it ‘back on the track’ is likely to develop a strong affection for the organization in which he is powerful.
Hirschman believed that loyalty neutralizes the most quality-conscious members from exiting. This depends, of course, on the company listening to their requests. The more loyal you are to a company, the less likely you’ll leave—but even loyalty has its limits.
In the case of existing and heading to a new rewards program, you forgo all the work you’ve invested in a data profile that helps to streamline your financial life—we become dependent on the cards we use and points we accrue. Even if the relationship isn’t optimal, the cost of exiting can seem overwhelming.
That’s not the only factor that plays into this equation. Hirschman believed that high costs of entry and exit increase the likelihood of members voicing their concerns. Returning to rewards, Amex Platinum and Chase Sapphire holders are more likely to express their discontent, as opposed to lower-tier credit card holders. Saying goodbye is harder when you’ve really invested in a company.
But are these companies willing to listen? Given that points devaluations continue among the largest companies with the highest-tier cards, it doesn’t appear to be the case.
Despite all his speculation, Hirschman’s text is not prescriptive. The economist intentionally left it open-ended because he knew that consumers have to arrive at their own conclusions. He points the way but never hints at where you’ll end up.
Because at the end of the day, you know your value, and you know the value you’ve accrued. Given these options, what will you choose when your rewards card devalues your loyalty?