How KLM uses social media as “R&D lab” for customer-centric innovation

At Festival of Marketing Day Two, KLM’s Director of Social Media, Martine van der Lee, explained that the company embodies, and prides itself on, uniquely Dutch values, including a “pioneering spirit”, and the warm, personal relationship it has with its customers.

In the early days (KLM celebrated its 99th birthday earlier this month, and is the oldest airline still operating under its original name) the airline pioneered by finding new air travel routes, and being the fastest to fly them. Now, said van der Lee, KLM pioneers through technology.

Therefore, social media is the perfect channel for KLM, allowing it to combine technological innovation with customer care.

In her presentation, van der Lee highlighted some of the ways that KLM has innovated on social media in order to bring the best experience to its customers, and explained how the company uses social media as an “R&D lab” for customer-centric innovation.

She also gave Festival of Marketing attendees a look at what the company is doing with voice and AR – including an exclusive preview of a new augmented reality campaign launching later that day.

From a small band of volunteers to a customer care army

KLM’s social media team was originally formed as a way to meet customer needs in the midst of a crisis. In 2010, when an ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull covered large areas of Northern Europe, thousands of KLM customers found themselves stranded as their flights were cancelled.

Call centres were inundated, and customers flocked instead to Facebook and Twitter – both then relatively new channels –  to ask questions. So, said van der Lee, a small volunteer group of KLM staff “rolled up their sleeves” and began answering the questions in shifts.

From that small but important beginning, KLM’s social media support team has grown to be the largest in the world, with 300+ agents answering 180,000 messages per week.

KLM receives a huge volume of valuable customer feedback from these messages, which alerts them to common problems and causes of stress for their customers, and spurs them to think of ways to improve the system.

For example, everyone hates getting off a plane and realising they’ve forgotten their laptop, tablet or – heaven forbid – their passport on board. Previously, KLM customers who’d left something on board an aircraft would have to fill out a form, and wait several days or even weeks before they got their item back.

KLM decided to create a better system, and started allowing customers to tweet at them with what they’d lost. A staff member would pick it up off the plane and bring it to them – quick, easy, and a much better way to keep customers happy.

The airline’s marketing team decided to create a campaign around this, and produced a video introducing KLM’s “Lost & Found service”, helmed by an adorable (but fictional!) dog named Sherlock, who would bound onto the aircraft, sniff lost items, and diligently track down their owners.

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“To this day,” said van der Lee, “KLM still receives queries asking if Sherlock is real!”

Using “tech superpowers” to help travellers

Jeffrey Hammerbacher, a former Facebook engineer, famously told Bloomberg Businessweek in an interview: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Quoting Hammerbacher, van der Lee explained that KLM set out to use its “tech superpowers” to help travellers more effectively – by turning social media into an “R&D lab”.

The airline realised that the vast majority of customers were unlikely to download its app, as most smartphone owners spend the vast majority of their time using a small handful of apps. Some might download the app, but would immediately uninstall it after their trip.

So, the airline started thinking about how to bring its “.com features” to social media. It implemented Facebook Messenger chatbots that could deliver booking details, check passengers in online, send boarding passes and give flight status reminders.

“This creates a relevant conversation that the customer is always able to go back to,” said van der Lee.

If KLM wanted to offer a customer compensation for a delayed flight, their online boarding pass would double as a voucher that they could scan and redeem, for example to get a free meal while they were waiting.

“When travelling, things hardly ever go to plan,” said van der Lee – so the airline tries to create the best experience possible for when things go wrong.

KLM aims to create the best possible experience for travellers when things go wrong

However, this success led to challenges. KLM’s social media volume was exploding, customer expectations were getting higher, response times were fluctuating, and KLM’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) and sales were impacted.

In 2016, KLM began using AI and machine learning capabilities to make the experience better. They implemented bots for speed – so customers could converse with a bot instead of filling out a form – and bots for functionality, such as price-checking and updates. van der Lee reported that KLM’s staff were able to respond 50% faster when supported by AI.

As KLM introduces more automation into its interfaces, is it worried about losing its caring and personal touch? van der Lee spoke of the difficulties between balancing empathy, warmth and personality with “super-speed”, accuracy and the use of data.

“You have to create a space for your teams to show empathy and personal warmth,” she said.

Augmented reality and voice

Over the past year, KLM has begun applying the same innovative approach to two new modes of engagement: voice and AR.

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With the advent of smart speakers, would customers still ask specifically for KLM? The airline realised that it had to make sure its customers would think of KLM when using their Amazon Echo or Google Home.

They set out to tackle another very common traveller’s problem: forgetting to pack a vital item. In December 2017, KLM launched the KLM Packing Assistant for Google Home. Voice-driven and hands-free, the Packing Assistant could talk you through packing essential items for a trip, check the weather forecast at your destination, make recommendations for equipment, and more.

In the process of creating the Packing Assistant, said van der Lee, “We learned a great deal about what it takes to build a voice flow”: such as the need to link different accounts, use APIs, and make sure users don’t have to log back in at every step.

Using the lessons learned from the Packing Assistant, KLM has brought its full product offering to Google Assistant, turning the airline’s existing suite of chatbots into voice assistants.

In the future, the company believes that we will move to touch-less interfaces, and therefore, its preparation with voice will stand it in good stead for that future.

KLM believes that touch-less interfaces are the future

Earlier this year, KLM also branched out into augmented reality, creating a solution for another problem that constantly plagues travellers: checking whether your hand baggage fits size restrictions.

The airline created an app which customers can use to check the dimensions of their hand baggage by superimposing the virtual luggage over their own.

“Walk around the suitcase and ensure nothing sticks out,” the app instructs. “If it doesn’t: hooray, you’re good to go!”

van der Lee also gave Festival of Marketing attendees an exclusive preview of a brand new augmented reality campaign, ‘Tune in to your travel’, launching later that very day.

‘Tune in to your travel’ is an augmented reality experience designed for passengers waiting for their flights at an airport, entertaining them and getting them in the mood to travel.


van der Lee summarised her presentation with a series of takeaways:

  1. A warm, personal conversation is in KLM’s DNA
  2. Social is not just another channel – it is your R&D lab for customer-centric doing
  3. KLM works to be where its customers are
  4. Their mantra is “The best of humans, the best of technology”
  5. The airline is creating new interfaces, and reducing hassle and waste in the journey
  6. This is only the beginning!

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