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Dealing With Customer Misery - Part 1

How KLM/Delta automates its way to passenger bliss

May 15, 2012 By Denny Hatch
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I have in my massive private archive a number of stories of airline passengers detained on the tarmac for hours with no food, water or toilet facilities; passengers unfairly bumped from flights; near-riots at ticket counters and in waiting rooms.

Several years ago, our flight from Nice to Paris was canceled and long lines of ticketed passengers were in shouting matches with Air France ground personnel, creating a knot in my stomach and a sense of dread.

This is old-fashioned CRM (Customer Relationship Misery).

I have to believe the cold, clinical term CRM (Customer Retention Management) was dreamed up by some nerdy MBA.

Sensitive marketers, who knew better, softened it to "Customer Relationship Management."

Online, in person, on the phone, in the mail, a measure of success is how well a company creates what I call "Customer Relationship Magic."

On April 1, we left Newark, N.J. on a KLM/Delta night flight to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, where we would have a four-hour layover until our connection to Basel, Switzerland.  

Over Newfoundland, the pilot came on the horn to announce the plane had lost a generator. The Boeing 767-300 has two engines and three generators, of which two were working O.K. But we were not allowed to fly across the ocean without a working spare third generator, so we returned to Newark.

Seven hours later we took off for an uneventful flight to Schiphol, but had obviously missed our connection to Basel.

No problem, the Delta/KLM ground folks told us. KLM had rebooked us on a later flight to Basel and we could pick up all the information—and new boarding passes—at a Self-Service Transfer Kiosk, which we would see at the end of the hallway to our right when we left the airplane.

Click on the thumbnail of the first image in the media player at the right to see the signage and what a kiosk looks like.

We reached the kiosk and held up an old Amsterdam-Basel boarding pass to be scanned, whereupon this marvelous machine started spitting out personalized forms:

  • New boarding passes for the next flight to Basel.
  • Meal vouchers worth 10 euros for use anywhere in the airport (We had been fed handsomely on the plane, so were not in want of food).
  • A phone card good for a five-minute call anywhere in he world.
  • As an apology for the inconvenience, we received two discount coupons worth 50 euros each on any outbound KLM, Air France or Delta flight, good for two years.
  • Copies of our revised itinerary.

Click on the thumbnail of the second image in the media player at the right for a sampling of the various documents created from the same blank form.

Takeaways to Consider
  • Don't fly with tight connections. If you are making a speech or catching a cruise ship, give yourself an extra day ... just in case a plane's generator goes kaput. If all goes well, you have a day of bonus sightseeing. If the flight is delayed or canceled, you're still on schedule.
  • Automating CRM is dangerous stuff. I personally cannot bear the idea of calling Verizon or American Express because of recorded response systems and the threat of voice-mail jail.
  • When a recording says, "Your call is important to us," the real meaning is "It's happy hour here in Bangalore and you are a big fat pain in the ass."
  • When automating your CRM, think of KLM.
  • Pay no attention to the IT geek who assures you that under the new system customers won't mind a bit and your precious personnel will be shielded from the animals.
  • Before going live with a new automated system, try it yourself and hand it off to some secret shoppers to see how they react.
  • Peggy's making the connection between KLM's computer wizardry and problems with conference registrations reminded me of James Burke, whose TV series Connections was (and is) dazzling. He travels the world turning history and science upside down as he makes connections from Archimedes to Abba and back again. In my opinion, as well as being glib, funny and fascinating, James Burke possesses one of the greatest minds on the planet.
  • Here's promo copy for one of Burke's rabbit-out-of-the-hat episodes:
    Feedback:Electronic agents on the Internet and wartime guns use feedback techniques discovered in the first place by Claude Bernard, whose vivisection experiments kick off animal rights movements called humane societies that really start out as lifeboat crews rescuing people from all the shipwrecks happening because of all the extra ships out there ...
  • On this website are several dozen installments, every one of them a gem.
  • In short, if you can make connections like Burke—or like Peggy—you could be well on your way to conceptual thinking and entrepreneurial success.
  • Good hunting.
 

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