From Social Media to Social CRM : a recent experience with airlines

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I already wrote many posts about social CRM on this blog and I recently had the (unfortunate ?) opportunity to add a real life experience to my thoughts. Those who’d prefer to pass over the narative of a long story may directly go to the bottom of the page to read the conclusion.

The situation

A simple holidays week. The discovering of an airline I never took before and, on my trip back home, the experience of very bad weather conditions that made thousands of people strand in many airports.

The background

I have many topics of interest outside of enterprise 2.0. Among them are travels, airlines industry and planes. I’m following and reading some specialized blogs and twitter accounts (airlines, professionals..) as well as some people who share these passions. Some of my “friends” and “followers” are also frequent travelers, ranked “Elite +” by their favorite airline and, like me, they consider that it’s more than a means of transportaion : it’s a true passion. Discussing with these people has a real added value when I need a piece a advice about an airline, a place to go, an aircraft, an airport… better ask it to people who fly more than 60 000 miles every year. Mind you, this is also true for many other fields…but I’ll discuss that later in this post.

Of course I follow the twitter account of my “usual and favorite airline”. They use twitter to broadcast more or less the same things that can also be found on their site or their newsletter, mainly advertisement about promotions. No discussions nor “retweets” of any message coming from a third party (clients or other professionals). The account is not very active and is mainly a one-way channel, with a very weak community side.

For instance, when the “community” live tweeted the delivery of their first Airbus A380 that was broadcasted in video on the web (btw that was a great idea…) and asked some questions to the airline about the plane or wanted to know if the videos would be available for reuse on blogs…no answer, no interest. No more sign of life when I took the time to bring my personal blog back to life (I rarely have time to blog on it) to share the experience of my first flight on their A380. A position that is, a priori, neither bad or good and must be the consequence of a well-though-out strategy.

So, this is the state of my social media experience with “my” airline. Quite frustrating when you’re both an “Elite” and passionate passenger, but the community is large enough so I can share this passion even without the airline. Of course there are many opposite examples (no need to mention Southwest…), but I’m only considering my own personal experience.

The Facts

Boarding on a KLM flight to Denpasar via Amsterdam. On this occasion, I discovered their “Economy Comfort” class and incredible room that was available for my legs. I “twitted” a photo and turned my iPhone off before take-off. Nothing special for a social media user. Once arrived at my final destination I realize with surprise that the account @klm retwitted my feedback to share it with their audience. This is a common social media practice too but I was not used to this with “my” usual airline so I really enjoyed that.

I made the most of the opportunity to have a closer look at this account’s activity and saw that it was 1°) very active 2°) answering to those who asked something 3°) Connecting its audience in order not to reply alone to questions related to the “KLM experience” but to let customers share their own, to have a peer to peer feedback.

One week later I mentioned this good practice in a tweet praising this engaging way of using twitter compared to those who use it as a one way media. Once done, I turned my computer off and headed to the airport to take my flight back to Paris. End of the story. A priori…

Here ends my observations in “quiet times”. Unfortunately, I had the opportunity to carry on with a “crisis time” observation.

I landed in Amsterdam under the snow and had the intuition that things were about to get seriously complicated. I quickly had the confirmation when I saw the number of canceled or delayed fligh. Another good point (even if it has nothing “social”) I found an email in my mailbox to tell me that my connecting flight has been canceled but that I’ve been rescheduled on another flight later. Glad not to have to care about it and having all the needed informations in the mail, I headed for the lounge and connected to the internet to spend my time. That’s where the story begins.

First I saw an answer to my previous tweet from @klm_uk saying something like “thank you, we try to help when we can”. Interesting. “Help”. Compared to my previous experience, it seems that, even unconsciously, KLM has a kind of SCRM approach where some others content themselves with communicating.

I started a conversation. They answered. We discussed. Some of my followers who are used to spending lots of time in airports joined us and three parallel conversations took place :

– between us, @KLM and @KLM_uk : we talked about their social media approach, customer relationship. Some people I didn’t know joined and the conversation went on…

– betwee me and my contacts : a more critical conversation about best and good practices in the use of social medias by airlines and the fact that very few are able to listen and connect their frequent flyers (even if they call them “high contribution passengers”..). Then the conversation became about “What would I do with my Elite Flyers if I were an airline”. Here too, some people joined the conversation.

– between KLM and its audience : informations about trafic, advice to passengers to help them in this difficult situation, information sharing from other sources (airports, airlines) using twitter for real time communication in what we can call a crisis situation (airports blocked, massive flight cancellation…). Listening, connecting people…a really good job going far beyond the range of the airline operational responsability since they were trying to help everyone who needed. I also discovered their excellent blog : no comercial propaganda but useful informations for airline travelers (flying KLM or nor…). Here again no self-absorption, service and help only.

Meanwhile, another account remains “inactive”, the last update dating from 4 ou 5 days and it was about a promotion to a “sunny destination”.

The customer’s feeling

Purely qualitative so 100% subjective

– I get answers and links to reliable and updated sources

– I feel less alone (having to wait 30 hrs for a connecting flight can be boring…)

– I get new contacts through the conversations and identify many reliable information sources.

– I feel that “there is someone behing all that”. Not a machine that broadcasts informations but someone who listens, who cares, who do his best to be there and to be helpful. I’m being treated as a customer who has things to say and deserves to be informed. That was the perfect complement to the burst of energy from the ground teams who where trying to bring us back home.

– suddently, the “neutral” opinion I had about the airline (ie lack of opinion) really changes and improves. “Hey !! People I can talk to !”. Would there be a bit of humanity behind a twitter account ?

– what KLM did was noticed by lots of people who mentioned it on twitter too. I tried to get out of this “instant observations” to look at what twitter says on a wider time range and it was obvious that KLM had a very good image that was carried by customers themselves.

The qualitative benefit

This point is out of my field of expertise so I’ll be glad to get comments from marketing professionals. There must be studies that demonstrate the cause to effect relationship between a positive buzz and SEO, reputation, sales…

To what extent can this help to influence passenger’s choices when they have to choose between two airlines ? Here again, I’ll let marketing people comment. As for me, the “on KLM via Amsterdam” option that I never used to consider before will be taken into account in the future ? Will it be the same for those who shared the same experience ? And what will be the impact on their network ?

One thing is sure : today, when such a conversation starts, when a company is mentioned, is shouted at by “good” customers and does not react, the effect is rather bad (most of all when its sister-company is exerting itself).

Some may also say, and they’d be rigth, that all these things are nice and fun but that it does not fix everything. I fully subscribe to this point of view and will deal with it in the next point. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to deny that such practices, even if the benefits are lower than expected, make the others look quite dorky.

The limits of this approach

As I already wrote many times, social media is a means and not an objective? Generally speaking, my scepticism towards communities conversation is proportonial to the risk of bumping into a company that uses social media to hide they poor execution : that’s to say high.

– twitter will never stop a snow storm nor it will help to get a seat in a plane that does not show up at the gate.

– twitter will never replace the Herculean tasks of ground teams who have their hands in and have to deal thousands of passengers stranded in an airport.

– informations are often available elsewhere and are not a twitter exclusiveness. On the other hand, this tools allows to deliver informations in a fashion that prevents the requester for searching (don’t forget that in this context people have often to rely on their mobile phone what is not the easier device for intensive search and browsing)

– twitter is a good way to deliver and relay information in a scalable way, in a context of a high need for information.

Conclusion : being active on twitter as no value until the “real” service is at the same level. If not, the risk of a deceptive effect is high and, paradoxically, the quality of the work of online teams can be counter-productive if customers are deceived by the “offline” service. When a company engages online, the real service level has to be very good : if it is then this my be the start of a vituous circle, if not that’s an open door for a backfire due to overexpectations.

An opportunity for operational benefits (provided businesses wants it…)

We just discussed the example of a company who changed its online attitude from communation to customer service. In our discussions we wondered how another airline, very close to KLM, had radically opposite behaviors ? Matter of culture ? Anyway, after this experiencer I feel a big lack in my favorite’s airline communication even if I’ve always been happy with their quality of service. So it seems to mean that being good at operating is the primary need but that it’s not enough if you don’t engage with you customers and beyond.

And then ? What comes after these good social practices ? Discussions ? A kind of affect ? And then ? I don’t have any clue on how social media and real business articulate at KLM. Do they learn from customers’ feedbacks ? From suggestions ? Does the twitter team makes suggestions that are followed by decisions and actions internally ? Are these community managers in a waterproof bubble or are they the front line of decision makers in terms of product, marketing, service ?

I don’t know but maybe I’ll get some comments from KLM…

That’s a critical issue : in my predictions for 2010, I wrote that value was going to be key in enterprise 2.0 projects. Conversations create a potential of value and can improve a brand’s reputation to such an extent that it will improve the revenue. But, in order to turn the whole potential into tangible value, a business must be able to turn what they learned from conversations into tangible actions.

KLM shifted from one way communication to customer service and engagement. This still need to be linked to operations to get a real social CRM system that will positively impact the value chain. As for customers, after having been “community members” they’ll become stakeholders. Et le client, après être passé “community member” deviendra “Consommacteur”, partie prenante.

Conclusion

• From communication to service : using real time tools that allows “quick propagation of messages” is useless if the purpose is to communicate in the old fashioned way and do nothing a newsletter can’t do. KLM is positioning itself on the service field, bringing the needed information where and when the need arises.

• The customer is the star : of course we applause those who are in charge of the twitter account but, at the end, the real star is the customer because he’s the one who asks things and because what he asks, the answers and the feedbacks are being retwitted by KLM in order everyone can benefit from them an people can connect more easily. At the end, and to some extent, the community can become self-supporting.

• Each exeperience is a story : just have a look at KLM’s twitter account and you’ll find questions, answers, thanks, retwitts…what makes that KLM not only delivers a service instead of blindly pushing contents but also tells stories in which every customer can find something that looks like his own story. A good example of storytelling applied to microblogging…

• The company is not a walled garden : KLM does not only talk to its customers but to anyone who needs informations. So they also promote what other players me say on twitter when it’s relevant.

• A human voice : sometimes we can wonder what’s the publication strategy of some companies and to what extent it can be so rigid. As for KLM we can feel that the people behind the scree have a real freedom what allows them to be humane and build a personalized relationship with their audience. When you interact with @klm you feel that there are human beings behing the machine…I let you compare with those who deshumanize the relationship in order to protect their brand against what their own employee could say to customers…

• A differenciating advantage through the example : honestly, I didn’t feel anythings was missing in my social media relationship to some brands before this experience and I was quite happy in this situation. I would never have had the idea of saying “do things this way, that’s the right way”. Now I have to admit it changed my opinion about some other companies (and most of all an airline..) because once some act as KLM, those who don’t look old and crapy. A new standard is emerging and others will have to comply with.

• Can do even better : this conversation tools is also a great sourcing tool that can be used to feed a quality management program for instance. Just do it…. provided you want it and organize it.

PS : one of the question that raised in the discussions didn’t find any answer yet : is there any example of an airlines that leverages the community of its Elite flyers to get qualified feedback to improve things ? (except the traditional surveys ?). Did they even get the potential of this community ?

Note : since I started writing this note, a bombing attempt took place on a Northwest flight to Detroit. Here again, some airlines accompanied their clients, kept they informed of the new security regulations and all the event sequels. Some others remained quiet.

As for the rail industry, we can learn how Eurostar overcame a disastrous begining of crisis management (here too).

air-france, chaine de valeur 2.0, clients, Communautés, Communication, communication-de-crise, community management, compagnies aériennes, e-réputation, eurostar, KLM, microblogging, réputation, relation client, Social computing, social crm, social-media, transport aérien, twitter

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Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
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