An airline perspective on social media and AI in 2017 and the coming year

KLM has been at the forefront of new tech and social developments in the airline industry in 2017. From its work on the WhatsApp Business Platform to its bot on Google Home.

tnooz spoke with KLM’s manager of social media, Karlijn Vogel-Meijer, to get insights on the benefits the airline has seen from its adoption of AI as part of its customer support strategy and get her predictions on the trends which will matter most to brands in 2018.

The company just announced that its AI integration, supported by Digital Genius, has yielded excellent results in terms of improving responsiveness, without sacrificing the personal touch that forms a core part of the friendly KLM brand.

As Vogel-Meijer explains, introducing AI was a necessary step to managing customer contacts, especially during times of travel disruption. However, KLM wanted to avoid inefficient automation which leads customers into an endless Q&A that never yields the right answers, so the machine learning capabilities of the AI interface were critical.

 “That was how started looking into artificial intelligence and we came across the path of DigitalGenius. The offer an algorithm implemented into Salesforce—our CRM system. It gives the agent a proposed answer to a question, based on what the algorithm has found on previous Q&A. Whenever the agent gets an answer, the agent can say this is great and send it out immediately or say it is not completely correct, and change it slightly. When they correct it, the algorithm learns and the system gets smarter.

“We’ve been using it for one and a half years this week we are now able to optimize the first answers to specific questions. That means that the answers to general repetitive questions, we now know are 100% correct. We have optimised them on Digital Genius which makes it possible to send out the answer immediately, without an agent being involved.”

High volume, swift response

The volume of engagement that KLM has with customers justifies a degree of automation, Vogel-Meijer explains, in order to ensure that customers get the best service possible:

“We get about 130,000 mentions per week. When we have a big disruption, as we recently had with snow in the Netherlands, that amount doubles. We also know that a conversation between a customer and KLM mainly consists of five to six questions and answers sent to each other. If you look at the beginning of the conversation, it usually contains general repetitive questions. For instance: ‘My flight was cancelled. Can you re-book me?’ or ‘How much luggage can I take on the flight?’ Those are the types of questions we can optimize right now.

“It’s when a customer replies with a more personal question that an agent takes over. With artificial intelligence, we are able to take out those questions that are more general and repetitive, and make sure that the agent has more time to really give a personal answer.”

However, one of the surprising finds of AI automation is that it can be too fast for its own good. Unless it is fine-tuned, this can lead to a choppy user experience, and a noticeable gap between the automated answers and the customer service agent replies.

“What we did is we build it a delay. What we see is that a customer—especially in WhatsApp this happens a lot—a customer sends the message ‘Hi’ and then sends a question, and then also sends details. What we saw is that the system responded too fast. It already sent an automated message while the customer was still writing the question to us. What we did was build in a slight delay, which makes it possible for a customer to ask his question, and be shown an answer, which will also be shown in our Salesforce CRM. The agent can see the complete conversation, knows what has been said, and can enter immediately so that it is a seamless conversation.”

Chat in, LinkedIn out

Vogel-Meijer identified a shift to chat platforms as the big social trend for 2017, and she expects that it will also drive trends in 2018.

 “What we see—which is very interesting to us—is a big move from public platforms to private platforms like messaging apps, when it comes to getting in touch with a brand like KLM.

“If you look at the questions that come in from our customers, they ether come in via Messenger or WhatsApp, or in China via WeChat. That’s very interesting to us because a couple of years ago we said we wanted everything public, so that a customer can see our answers to other customers, but the customer doesn’t want that.

“The customer is looking for a personal conversation with the brand. When it comes to brand content, nice posts and story-based posts on Facebook and Twitter are extremely important to us, but when it comes to brand conversation, customers are turning to Messenger, WhatsApp and WeChat.

“When you look at the number of questions that we need to answer—that 130,000 contacts that we get on a weekly basis—we have 35,000 actual conversations with customers on things like lost luggage, or seat upgrades. And 80% of all conversations are going either via Messenger, WhatsApp or WeChat.”

Vogel-Meijer tells us that it was this preference for chat platforms that ultimately led KLM to cancel its customer service response on LinkedIn.

“The moment that we introduced WhatsApp we saw the number of questions on LinkedIn going down tremendously. Our customers don’t expect us to answer questions on LinkedIn anymore because now they can use WhatsApp. We went on LinkedIn because our most important customers were there: the people who fly a lot. They were on LinkedIn, but the moment that we introduced WhatsApp we saw those customers turning to WhatsApp.

“That amount of contacts on WhatsApp is comparable to the amount we get on Messenger. We see a division in the world using people either Messenger or WhatsApp. There’s no cannibalisation. It’s is a totally different group. In the Netherlands, people use WhatsApp, the US uses Messenger more, and China uses WeChat.”

When we asked how that preference might evolve in the year ahead, and whether there was a chance that one of these platforms might rise to supplant the others, Vogel-Meijer replied:

“I think that has to do with how the platforms will develop in the coming years. It has to do with what I—as a customer—can do on those platforms. What functionalities does it offer? Do those functionalities also give me the feeling of having personal conversation with somebody, without the interference of useless functionality?

“We really see social turning into a complete entry point for the customer. Social used to be about nice content and advertising and the like, but we now see that customers are tired of downloading apps. They only use a limited number of apps. Of those, there’s usually a social media element and a chat element there as well. As a brand, if you want to stay relevant you have to be where your customers are, which is on social media, but that’s much more than offering nice content and commercial offers. It also has to do with making it possible for customers to do stuff that customers are also doing at the website.

“For a brand like KLM, it means that customers must be able to check-in, or buy a ticket on social media, without leaving the platform. It’s not about sending out a message with a link to the website. The customer wants to stay on the platform of their choice.

“The biggest example of this is WeChat in China. If you buy a hamburger at McDonald’s you don’t go to the counter. You buy you order via WeChat and you pay via WeChat pay, then you get a notification when your order is ready to pick up at the counter. That’s a complete integration of offline and online. That’s what I believe is starting to happen in the western world as well.”

Top Predictions for 2018

We also asked Vogel-Meijer to get out her magic ball and share her predictions on the trends that will dominate travel technology in the year ahead.

“Social is key, because it’s like being part of everybody’s life, about being where your customers are. That is something which every brand needs to do. That means that you have to be relevant there, not just be funny, but really show what your customers want and bring that to the channel of their choice.

“Voice is changing the industry. We are all now getting display ads and social ads but that is going to change. If you ask Google Home to get me a ticket to San Francisco, the big question is when will a brand like KLM be mentioned. That’s true for any company, I think, because the voice environment is totally different from the digital marketing environment that we know now.

“Artificial Intelligence will be the new normal because it can help customers get answers to questions as fast as possible. The customer doesn’t want to wait. The only thing that we have to be sure about is that it gives the right answer so it doesn’t drive customers away.

“Personalization, which has to do with data and targeting the right people with the right message. People are not going to accept getting spammed by companies with completely useless information. That is over. It is not acceptable. For KLM, what that means is that if you ask us a question, and you have been with us before, you should not have to start all over again asking the same questions that you did a couple of months ago. It’s about recognizing who the customer is and not treating him like a number.”

And these four, Vogel-Meijer explains, are inter-dependent.

“The number of questions are growing constantly and the customer is being more demanding. That’s going to happen on voice as well. If everyone gets used to working with Google Home, or Alexa or Siri or something and asking questions via voice, then you need artificial intelligence to keep up with the number of questions coming in, and to be sure that you give customers relevant answers—because that is what it is all about.”

2018 surprises?

We also asked Vogel-Meijer what she’s most looking forward to tracking in travel tech next year

“We’re looking forward to seeing what Facebook is creating on the voice perspective. We’re very curious about what that will be.

“Also, if you look at smartwatches, smartphones, the ways that they are developing in coming years, that is especially important to KLM: what will people say to the device and how will the conversation take place, and how can we be a part of that conversation?”

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