An Open Letter To KLM’s CEO

Dear Pieter Elbers,

Three years ago, when I missed my flight to Nigeria due to circumstances beyond my control, the lady at the KLM desk spent the best part of 30-40mins searching for another flight to get me and my three children onto that day. Unfortunately as it was Easter, everything leaving London to Paris and Amsterdam was fully booked. However, she managed to get us onto an early Monday morning flight. This KLM employee was full of empathy, could clearly see I was weary. She went above and beyond to make sure I suffered no further distress. I didn’t even have to pay any additional costs for the flight.

This was my first KLM experience and I was wowed. The in-flight experience was great on both Air France and KLM (though I preferred KLM) and I decided this was the airline to use for all further travel to Nigeria.

It turns out this particular individual was the exception rather than the rule.

I have since booked three direct flights with KLM (my first was through a travel agent), two out of three have been remarkably painful experiences.

Last November, I attempted to book a flight using my business card via the KLM app. Multiple attempts at entering my card number threw up an error saying my details were incorrect. I decided to pay via PayPal instead. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I attempted to log in, that also threw up an error stating I’d put in the incorrect payment details. Strange as no payment details are required to log into PayPal. It merely requires a username and password. I also tried again on the website, still no joy. Then I decided to scan and store the card to my account profile. Unfortunately, this also threw up an error saying my card number was incorrect. Now, let’s just take a moment to consider this, the card was scanned yet the details are incorrect, how?

Fed up with this merry-go-round, I reached out to your support team on Twitter at 5.30pm that same day. A big mistake as I had to repetitively answer the same questions. It was clear that when someone new picked up the conversation, they didn’t bother to read through the previous post trail. The quickest response time was 1.5hrs. The final response I got that day was someone saying that I would be contacted shortly regarding my issue, this “shortly” turned into the best part of 10hrs. Again, let’s take a moment here, Twitter is a social channel used for the purpose of immediacy. This surely brings a whole new definition to term immediacy.

I called customer support the following morning only to be told that the prices had increased and I needed to pay an additional £100+. I called three times as I couldn’t understand why I had to pay the extra money. If my twitter query had been dealt with the previous day or your payment gateway worked properly, I would have been able to book at the cheaper rate. The last guy I spoke to was downright condescending. I was actually lost for words (anyone who knows me knows I am never lost for words). This toing and froing continued on Monday and Tuesday with more rudeness and condescension from other customer support team.

I eventually booked the flight online and paid via bank transfer.

To avoid this whole scenario again, on February 18, I booked another flight for March 14 but transferred the money to a personal account (whilst it may be inconvenient because it’s a business trip and I would have to do the whole expenses thing, it was preferable to November mess). Again, the payment process on the app was broken, the transaction couldn’t be completed because the submit button didn’t work. So, I booked it on the web. Hey presto, everything went fine and I received a booking confirmation.

It wasn’t until I was at a 4-day conference in Barcelona a week and half later that it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t received an e-ticket yet. I called customer support, the day after my return, on March 3 only to be told that my booking code doesn’t exist. When I asked why, I was told my payment request was refused. I initially thought this was my banks mistake especially after miscommunication on their part. However, I submitted a written complaint to my bank, followed it up with a call a couple of hours later which resulted in a swift investigation despite so called system processes. Their investigation found that the payment was made upon request on February 18 but for some unknown reason, it was not collected. Instead another payment request was made by KLM on March 21 which was refused.

Once again, I was left having to call KLM’s customer support for explanation of what happened, why and more importantly why there had been no communication about the refused payment. Supports response was, I can only book flights so I cannot help. The next department merely reconfirmed the refused payment, then asked why I didn’t check if the payment had gone through as a booking confirmation does not guarantee a seat on the plane, only the e-ticket does. Once again, pause for thought is necessary here. Now, with any given card transaction, the payment is either immediately refused or accepted based on the availability of funds in the customer account. Would any customer not assume that successful completion with the generation of a booking confirmation means that the purchase is complete? It is news to me that I am required to continuously check my account to see if the funds have indeed left my account. The call concluded with me been directed to an online complaints form because I could not be transferred to the complaints department. It will take up to a week before my complaints is responded to.

There are two clear failings here – a technological and human one.

Technological Failures

The most important task on the KLM app and site is the ability to book a flight, yet this task this process is clearly broken.

  • Inputting payment details is broken
  • PayPal integration does not work
  • Card scanning does not work
  • Funds collection is broken

Human Failures

  • Poor customer support across multiple channels
  • No communication across multiple channels – online to offline and visa versa
  • Poor communication skills/lack of empathy from customer support team members
  • Little has changed despite the #HappyToHelp campaign

All too often in businesses that have to go through a digital transformation process, digital is seen as an add-on rather than a business strategy that is integral to the successful delivery of overall business objectives determined at the beginning of the business year. Let me clear, when I say digital as a business strategy, I mean digital at the core of processes including collaborative, communication and operational processes.

The other common behaviour often observed is the friction business demand and technological practices. The powers that be want and expect digital products to be delivered asap. Add lots of buzz words like human centred design or agile processes been thrown around (it sounds clever after all), people can walk around pretending they are actually practicing these processes rather than just playing lip services to them. The development team are pushed or rushed to deliver as though release is some sort of race. If the development is going through an agency, the deadline for delivery rather than advising on the consequences of improper testing of the end product is the focus. Clearly, there was either little or no beta testing of your payment gateway with all possible failure scenarios not explored. Never is it acceptable to push a broken product into production.

With digital not been a business strategy, there is an inevitable disjoint between customer support and your digital products and channels. Where do the outputs from customer facing technology go? Who is responsible for analysing the data and more importantly making sure bugs are added to the product development map? How is the information from customer support collated, analysed and fed back to the product development team for improvements to your digital products?

The measure of any business is how it deals with its customers when things go wrong. On two of three instances I have found KLM’s customer support team, well, unsupportive. Using technology as a wall to hide behind when things go wrong merely serves to worsen not alleviate the customers problem.

It is highly unlikely that I am the first person to have experienced such an inadequate service at the hands of your staff and digital products. I hope this letter serves as a trigger for something been done by the leadership team to address what I can only assume is a company wide systematic issue.

Kind regards,
Emem Rita Usanga