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Why KLM figured it needed to cutify its customer service

Did you see him? Isn’t he cute? Don’t you think KLM, the Dutch national airline, is just amazing at customer service? Chances are that Sherlock, the most adorable member of KLM’s Lost & Found Service, appeared in your Twitter feed or Facebook timeline more than once. He certainly did on mine. And I was just as enchanted by the promotional film as you probably were.

We see the little beagle going about his daily duties at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport – training, socialising with KLM employees and, of course, racing through the airport to find the owners of lost property by scent alone. It’s a heartwarming video: a woman is reunited with her iPhone, a small boy gets back his teddy bear, all thanks to Sherlock.

There’s only one problem – it’s all fake.

The airline’s marketing team didn’t deliberately set out to deceive. Perhaps they simply didn’t realise just how much internet users would love the story of Sherlock and his job (they say that the video reached more than 46 million people within a week). When questioned, KLM was perfectly honest about the fact that the dog was never part of the Lost & Found team, but the truth came a bit too late for people around the world who had already been captivated by the cute story.

Some stories are sexy enough as they are

Finding out that Sherlock wasn’t real was a minor disappointment to most. The fact that Sherlock is simply a mascot, not a working member of the team, was not in itself much of a problem. After all, the general public is used to much bigger scandals, hoaxes and cover-ups. The real issue is that KLM managed to bury their own lede by making up such an appealing story, when in fact the truth behind the story is already appealing enough.

As the company explained a few days ago on its blog, Team Sherlock was proposed last year by a KLM employee who could see that the lost & found system was not working for customers. Whenever anyone contacted the airline via social media to report an item of lost property, she was required to ask them to fill out a form – not exactly good customer service. The company had a low success rate and high customer dissatisfaction.

Now, one year on from the employee’s suggestion, the company has got a team of 20 humans (not dogs!) who work to ensure that their Schiphol office is staffed from 6am to 9pm each day. Did you catch that? Most businesses seem to have – at best – a box at the back of the office somewhere, featuring a forlorn collection of old umbrellas, scarves, and lonely gloves. KLM has twenty people working to reunite lost items with their owners!

Think about it: a major airline has done something which is costing it a substantial amount of money and has no immediate financial return. And this as a result of a staff member seeing where something wasn’t working. But how many people got that takeaway from the dog ad? Not many, I shouldn’t think – it was completely upstaged by the cute story about the dog, quickly followed by the revelation that the story wasn’t true.

Learn from whatever it is your customers complain about

With the creation of Team Sherlock, KLM has pulled off a customer service coup. One which other companies should try to emulate. Not necessarily by paying attention to lost property, but by looking at the things which customers complain about. Until now, you could have been forgiven for thinking that The Onion’s airport spoof(in which the customer service rep tells passengers to “fill out complaint form, and place it in an envelope addressed to the name of the hospital in which you were born”) was based on reality.

But here’s the proof that at least one company is taking customers’ concerns and employees’ suggestions on board, and implementing practical solutions. For all that companies love to say they care about their customers, KLM is actually showing it. After all, actions speak louder than words.

A beautiful horse is amazing enough, you don't have to pretend you saw a unicorn. By trying to convince us that they are almost magic when it comes to finding lost property, KLM missed an important opportunity to show off the fact that they actually care, and are doing a good job.

Maybe facts and figures and human beings aren't as 'sexy' as a cute little dog, but as the Dutch say: “Just be normal, that's crazy enough.

Botto Bistro vs. Yelp

This week’s news has been full of stories about San Francisco-based pizzeria Botto Bistro and its quest to become the worst-rated SF bistro on Yelp, the massively popular consumer ratings site. At first glance it sounds like a nutty idea – who on earth would want their business to get bad reviews?

But a closer look reveals a small business that found itself in a bad situation, then turned it into an opportunity to give exceptional service to its own customers.

“Hard bargaining” = bad customer service

Yelp has received criticism from small businesses for much of its decade-long history. The main reason is hardly Yelp’s fault: it’s such an influential platform that negative reviews can have quite an impact on a company’s bottom line. But Yelp has also been accused of using its influence to gain more business, and continually calling Bay Area businesses in an attempt to sell advertising.

Furthermore, some businesses have claimed that they were offered the chance to remove negative reviews if they purchased advertising on the site. A judge in San Francisco decided that Yelp is perfectly within its rights to do so: the so-called “threat of economic harm” for businesses that don’t want to purchase advertising is simply “hard bargaining”. Perhaps so, but it’s hardly what we would call good customer service.

Getting your customers involved

The interesting part of the story, though, is how Botto Bistro took its rage at Yelp’s attitude and turned it into incredible service for their own customers. Sure, by asking customers for a 1-star Yelp review in return for a 25% discount on pizza, they are getting their own back at Yelp. But involving their customers in the project is doing a lot more for their business (and the customers themselves) than if the bistro’s owners had simply demanded that their Yelp listing be removed.

Why? Because extraordinary customer service is not just being efficient and offering a beaming smile. It is service that gets customers (and others talking). The bad review idea is amusing, novel, and involves the customers. Consider the spoof reviews on Amazon.com – people enjoy joining in on a joke and will happily spend time writing a creative and amusing review, even without an incentive. Add in the motivation of a discount and the chance to support the underdog in a David-and-Goliath (or small-business-and-megacorp) battle, and it’s not surprising that Botto Bistro already has well over 1200 extremely funny reviews (including three in German) and has achieved the 1-star rating it was after.

Truly extraordinary service

The publicity from this incident has been great, but much of it has reached people who are not in the market for a pizza at Botto Bistro (it sounds lovely, but it’s just too far away from most of us). What will really make the different for the company in the long run is the opportunity it presented for the owners to show off a bit of personality and a sense of humour. Before, they may well have made amazing food and provided great service – but it probably wasn’t extraordinary.

Truly extraordinary customer service has the power to delight your customers and get them to tell all their friends about you. You might not be able to come up with such an entertaining way to 'trade profits today for profits tomorrow' (and of course scenarios like this one can't be forced), but it's still an essential motto for any business that wants to distinguish itself through customer service.

Ironically, Yelp has allegedly emailed Botto Bistro to tell them that they were breaking the Yelp terms of service by offering customers incentives in exchange for (bad!) reviews. Customer service score so far? Botto Bistro A+, Yelp F.

5 ways hotels can respond to future guests faster and better

Think of your website as your hotel lobby: it’s your meeting place for new and potential guests. Any service associated with your site should be 5-star too. Aim to ‘wow’ your guests before they’ve even begun their stay!

This also means fast responses to online queries. And we mean really fast. A recent study from Velocify shows that if you contact potential customers within one minute of their presence on your website, your conversion rate will almost quadruple (+391%).`

They also found that 72% of customers believe that the first company to call them had an advantage over the competition, which translated directly into revenue.

Don’t you quite know how to put this into action for your hotel? We’ve established five easy ways in which your hotel can make sure guests don't think twice about booking with you:

1. Have an FAQ page

The easiest way to answer future guests is to let them help themselves. With a section dedicated to Frequently Asked Questions, your online visitors will have a simple overview where they can quickly find most of their answers.

Of course, not all future guests may prefer this, so do read the following 4 ways to give personal and fast answers.

2. Get a mobile or tablet app

Hotel staff are often walking about, and your receptionists may be busy attending to guests. Yet emails are constantly coming in from potential guests, who expect a timely answer. Try to arrange some back-up to your service team, or - if this isn’t financially feasible - let some of your staff carry around a mobile device, alerting them when a customer enquiry comes through. This will allow them to respond much faster than before.

Putting your hotel at the forefront of fast service will boost customer loyalty enormously.

3. Have multiple people on email duty

More staff means more flexibility, and peace of mind that all emails will be answered timely. Fast and good repliesboost the number of bookings, so it is well worth it.Just make sure that different people don't answer the same email...

This will make the pre-arrival experience just as good as the arrival itself. The real first impression is online!

4. Offer live chat to your online visitors

If you want the best way to respond to guests fast, you can’t look past a live chat service for your hotel website. It’s fast, effective, and your immediate availability and willingness to your potential guests will boost your relationship with them.

Using a live chat service means that you and your (potential) guests are in the same place at the same time.

Live chat offers a convenience factor, and doesn’t leave guests looking for assistance elsewhere. Online visitors who engage in a live chat conversation are up to 15 times more likely to book than those who don’t.

5. Have pre-made replies ready to go

Many potential guests will have the same query, so why not make a few pre-made responses that you can (carefully!) insert in your answer?

Make sure to alter the response to match each particular guest. Using his or her name is an obvious must. If the query is a little more specific, then be sure to add or subtract from the response. The great thing about a system like this is that the more queries you receive, the more pre-made responses you can add to your list. Soon there’ll be nothing your staff won’t know how to answer!

Fast and quality responses will allow you to get the most out of your website and platforms like bookings.com. The average response time is under 2 hours and consumers are using this time scale to compare hotels when looking online. How will you give the best first impression?

Ryanair: the brand that customers will hate for many years to come

Low-cost airline Ryanair has made a supreme effort over the past twelve months to improve its customer service. So this was the brand we checked out first when the independent UK consumer watchdog Which? released the latest edition of its respected customer service survey, in which respondents rate 100 major brands against each other (regardless of what they sell).

Ryanair scored extremely poorly last year: it was at the bottom of the chart with an overall percentage score of just 54%. The survey results were – and are – distilled into an overall percentage score for each company, summing up opinions of six aspects of customer service, including ‘staff knowledge’, ‘ability to deal with issues’ and ‘feeling like a valued customer’.

The third worst company for customer service

At first glance, this year’s results are quite as bad for Ryanair. The brand came in at number 98, with a customer satisfaction score of 59%. Surely not very impressive for a business that has spent a lot of time trumpeting about changing its ways and promising to make a real effort from now on, right?

Yes and no. The results tell us a couple of things. Firstly, a 5% increase in consumer satisfaction is actually quite impressive, given that it has only been a year since the airline was voted as having the UK's worst customer service (and was forced to issue a profit warning shortly afterwards). Remember the daft things Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary used to say?

"We think [passengers who forget to print their boarding passes] should pay €60 for being so stupid."
and
*"You're not getting a refund so f** off. We don't want to hear your sob stories. What part of 'no refund' don't you understand?"

It’s pretty clear that the company had quite a lot of attitude-changing to do. When seen in that light, going from 100th place to 98th place in just twelve months isn’t that bad at all!

Grudge-bearing customers

Another thing these results underscore is just how difficult it is to change your image once consumers have made up their minds about you. As the saying goes: ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’. Poor customer service costs you not only your current customers, but your future ones too.

Although Ryanair has made a great show of changing its ways – and received endless media coverage for doing so – there are an enormous number of disgruntled former customers who will need a lot longer than a year before they consider giving the business a second chance.

So don’t lose heart, Ryanair, you’re on the right track. The same goes for other businesses that may not have made an effort at customer service in the past. It takes time to turn things around. Businesses like Amazon and American Express (who came in at joint 9th place with 79% satisfaction), British Airways (36th place, 74%) and IKEA (60th place, 71%) have put an enormous amount of effort into their customer service over the years.

The results of this year’s survey serve to emphasise just how important it is to focus on your customers at all times. Achieving high levels of satisfaction are vitally important to your business – and it’s not as easy as it looks.

It's official: Google’s customer service sucks

In the past few days all of Google’s many eyes have been on Germany. Not only did the German court request that Google reveal its top-secret algorithm, but it ruled that Google must now, by law, provide a way for German users to contact the company via email.

Ignoring customer emails by coolly sending autoreply messages doesn’t count as adequate customer service. Google has fallen foul of German telecommunications law, which states that companies are required to provide customers with “details which permit rapid electronic contact and direct communication with them, including the electronic mail address”.

Customers throughout the world, rejoice!

While some might see this as a petty and ridiculous application of the law, and one which unfairly targets Google – it’s no secret that Western European governments are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the all-seeing digital business and its apparently permanent memory – it could also be considered a victory for common sense. After all, it stands to reason that a customer service email should be used to provide customer service, right?

As it is, Google’s German customer service email, support-de@google.com, returns an automated email stating that messages sent to that address will not be read. The autoreply includes links to FAQs and other instructions, presumably so that users can solve their own problems without the company having to get involved.

What this means for your SME

Now that the law is being publicised (you can find it here, search for ‘rapid electronic contact’), all companies doing business in Germany leave themselves open to potential legal action if they, too, fail to provide a means of direct communication. The question then becomes: what exactly is direct communication? And how rapid is ‘rapid’? It’s not uncommon to receive a customer service autoreply that states that your email has been received but a response may take some time. Does that time delay constitute a ‘rapid’ response? Does offering Facebook customer service constitute ‘direct communication’, if no response is received?

The fact is, of course, that none of these questions are really relevant to you if you truly have your customer’s needs at heart. Businesses that provide truly stellar customer service (and we clearly can’t include Google amongst them) don’t need to worry about such legal technicalities: their focus is already on communicating clearly and effectively, with the customer in mind. And, to be honest, any decent business shouldn’t need a law to tell it to respond to customer enquiries.

Being truly helpful to your customer

But even if your business is following the letter of the law, are you actually in tune with the spirit of it? We’ve all encountered businesses that are clearly under the impression that they are good at customer service and at communication, just because they actually read (and send unhelpful replies) to customer emails. There’s nothing like a speedy, useless reply to make you curse a business – and then go elsewhere.

We could argue that Google can ignore this particular German law with impunity because they can easily afford to pay the potential €300,000 fine and, in any case, individual users are not where they make their money (plus with over 750 million users of Google Chrome alone, they can easily afford to lose a few). It’s the smaller businesses who need to take careful note of this new ruling, and adapt their practices accordingly.

The takeaway? As an SME, you really can’t afford to ignore either the spirit or the letter of German telecommunications law, wherever you are in the world. Not because you are subject to it, but because without fast and effective online customer service, your business is unlikely to survive.