KLM plans to turn conversation threads into customer journeys

KLM Messenger bot

KLM pivoted its business away from websites and apps and onto social at the turn of the year in what it affirms is “the next entry point for the customer”, introducing bots and artificial intelligence to its digital play in a brand-to-consumer relationship like no other.

Now the airline plans to turn its conversation threads within Facebook Messenger, Twitter and WeChat into a customer journey, where relevant third parties are introduced at specific points in a journey in an attempt to draw out its relationship with the customer for as long as possible.

KLM’s manager of social media Karlijn Vogel-Meijer told The Drum at the Festival of Marketing, that KLM’s conversation threads with customers “can be of much more use than what we are doing right now” and talked of its ability to suggest hotels or taxi services “based on what site you usually use for booking”.

This is not only an opportunity to monetise those threads through brand partnerships, and Vogel-Meijer also sees it as a way to keep KLM top of mind throughout a user’s journey as they organise holidays, rather than having a one-time transactional relationship.

“People are not going to websites anymore, they want to be on the platforms of their choice. They are comparing airlines and any products on external platforms, they are not listening to the brands anymore but are forming their opinion based on the opinions of others,” Vogel-Meijer said.

“That means a lot for brands and the question is what will remain of your brand if you are not making efficient use of the connection that you have with the customer.

“When you are able to have a relationship during the total journey that someone is travelling, that has a huge impact.”

While this is an immense opportunity to increase brand engagement, it was not outlined how the brand will handle its deep knowledge of the user in a way that is not seen as an invasion of privacy, a contributing factor to consumers’ growing mistrust of brands.

Whatsapp as the next big frontier

KLM is following the developments on Whatsapp closely, an app which has over 1bn users globally - eclipsing Messenger’s 800m - and reaches markets where the Facbeook-branded app is not dominant.

That said, what Messenger and WeChat have which Whatsapp is yet to develop is an API. APIs make it possible for a brand to connect their own services to that of the app.

What’s more, the only way KLM can be active on Whatsapp is when there it is integrated with a CRM system. For a brand that gets around 100,000 mentions a week, 15,000 of which turn into real conversations with customers, CRM is essential to handle that volume of customers.

“Customers approach us on different platforms, so they might put a request in on Twitter, and the next week on Messenger. We need a system at the back which knows exactly what the history is with each customer. That is vital for a company like KLM,” Vogel-Meijer said.

Line, an app popular across emerging markets in Asia, is similarly “very difficult for us to be active on”, Vogel-Meijer admitted, due to it being expensive. Vogel-Meijer did not go into details, but said in KLM’s focus markets like Japan, Messenger is of similar popularity to Line, so the brand “has to make choices” on where to place its bets. In China, by comparison, the only way for KLM to reach consumers is via WeChat.

What KLM’s plans to expand its use of AI, bots and voice technology mean for the humans still working there

KLM believes contextual conversations, whether it is via voice or text, is the future. The brand’s heavy investment in new technology is paving the way for a voice integration, now that Amazon Alexa and Google Home are sweeping the market, both of which Vogel-Meijer said KLM is “following very closely”.

“We have been testing with Alexa in the office to see what is possible and what isn’t. The developments are going tremendously quick,” she said.

“There will definitely be a connection between airlines, Alexa or Google Home, but we need each other to get the product complete. I definitely see it happening.”

Yet while KLM believes the combination of bots, AI and human is “the next big step” for brands, what does the increased reliance on tech to assist with customer interactions mean for the 235 agents it currently employs?

Right now KLM’s artificial intelligence system, which is trained on 60,000 questions and answers, goes through human approval before it can send out an answer to a customer. But Vogel-Meijer admitted every time a human alters the system’s proposed message, it gets smarter. Does she see a time it will get so smart it won’t need that human intervention?

“At this stage we believe that that is not possible, because every question is different. The beginning of the conversation can be very easily supported by sending out simple answers, but there is a point where a situation gets very personal, and we don't believe you can fully replace agents by AI.

“It is not something that we are aiming for. It is not the reason why we added AI to our organisation. We still believe in the personal approach; the human touch supported by technology,” Vogel-Meijer said.

Meanwhile, Vogel-Meijer warned brands against using bots “because it is the buzzword right now” without thinking about why a bot would be relevant to the brand.

“If you want to score by doing techy things without thinking about what the impact will be that is really stupid, you shouldn’t do that as a brand. It can harm your brand tremendously,” she concluded.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.