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Twitter vs Icelandic ash cloud: How one airline transformed its use of social media

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines CEO on why Twitter is the new face of CRM...

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines CEO on why Twitter is the new face of CRM...

KLM plane

KLM made use of Twitter to keep in touch with customers during the ash cloud problemsPhoto: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

Faced with a four-day backlog of passengers during last year's Icelandic ash cloud, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines found an unlikely saviour in Twitter.

As passengers stranded across the world jammed the airlines' call centres and other communications channels trying to find details of their flights, the airline decided to turn to social media.

The airline employed 120 people working in shifts for seven days to provide regular updates on rescheduled flights and answer customer queries and rebooking requests through the social networks.

"All of the existing communications channels had failed so we engaged them through Facebook and Twitter," Peter Hartman, CEO of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines told the Sita Air Transport IT Summit 2011 in Brussels on Wednesday.

According to the CEO, such a move helped the airline clear its backlog. "We hit the bullseye," he said.

The airline's experience with using social media to engage customers during the ash cloud prompted it to set up a social media department.

The 23-strong unit deals with customer queries through Twitter and Facebook, and monitors the networks for feedback about the airline.

The unit spotted a US KLM passenger on Twitter complaining about being stuck in Schipol Airport in Amsterdam and not having any water, for example. "Fifty minutes later, one of our staff walked up and said, 'I have your water'. He then sent another message saying how good the service was at KLM," Hartman told delegates.

The airline is also using social media to increase customer loyalty and positive word of mouth.

Its social media team looks for KLM passengers who check in at Schipol Aiport via the location-tracking service Foursquare and try to identify the person's interests from their social media profiles, then use that information to give them a gift they would like. Examples include giving a Nike+ fitness gadget to a woman whose profile suggested an interest in sport.

"We will see a shift from the old-fashioned way of advertising to this approach. I strongly believe it is a competitive advantage," Hartman said.

The airline estimates that customer service agents working within the social media department are 75 per cent more productive than those within call centres.

Speaking at the summit, Jaan Albrecht, CEO of Star Alliance Services, said that for the 27 airlines in the Star Alliance, nearly one-third of their customer feedback now comes from social media.

But Malaysia Airlines chairman Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid said the shift to social media customer relations shouldn't take place at the expense of traditional communications channels like call centres.

"You don't want to forget those people who may not be savvy in using those [social media] technologies. In Europe, you have an ageing population and you have to consider how up-to-speed they are going to be," he said.