This story would be interesting to anyone who works in customer support for software apps. Well, it could be interesting to all of us, as we are customers for many service providers, and we are providing our services to others.  I’m using this real-life story to highlight the need to treat customers with empathy, and give full consideration to each particular case. This is not only for the sake of humanity. Well-serviced customers become loyal customers. They spread the message around, and they bring in more followers. The agile (meaning “humane and empathic”) customer service works a lot better for engagement than the conventional sales and marketing pitch.  There we go. It’s about an airline, so probably anyone can relate to my experiences.

What Makes Customers Loyal

My customer relationship with KLM started last year. I had been using another airline prior to that, but KLM is now offering overseas flights that are more convenient to me, so I switched to them.  Apart from this sheer convenience, I love KLM for things like that:
KLM logo
When you see “Royal” in the name of an airline it instills respect. Then, the Skyteam name, which is a name of an alliance that KLM is a part of. I love anything related to sky. The logo has those subtle blue colors, and the flight attendants have the beautiful blue uniform. The on-board service is great, and I mean, great. I don’t know why but when I’m flying with KLM, and the captain announces: “Cabin crew, please, prepare for landing”, I feel a whirlwind of emotions. Those subtleties are mentioned here for the sake of showing that I am their devoted customer, and I love the style of their brand, and I relate to them emotionally (not just a buy-sell relationship). Besides, I’ve been totally happy with their core service which is taking me by air from Europe to the United States, and back. Until May this year. It appears that too much romance and harsh landings come together. Well, the landings as such have always been smooth with KLM. It’s about some frustrating experiences.

The Bag: A Frustrating Experience — Understandable — Well Cared For

If I were to give a dry data-driven report about the adventurous bag, it would  sound as follows: As I was flying from Amsterdam to Washington DC, to the Dulles Airport, my bag didn’t come along with my flight. What’s more, when I got hold of it, it had its handle broken. Then as I was flying back to Europe some time later, the bag got delayed again.

Now, what if I were to tell it as an emotional story? Usually, people are jet-lagged and exhausted after overseas flights. More so, if they have to spend 2 hours in the trademark passport queue at Washington Dulles Airport (it always takes no less than 2 hours). So, as I was done with the passport control, I headed to the baggage area to grab my bag, but didn’t find it in the flock of the bags that were waiting for their owners. A KLM agent was nearby, he sounded very apologetic, and he said that they’d deliver the bag to a location in Maryland where I was stopping by the next day by 6 pm. He also gave the contact phone #. Well, I was lucky that I didn’t have to buy some immediate personal care stuff. But it looked tough, as I had it planned to drive to Buffalo, NY, the day after tomorrow. It meant, that the bag had to be delivered to me no later than the next day by 6 PM. Next day came. And 6 pm came. After a series of calls I got an update, that they apologize but they will only able to deliver the bag any time before midnight. So I had to stay up late at night, jet-lagged and out-of-tune, and wait for the bag. Making things even worse, a terrible thunderstorm struck the blessed land of Maryland that night. It was so scary, that I resisted the urge to hide in the basement (if you’ve never been an eyewitness to a thunderstorm in Maryland, just trust me).  In the midst of this thunderstorm, a truck came by, the lights flashing, and my bag was handed over to me by a matter-of-fact man in the raincoat – and the handle of the bag was broken…The man had me sign some paper, murmured his apologies, I wished him a safe drive, and he left.

The emotional story of the bag’s adventures on the way back isn’t that spooky, but thunderstorms have played an essential part in it as well. (Oh, and by the way, a friend had fixed the bag’s handle.) The flight from Washington to Amsterdam got delayed by 4 hours because of the thunderstorms, and I was barely in time for the connecting flight from Amsterdam to my final destination. When I arrived, I was told that my bag got delayed. Again. It was bad as I carelessly put the laptop’s power supply adapter to this bag, and was not able to use my laptop for 2 days.

Why this story is understandable, and well cared for? As a rational human-being, I understand that when an airline has to switch aircraft shortly before a flight (that’s what happened on my way to Washington), this might result in some mess with baggage. And it did. If the plain is late by 4 hours due to thunderstorms, and the baggage does not make it on time for the connecting flights, this is understandable as well.  Those cases has been well cared for, because KLM offered compensation for the broken handle, and any personal items that I would have needed to buy. When they learned that the damage is not material, but rather emotional, we reconciled as they added some couple thousand miles to my Flying Blue account. They’ve been very caring and empathic in all their communications.

Now comes the story of the shower rod.

The Shower Rod: A Frustrating Experience — Understandable — Badly Cared For

As I was checking in to the KLM flight at the Dulles airport in Washington, I was carrying a shower rod, I got it at Lowe’s, the household store, and I just wanted to carry it home with me. The guys who were doing the check-in said I can only do this as a 3d piece for $200 (which is ridiculous). Anyway, they saw how frustrated I was, and called for a manager. The manager came and eyed me curiously  from behind his glasses just as a scientist would eye a luring material for genetic experiments. Well, it might look strange, because people usually don’t carry shower rods on board with them, but that’s what I wanted. Just wanted, as their customer. So, the manager looked at me, and at the shower rod, and bluntly said “no”. I had no other option as to just drop it off at the KLM check-in desk in the IAD airport. I knew that the manager could give his “OK” to that because the rod did not formally fit the sizes, but it would still fit in the baggage compartments overhead. I would have understood that if he had talked to me just a bit, showed some empathy, probably told me that they’re doing it for security reasons, bla bla. But that was a blunt “no”. And it pissed me off.

One can presume that this manager guy had so much staff to take care of.  He is responsible for so many things, probably. But why then the guys at an Enterprise Rent-a-Car outlet in Maryland from where I was renting a car on Friday, around 5 pm,  why did they manage to give a smile and show a caring attitude to each and every customer that came to them in that rush hour? I mean they were swamped with work. It was Friday night, and many people were renting out cars. But they were caring about their customers and their feelings.  Why the KLM captain, who had to take off the aircraft, attended to the emotions of several hundred worried passengers as they waited on board for the thunderstorms to be over,  why had he had time to address them with words of reassurance? And no, neither Enterprise, nor KLM are paying me for this post.

Agile Customer Service

One thing that I feel optimistic about is that guys like the KLM check-in manager come my way very rarely. We do a software product, and I’m very happy that our customer service team delivers this empathic attitude to any customer, giving attentive consideration to each and every issue. The story that I told was not about software, but I hope it helped raise the awareness of this special mission that the service guys have, because it’s about “service”. It’s for humans by humans. After all, the whole point of the good old-school agile software development – and customer service – as written in Agile manifesto is:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

Of course, I will go on flying with KLM. The shower rod story does not outweigh the whole positive experience I have with them. Customers, especially long-term customers, tend to run the mental count of positive/negative service cases, balancing them in their heads. Agile customer service is supposed to back up technical failures by a sincere human attitude, turning negative experiences into positive ones. At that, let me say “thanks” again to all the service guys who do their jobs with this principle in mind.