For KLM, social media is about more than retweets and viral content.

The Dutch airline has invested an undisclosed amount into making sure its business model is groomed to provide the highest level of customer care on its social media channels, and it consistently tops its airline peers — some with much larger budgets — on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks.

Today, customers around the world can rely on its 150-person, 24/7 social care staff to handle 60,000 mentions and 7,000 queries a week in 14 languages: Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Thai, and Turkish.

Skift recently talked to Karlijn Vogel-Meijer, Social Media Manager at KLM about its evolution as a social customer service beast and what happens when people are happy to help. An edited version of the interview follows:

Skift: Customer service is so visible on your brand’s social media channels, how did KLM learn to become so evolved with this initiative?

Karlijn Vogel-Meijer:  When the Icelandic volcano burst a couple of years ago, there was this specific moment where people tried to reach us via the traditional channels, like email, telephone, et cetera. There were thousands of people trying to reach us, and they couldn’t get a grip of us. They turned to social media, where we were present at the time. We were doing some small posts on Facebook, we were present there like a lot of other brands, and we had actually not really a clue what to do there.

Suddenly, those thousands of questions came pouring in, and there was this specific moment where one of our former VPs was talking to one of the employees, and she asked him, “Listen, what are we doing to do? Are we going to answer those questions? We can do that, but please realize that there is no turning back. You cannot just be there, and then the next moment not be there. If you go ahead on that road, that is a long road with a lot of development.” He, thankfully, decided to do that. We started answering our first social questions via Facebook.

That was actually the start of social service for KLM. That was beginning of everything that we’ve been doing so far. Our strong belief is that we have to be where our customers are. The time where you ask your customers to get in touch with you via something that you’ve made up yourself, that time is gone. You have to be there where they are, and you have to give them the opportunity to ask any questions via the channels which they choose.

Skift: Can you go into more detail about the three pillars, customer service, reputation, and commerce that you say make up your social media strategy?

Vogel-Meijer: The first one is social service. Giving the customer the opportunity to ask us any specific question that they would like to ask us. The second pillar is brand and reputation. You have to make sure that you have engaging content all the time, because you’re competing with a lot of other brands on social media, and you have to present at the timeline of all those specific people. You have to be better than, for instance, Singapore Airlines or Lufthansa, but also Nike, Victoria’s Secret.

The third one is commerce. We believe that when we are doing those first two pillars, servicing, and brand and reputation, when we are doing those two well, that we can actually sell tickets. We’re doing that pretty well, we’re making a lot of money. We’re making $25 million a year additional sales, so it is all about being present on those channels which your customers are asking for, and make sure that you can fill in our social strategy regarding the three pillars. I think that is the most important thing that we’ve learned over the years, and that we’ve experienced that really works for us.

Skift: What do you think about the integration of social media with phone, email, and chat support?

Vogel-Meijer: What we find out is just customers are trying to reach us via specific channels, so we see that social is adding a lot of value to a lot of customers. It is not really that we see a big shift from channel to the other, to the social channels, we actually see a lot of additional questions coming in. Also, we don’t really see a big shift from phone, chat, email, etc. yet, but we are expecting that to happen in the coming future.

We have a big system hanging behind all those channels, which is making sure that we know who the customer is that we are talking to. If somebody is asking us a question via social, that question comes into Salesforce. Salesforce is connected to all the other systems within KLM, and that makes it possible for us to know that a specific customer has been trying to reach us via social regarding a specific item, but is also a frequent flyer who has been asking us questions via email.

That is the most important thing, because there’s nothing more annoying than giving a nice answer to a specific customer where this customer has lost his luggage four or five times or something. You have to know who you are talking to, and that is the nice thing about our current times. With all the technology available, you can actually make it very, very personal.

Skift: Can you tell me a scenario about how KLM takes advantage of technology to provide your level of customer care on social?

Vogel-Meijer:  Because we are actually connecting all the information channels with each other, we are really able to see who we are talking to. That even goes as far as where we give the purser in the plane an iPad, which makes it possible for us to make sure that when a certain customer has had a problem with, for instance, checking in, we can make sure that when the purser is talking to this specific customer, he or she knows that there was a problem with checking-in, and he or she can get a personal remark what has happened before. That really gives the feeling to the customer that he is actually talking to a person instead of a big corporate company.

Our business model is about where we want to bring our customers to and from. For instance, the United States to Asia via Amsterdam hub. When something went wrong on the stretch from the United States to Amsterdam, this person is going to his next flight from Amsterdam to, for instance, Korea, and hasn’t had his special meal on the first stretch. We can make sure that in the time between those two stretches, that his special meal will be available on the second stretch, and we can also apologize on the second stretch for the fact that the meal wasn’t available in the first stretch. That really gives the customer the feeling that we actually care about him.

Skift: How are you training and empowering your staff to be agile and personable enough to access this information and respond to the high volume of inquiries?

Vogel-Meijer: It’s something that we are working on pretty hard, because there are a lot of systems which need to be connected. On the social side, that has all been arranged. We have about 150 social customer service people. What we do is we train them really extensively. They get a couple of weeks training regarding what the KLM tone of voice will be, what the processes are like. What’s different from a lot of other companies is we give them a lot of freedom. We are like, “OK, you’re a grown-up. You have been hired for this job because there are specific things that you are really good at. We’ve given you an extensive training, and now you’re free to do it with your own personal tone of voice, within the KLM tone of voice, of course.”

We believe that social is different from all the other channels. That is the reason why we’ve chosen for specific social agents, they understand the way how to communicate, how to communicate with humor with 140 characters on Twitter, how to communicate in the best way on Facebook, etc.

Skift: How have your social customer service efforts paid off?

Vogel-Meijer: What we see happening is that people get really creative and give excellent answers, very good and to-the-point answers with a lot of humor, which is, I think, kind of Dutch. Those answers go viral as well. They give an answer, people like the answer, start sharing it with their friends, and that, of course, gives a lot of free publicity for KLM. I think that is different within a lot of other companies, where you have a lot a security check where they want to see the answer before it’s sent out.

We say, “It’s not very bad if you make a mistake. If you want to move forward, you have to take in the fact that making a mistake is not that bad.” Of course, we have seen many mistakes from KLM employees, from our editorial team, from our commercial team, but that’s not bad. As long as you apologize and you calculate that in, that is the only way to move forward. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, otherwise just don’t be on social.

On social in general, we measure everything we do on all channels. We use a system to see what sales is coming in, that is the first one. That gives us the opportunity to see whether a specific channel is bringing in money, which of course is the most important thing because we’re an airline. If you talk about customer service, we have a lot of KPIs. We’ve built in a system with Salesforce which gives us the opportunity to see whether a question has been open for long or shorter period of time, so we know exactly which questions need to be answered in what language, for instance, so that gives us the opportunity to see when we are doing a good job.

Skift: How much will KLM be investing in social customer service in the near future?

Vogel-Meijer: I cannot really give you specific figures, but it is definitely going to grow. We believe that service is the backbone of what we are doing at social, but we need the commerce part to make sure that we can make costs on the social servicing part. As long as we sell tickets, everybody will say, “OK, you need to invest more. That is great, because it brings in additional money.” That is why we really believe in those three pillars as well, we need them internally as well.

If you would’ve asked a couple of years ago to our top management, “What are you going to do with social customer service?” then everybody was like, “What is happening up there?” Right now, if you ask our CEO, “What is the thing within KLM that you would like to invest in?” he will definitely say social media, and that implies customer service. He knows the value of excellent service, and he sees the value of improving your customer journey by all the feedback that you get.

We get about 60,000 mentions a week, and that gives us so much information about what our customers are asking for. We don’t need an advertising agency anymore to give us a nice campaign, we know exactly what are customers are waiting for, what kind of new products and tools they would like to have from us.

In the end that makes you unique, I think.

Photo Credit: KLM's social media control room. Ben Kortman / KLM