6 Words that Would Revolutionize KLM/Delta’s Communication Culture…and Their Customer Service

“Let me see what I can do.”

A colleague of mine shared a recent experience with me, and all I could think of was how galling it was that no one went to the trouble of delivering on these six words.

Let’s call my colleague Natalie. Natalie is in a leadership role at work: directing collaborative efforts across continents. She is generous, kind, and tends to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. While a leader, she is also the sort of person to take words at face value and respect protocol. Just about every one of these qualities happened to work against her that fateful day in Luxembourg’s Findel International Airport.

But before we get to that, let’s rewind just enough for the essentials. Less than two weeks earlier, Natalie found herself waylaid for several hours at JFK airport, while the first leg of her KLM flight was delayed, affecting her connection in Amsterdam and her arrival in Luxembourg. The various legs of the round trip between JFK and LUX involved a combination of flights among codeshare partners within the KLM/Delta/Air France/Luxair family.

Airport by shotam on FlickrA seasoned traveller, Natalie maintained her cool while her check-in process became increasingly convoluted, as she was directed to one counter after another amongst the related codeshare partner airlines responsible for her replacement ticket. There was a great deal of back and forth, and compartmentalization (for example, one agent handled checking in her bag and could inform her of nothing about her flight details and re-seating) with a total of five agents at five different counters, each with only select knowledge of one aspect related to her check-in.

Hours later, she was finally on a flight and all seemed, finally, to be settled.

What Natalie didn’t know until nearly two weeks later, was that the KLM agent at JFK neglected to carry over the return trip to her revised booking.

Thwarted when she attempted to check-in for her return flight online beforehand, Natalie made her way to the Luxair check-in counter (the KLM Air France codeshare partner with whom she was to fly this leg of her return flight), where an agent explained the unfortunate news: Natalie’s original booked and paid return ticket had since been given to another passenger. Natalie asked how she no longer had a seat on a flight for which she had paid. and was told it must have been erased from the system by KLM when her ticket was reissued at JFK. The flight was now fully booked, as were any other flights for the next few days following the same itinerary of LUX-AMS-JFK.

Bottom line: she had no return ticket, and would need a new one. It didn’t matter that she had paid for a round trip ticket. That ticket was no longer in the system.

Deja vu of the back and forth of just 10 days ago ensued, and Natalie was directed to the Luxair ticket counter.

After an extended period on hold with a KLM agent, the Luxair ticketing agent told the now-stranded Natalie her only option for returning home to New York was to purchase a one way, full fare ticket using KLM’s partners, Luxair and Air France. The combined one-way economy ticket, connecting in Paris, cost $3,563. Incidentally, all other flights for the next week were the same exorbitant cost or higher.

The ticketing agent insisted that there was no way to rectify their partner’s error of 10 days ago, without having Natalie pay additional money up front to have it refunded later. The same agent assured Natalie the outlay would be temporary and that she would provide Natalie with all the necessary documentation for KLM to refund her without further complications.

Dismayed she had no other way to return home but pay thousands of dollars for a ticket she had already purchased, Natalie gave them her credit card. Total cost of ticket = $3,670.

What a mess.

Needless to say, this was a golden opportunity for KLM/Air France/Delta to demonstrate a cohesive, service-oriented, empowered communication culture in the face of their partnership. At multiple turns, they could have recovered from a staggering series of errors and negligence on their part by expediting Natalie’s refund.

Of course, if they truly had worked out the channels for each airline to partner successfully through the sometimes rocky road of merging and codesharing, their partner, Luxair, would never have had to require Natalie to buy another ticket for a trip which she had already purchased. Not only did KLM/Air France/Delta set the stage for this egregious error by disempowering and limiting their codeshare partners access to customer service agents with the authority to do something, they have been sidestepping full responsibility ever since.

Why do some companies establish communication channels that lead to dead ends? Why have a counter agent in Luxembourg who cannot reach the appropriate parties if their partner company has performed a transaction for their shared client? Why can’t partners execute on vital, let alone commonplace, customer service needs?

What does it say about a company’s communication culture if everyone’s hands are tied?

It has been over six months and countless hours on the phone with KLM, Delta (who fields all customer service calls for KLM in the USA), and the credit card company, all to no avail. Each agent claims powerlessness to transact a full refund. This outcome is not exactly a confidence builder for consumers, but it’s convenient for the companies involved, who reap the benefit of keeping money obtained through an unreasonable transaction.

Natalie, out nearly $3700 and countless frustrating hours since her original ticket purchase, remains determined to recoup the full amount she was unjustly charged.

How will this story end? Either no one wants to step up to provide the full refund for the extra ticket or they can’t. Either way, it is a disappointing statement on the decline of the communication culture of KLM, Air France, Delta, and perhaps all their codeshare partnerships.

“Let me see what I can do.”

What if the agent at KLM or the Luxair agent who called for help had uttered these words and took it upon themselves to take care of their innocent, trusting passenger, who had been bumped off her flights by their own error – and do whatever it took to get her on any of their codeshare partners’ flights without additional charge to her and without shuffling her back and forth?

What if KLM and Delta, in any one of countless subsequent and pleading phone calls, had employed a person who had the initiative and determination (as well as the training) to say and take relentless action on these words? What if KLM and Delta  had established a clear channel by which their personnel could pursue Natalie’s rightful refund from KLM, while absorbing any costs incurred by their partners for a ticket that should never had been billed to the passenger in the first place?

What if all parties had a way to communicate and work together to serve their clientele?

What kind of partnership prohibits collaboration and points fingers at each other to pass the buck?

What is your organization’s communication culture? Can everyone pursue some degree of recourse for unhappy customers? If so, does your team know they have that capability and your support to do so?

Our world can change with six short words: “Let me see what I can do.”

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