KLM makes artificial intelligence a reality for assisting customers on social media

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Dutch carrier KLM has begun using artificial intelligence (AI) to better serve the many customers who communicate with the airline via social media.

"Applying AI, KLM can handle a greater volume of questions while still maintaining its personal approach and speed," Tjalling Smit, senior vice president, digital at Air France-KLM, said recently when announcing the technology.

The carrier's move comes as flyers around the world increasingly use services such as Twitter, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Instagram to submit comments, complaints and questions to airlines. Carriers have had to adapt, employing teams of customer service agents to respond to postings both public and private.

KLM has been a leader in that area. In a study conducted in July by the social media customer-engagement platform Conversocial, the Netherlands-based airline led all European carriers with a Twitter response rate of 41.8%.

KLM said it employs 235 social-media service agents who engage in approximately 15,000 conversations per week. But with the carrier receiving around 100,000 social media mentions per week and growing, it decided to innovate in order to keep up with the volume.

In May, working with San Francisco-based tech company DigitalGenius, KLM began rolling out an AI platform integrated into its management tool for customer-service relations.

The platform, said DigitalGenius president Mikhail Naumov, was built using KLM customer service logs from sources such as social media, live chat and email. Those records have been translated and made searchable by an algorithm that enables the system to turn customer questions into suggested answers that show up directly on the work screen of a customer service agent. The agent can accept the answer, reject it or personalize it before sending out a response.

In one example by DigitalGenius, a KLM customer asked via social media about a flight's baggage allowance. The AI platform analyzed the question and came up with a suggested response of 50.7 pounds, along with a statement that it has 99% confidence in that answer. If the agent is comfortable, he or she can then send the answer out to the customer, saving research time, as well as time on other mundane tasks.

"This is all about enabling the agents to get to a point of resolution that is faster," Naumov said.

Over time, the AI app gets more accurate as it learns how agents tweaked previous suggested answers. 

Naumov said his Human + AI Customer Service Platform is the first of its kind to be used in the airline industry. But it likely won't be the last, according travel technology analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group. "I expect to see AI play a larger role across every airline and almost every function" in the years to come, he said.

In an era in which service complaints are aired publicly and in real time through social media, and considering the volumes that airlines are dealing with, any mechanism that can save time is valuable, Harteveldt said.  "If AI can speed up the pace of an interaction, even by a few seconds, given the scale of a KLM, they are that much faster, they are that much prompter," he said.

The carrier is not releasing statistics on whether the system has reduced per-query handling time. Nor has it put forth data yet on whether it has had an impact on customer satisfaction. However, Naumov said that the its social-media service agents are adopting the AI technology quickly and are using it on 30% of all KLM contact-center cases as of late October.

"The most substantial result we would want to show," he said, "is at the end of the day, the customer is walking away happier."

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