Conversation with Tom Verbugt

KLM Director Discusses Customer Experience

According to the 2019 Dentsu Aegis Network CMO Survey, more than half of marketing leaders see developing the overall customer experience as the primary role of the marketing function in their organisations.

Tom Verbugt, Director E-Acquisition, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines shares his views around elevating the customer experience and attracting the right talents.


All companies are going through some form of digital transformation to maintain or improve their customer experience in the digital age. What is your approach to addressing challenges and opportunities around the customer experience? 

We don’t differentiate from competition through the lowest price or the most luxurious product, but by providing exceptional service. According to Bain & Company, 80% of marketers believe they deliver superior customer experience and only 8% of consumers agree. As an airline, we have a lot of contacts with our customers: through our call centres, via our mobile app, at check-in, at boarding, in the airplane, when they read our magazines, etc. All of these contacts create our customer experience, and our difficult job is to orchestrate, to personalise and to scale this experience.

Building a brilliant customer experience is rooted in how data and technology are combined and deployed, which is one of the universal challenges of our time, data being quite often situated in silos within organisations. How do you address this challenge?

Leadership plays a critical role. Recognising that we have to bring all the data together, to be more agile and to co-create instead of keep building expertise within silos requires a broad perspective. Although it is obviously very important for teams to be able to explain to top management why they need more data integration, leadership needs to challenge the status quo and take a clear direction. At KLM, we now have teams with a central responsibility of clustering data and aligning data sources. This organisation comes with its own set of challenges, because we used to have smaller sources with smaller teams, enabling us to quickly access and fix issues that frustrate our customers. As the organisation becomes bigger, the process becomes slower. It is a constant challenge to think ahead and try to be prepared for what's next.

As younger generations’ expectations around commerce are increasing and as marketers have so many options available, from voice search to shoppable social media, where do you think the big bets are in terms of the changing commerce landscape? How do you take advantage of them? 

We make the distinction between the servicing part and the commerce part. Being everywhere the consumer is is very important for servicing. We want to be on WhatsApp, on WeChat, on Messenger and help our customer in the experience they have with KLM. For the commerce part, direct sales are very important for us, as they enable us to provide the best customer experience. For instance, if there are disruptions at the airport, we are able to update the customer about the new flight or hotel because we have the customer’s contact details. The direct online channel gives us the most direct relationship with the customer and is also the cheapest one.

Source:KLM flight info on WhatsApp, KLM via Youtube


We know that obviously trust is a key issue for brands. We interviewed 300 leading marketers, and feedback in our study showed that 88% of marketers make trust a key priority for their brand. How do we ensure that brands’ digital marketing doesn't jeopardize trust between brand and consumer? 

As a consumer, I love GDPR. As a marketer, I hate it! We need to learn from this discrepancy to create trust.

“We don’t differentiate from competition through the lowest price or the most luxurious product, but by providing exceptional service.”

This is One of the key challenges for businesses in the digital economy is attracting and retaining the right talent. Not only in terms of hard skills around data, technology, programmtic, AI, but also in terms of soft skills like agility and inclusivity. What is your business doing to address the evolution in talent requirements? 

This is actually a very big challenge for us at this moment. The airline industry is becoming the new banking industry, in the sense that we start being seen as a not so sustainable industry, especially in Europe. This is not helping us attract the younger talents. For our brand it is very important to explain that we are the most sustainable airline in the world and that potential recruits can help us move forward. This story, and how we position ourselves on this topic, are key. Besides our brand, the growth potential for people in the company is crucial: trainings, onboarding, career potential, development programs, all of 
Let’s focus on the evolving role of agencies in that moving landscape. The dynamic between agency and client does change. We are more and more involved in discussions around in-housing and consultancy, from media to data and technology. We have observed it improves our relationship, and this increased trust leads to better business performance. What is your perspective on the changing role for agencies in the next years?

In the 1960s to 1980s, agencies were some sort of advisors to the CEO, giving new growth ideas on profitability and efficiency. In the 1980s, agencies became experts in how TV ads worked, but this expertise could be copied across the industry. In the 1990s, a new mantra appeared: more technology is more profitability. Now we get verticals of industries and verticals of profession, and consultancies and agencies are connecting these verticals and telling me they can build, run and even own our customer experience! Maybe I’d prefer to go back a little bit to the 1960s, to have people help me with new growth ideas on how I can create new profitability. The agency world has shifted away from being rewarded for growth ideas, profitability and efficiency, and it would be very interesting to go back a little bit into that disrupting mindset.

This article is excerpted from the report Data-Driven Commerce. Download it now for key insights on winning at commerce in the new digital economy.