Dear Schiphol,

Like many of my Dutch friends, I recently had a bad experience with Schiphol Airport. Unlike many of their experiences though, it wasn’t because of the long lines or the disorganization caused by construction. It was because of two aggressive employees exerting their authority and forgetting their humanity.


I’ve been to a lot of airports, and I have four that I’ve considered “home” – St. Louis, Seattle, Munich, and now Amsterdam. While I have never been to an airport where traveller stress wasn’t a constant, I have been to airports where the employees are better at managing their traveller’s stress. What’s the trick? Focusing on helping people follow the rules rather than on simply enforcing them.

I’ve always considered Schiphol to be very good at not only helping people to follow the rules, but also at having pragmatic rules. And because people want to follow the rules, especially predictable ones, the airport runs more smoothly than most. Perhaps this is why I was so surprised at the aggressive enforcement. Or perhaps it was because of the nature of the rule being enforced – my husband’s status allowed him into the priority security line, but not his wife. Surely a small woman trying non-belligerently to accompany her husband through security isn’t worth two large men’s aggression…

After making our way through normal-person security, I wrote a bitchy tweet and thought, well that’s that. 🙄

Hours later in Oslo, Schiphol’s customer support team got in touch with me via Twitter. What happened? they asked. As I tried to write about exactly what had happened, I found myself wanting to describe the system of failure more than the single point I had experienced. But I was already at twice the 140 character limit.

So why is this a design problem?

Nearly every designer we interview has a Schiphol or KLM case study in their portfolio. Most Dutch design agencies have done some sort of work with the airport. Most of these projects are about the user’s experience of getting from the front door to their flight. Most of these projects also focus on new and emerging technologies or ticket kiosks or signage. Most of these projects also forget the most important aspect of getting through an airport: the people.

If you talk to customers, you’re in customer service

The KLM agents who apologized on behalf of Schiphol understood that customer service was a key part of their role, as did the Twitter team that contacted me to better understand my experience.

When running a business that interfaces with the public, this sort of ghettoization of customer service is detrimental not only to the service that’s being provided, but also to the brand providing it. Customer service should not be treated as some sort of janitorial afterthought that waits for a customer’s complaint to engage; rather, it should be treated as something that all employees strive towards and are even incentivized to maintain.

How do you create an organization of individuals that care about customer service? Start by changing hiring standards, and only bring on employees who self-identify as a customer service ambassadors. Redefine what success looks like by setting goals and quantifiable objectives that prioritize customer service alongside safety and security. Reward individuals and teams that exemplify customer service, using their stories to inspire the rest of the organization.

If you make allies of your customers, they’ll help you fulfill your purpose

One of the things I love about Dutch culture is the we’re-all-in-this-together attitude. The situation at Schiphol, however, was distinctly us-versus-them. This authoritarian approach is not only off-putting to customers, it’s also ineffective. After all, what’s better than having two security guards to manage thousands of customers? Having thousands of customers who want to help those two security guards.

We recently experienced the power of a strong customer-brand alliance when our company’s VanMoof bicycle went missing. We hadn’t even noticed it had been stolen when VanMoof contacted us to let us know that one of their customers had reported seeing a bike with a suspiciously broken chain in a nearby park.

VanMoof has a team of Bike Hunters who will seek out stolen bicycles once they’re reported stolen. Of course they use GPS, but in our situation, they had something even more powerful: a loyal customer on the lookout for suspicious VanMoof activity. When a brand makes allies of its customers, they’ll support the brand’s purpose.

If you empower customer support, you’ll provide confidence to your customers

While it was comforting that Schiphol’s Twitter team was proactively responsive to my angry tweet, the exchange provided little resolution:

We regret to hear about this! Although we can’t judge what happened from here, we at Schiphol hold customer service and respect in a high regard. The situation you describe is not how we wish to see our visitors treated.

Would Schiphol be changing their policies to take a more customer oriented approach? Would my specific issue be logged and looked at by someone who could affect change? Was there anything that the fellow on the other end of the Twitter conversation could do besides quasi-apologize? I have no idea.

Now imagine if the representative on the other side of the Twitter conversation was empowered. He could tell me that my issue was new to them and that Schiphol would be looking at their policy, or he could have given me a list of customer concerns that Schiphol was aware of and improving.

After a month fraught with internet outages, we received a bill from our provider as if nothing had happened. Again, Twitter was the platform of choice for our conversation with customer support. Unlike Schiphol, Ziggo informed us about what was wrong and more importantly what they were doing to ensure it didn’t happen again. When they asked what they could do to make things right, we jokingly replied that they could send us a bottle of wine, and they did!

This is not only the kind of customer care that builds loyalty, it’s also the kind of care that serves as its own marketing tool.


So why do companies engage design firms (or schools) to solve problems like ticketing and wayfinding while ignoring service design challenges? Perhaps it’s that design isn’t often considered helpful when it comes to organizational structures or rules of engagement; perhaps it’s that design is considered more of a tool for selling than for strategizing; or perhaps it’s simply that visual systems are easy compared to human systems. Regardless, taking a calculated approach to service design problems ends up having a more lasting effect of how people engage with and perceive a brand. While these case studies will likely not result in the kinds of blog and Facebook posts that go viral, a coherent strategy and effective implementation will result in a more focused organization and a more intentional relationship with customers.