Reprinted from the September 18, 1995 Issue FORTUNE

Going for a Medal at KLM
Frank Schaper, director of Product Development Marketing at KLM, was brainstorming with his staff during the Olympic Games a couple of years back when he suddenly had an insight: To win the decathlon - the most demanding of all sports contests - you don't have to win all the individual events that make up the contests. Since not all events are weighted equally, an athlete can earn a Gold Medal by focusing on, and training for, those that produce the most points. In fact, Dan O'Brien, who won the World Championships decathlon in 1993, finished first in only three of 10 events.
      "It struck me that airline service is a lot like the decathlon," Schaper says. "The overall appreciation is determined by the excellent ratings on 10 individual items on passenger surveys conducted by IATA, the airline association. Like the decathlon - not all items carry the same weight. For example, the most valued items are 'friendly crew,' which make up 25 percent of the total score, and 'efficient crew', which is worth 18 percent, while items like 'entertainment' and 'information' are each worth 4 percent.
      From that insight, the idea of communicating the airline's yearly Service Plan as a 'Service Decathlon' emerged. By devising a plan that establishes a goal for KLM to rank first or second on some key items and no lower than fifth in any of the other service categories, Schaper's department is driving the airline to be one of the overall service winners among major carriers by 1997. This fits in with KLM's mission statement declaring that it wants to be one of the leading airlines in terms of passenger appreciation.
      The Service Decathlon is now an integral part of KLM's business planning process and each service delivery department agrees to a 'quality cost/contract' that establishes clear improvement targets per item toward reaching Olympic medal status over the next few years.
      Although the decathlon idea encourages focusing on those items on which the airline is strongest and are most important to customers, Schaper cautions against ignoring those items where it is weak. Dan O'Brien, he points out, failed on his last two attempts at breaking the world decathlon record because his 1,500 meters, his traditional weak spot, wasn't fast enough. Furthermore, an airline can be disqualified, just like an athlete, by its customers if any of the basic service elements - such as punctuality - scores below a certain critical level.
      "There is more to the whole process than just the relative contribution of each discipline," Schaper says. "Although several of the items account for only 4 percent of the total, they can make or break the overall score, if performed exceptionally well or terribly. If passengers consider performance in one of these item categories extremely good - such as entertainment on board Virgin Atlantic Airways or Singapore Airline's cabin staff - they reward this with extra points that can lift the overall score. We call this the 'delight bonus'.
      For example, one of the traditional talents of the Dutch is language ability which, Schaper believes, provides KLM with the opportunity to build a 'delight bonus' in the information category. Conversely, if passengers find performance in one of the item areas extremely poor, they are likely to award a 'disappointment penalty' which can influence the overall score up to eight percentage points.
      "The objective of all this is to have a positive influence on the repeat buying patterns of our customers," Schaper says. "The effort to win a lost customer back is much tougher than retaining a loyal customer. Ultimately, there's only one referee in this game, and that's the customer."