Thursday, April 20, 2017

Smoke on the switcher

Going through my bills recently I spotted one I have absolutely no engagement with – my water provider.

Without going back into my Inbox now to check who I paid it to, I couldn’t even tell you that I was a customer of a firm called Affinity Water:

My £330.55 bill for the year was paid, and nothing in their confirmation message even tells me what I’m getting for that (presumably it’s for the annual water supply for and the removal of waste water from my home).

I’d long since thrown away the original paperwork along with the unengaging blurb that came with it.

Like many other utilities, it’s a product I don’t care about and have no engagement with – regardless of who my provider is, the same homogenous product comes out of the pipe (in a similar way to my electricity).

I have no brand loyalty to the company whatsoever.

What I do have loyalty to though is the minimising of my bills – something that I review on a regular basis to ensure I’m getting good value.

So I was surprised to discover that I can’t switch water supplier as a consumer at all.

As with other regulated markets in energy and telecommunications switching does seem to be coming though, and any regulatory framework that ensures competition is good for consumers - hopefully fostering innovative products as well as optimising value.

One concept that has often been mooted is a brand like Virgin entering the energy space, and in theory the opportunity is there with a brand many consumers are loyal to.

Virgin is, however, also a brand that resonates more with the consumer of today than the one of the future – those familiar with Virgin Cola taking on Coke and the gloriously executed publicity stunts to steal the thunder from British Airways – and is more about partnering and branding than running services in the modern era.

Others such as the well rated Utility Warehouse could also make a play and even bundle water supply with energy products, growing the attractive model for those managing their spend of one bill for multiple utilities entering the home.

The real opportunity is for a player like Google to enter the market and really shake things up.  With all the R&D work they do on innovation in energy saving and environmentalism, a Google badged service (using a smart water meter) that gave me the tools to both save money and conserve one of the world’s scarce assets would be very attractive to me.

If profits could be reinvested into further conservation and/or water charities in the third world it would be all the incentive needed. I would switch tomorrow.

This needs the market opening up and the regulatory encouragement to invest and innovate – and it would be great to be able to choose my provider based on providing services that I am both happy to pay for and are doing good for the planet.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Time for relief from South West Pains

Looking back a few weeks on from the welcome (to anyone who is a regular commuter on the firm’s services) decision to ditch Stagecoach from running the South West Trains franchise out of London Waterloo, I’ve been thinking about things that the new operators First MTR can do to practically improve the Customer Experience.

My girlfriend (who is American) refers to the UK sometimes as being “the land of lowered expectations” in reference to the historically poor customer service culture in this country (although granted this has and is still improving) – and that phrase has often been in the back of my mind as the current franchise has run down.

South West Trains operates overcrowded, dirty, unreliable services that are often impacted by any number of reasons that seem to both (a) contradict and (b) never be the company’s fault.  Easily the worst example of that I heard this week was the announcement that a train had been delayed due to earlier snow – when it was 24 degrees Celsius.

Any service that has declined so much as this over recent years will take time to get back to acceptable standards of Customer Experience (let alone generate advocacy), but I thought I’d come up with a “Top 10” of practical things that they can do to ease the pain for commuters:

  1. Re-brand – and do it immediately.  Ditch the current “South West Trains” name to reset expectations from the current poor service.  Be prepared though - when Virgin Trains re-branded this had an immediate impact as a result of increased complaints, all due to passengers having higher quality expectations from the painting trains red.
  2. Live the new brand and believe in it – if it’s just a veneer, you suffer the risk of getting ‘veneereal disease’ (as a Virgin brand director of mine once said). 
  3. Embrace the new identity.  Be open and honest about the problems the service has – and how and when you’re going to fix them.  Keep your customers updated honestly and without any PR spin - and deliver on the promises.
  4. When something goes wrong, be open about why.  Don’t attribute problems to contradictory reasons - creating a culture of mistrust - and to reasons where it feels like blame is being attributed in a way that abrogates the company from any liability so as to prevent a compensation claim.
  5. Answer complaints within the stated SLAs and make them much more human – remove the stock replies that I’ve had 4 times recently (word-for-word) when raising complaints.  Don’t make it appear like you care – show that you actually do.  Treat issues seriously and remove the customer service speak.
  6. Empower your on station people (and give them the tools) to resolve problems to the customers’ satisfaction on the spot rather than hide behind a “you’ll have to write in” mentality.
  7. Bring season ticketing out of the 1970s - base it on trips rather than days.  People who work in 2017 often work from multiple offices and have home working days so the current system means anyone in a non “Monday to Friday in the same office” situation gets no value from them.
  8. Make trains longer – in off peak as well as in peak.  In off peak times carriages are often not in service to save money on leasing charges – so people have the same standing experience at 1130 on a Saturday night they would at 730 on a Monday morning.
  9. Declassify and remove the first class sections on trains.  Peak trains in particular are dangerously overcrowded and it will enable more people to sit.
  10. Properly clean the trains (more often than once every several months), the toilets and the stations.  Some of them are disgusting as well as old and run down – which doesn’t help.
  11. Do contactless tickets in a way where the modern commuter will actually find them useful.  Why deploy 14 year old Oyster-style technology for contactless ticketing and not digital wallets as well?  I want to tap my smartphone not carry around yet another piece of unreliable plastic.
  12. Change your Wi-Fi provider to one who manages to get the service to work.
  13. Drop the weird flowery 1920s English announcements at stations – such as references to people needing to mind their “cases and parcels” rather than “bags”.  It’s strange, dated and an irritant – and changing it would be a visible indicator of the service being brought out of the last century.

OK, so my top 10 became a top 13 – and frankly could have been even more given how dated some of the stations are – but tackling these would make a big difference to the customer experience and generate goodwill to give space for further service improvement.

The really poor service has been less visible in the media given the fiasco on the Southern network over the last year or so, but with the new operators being in place from August hopefully this can be the start of the end of the South West Pains.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


That moment when the confirmation e-mail comes through and your heart sinks.

Tracking Number: XXXXXX
Shipped via Yodel

Just the thought of it sends a shiver down my spine – knowing that I will need to wait in all day on a week day for something to be delivered, that I may not get any other indication on what time to expect the delivery and if I even nip to the shop (a quarter of a mile away) I might miss it and have to travel 5 miles to pick up the parcel at an office (which is open inconvenient hours).

But it doesn’t have to be that way – there’s a massive opportunity for making life easier for the Consumer and the Retailer alike, and offering consumer choice in the process.

I’d call it ‘Delivery-as-a-Service’ (DaaS) and I’m surprised it’s not being done by an innovative start-up already.

When I am in the checkout process on an e-commerce site I would love to be able to choose my own preferred delivery firm – a firm with more flexible delivery hours; one who already knows a trusted neighbour to leave a parcel with; one with a more local pickup depot – rather than be at the whim of the retailer who has done a deal for all their deliveries (the supplier often having been chosen via a cost-driven ‘race to the bottom’).

As someone who often Googles a particular retailer to see who they use for deliveries (and goes elsewhere if it’s a delivery company I’ve had a bad experience with), I’d happily use a site utilising a DaaS service and would even buy an Amazon Prime style subscription to get preferential deliveries and manage any customer service queries.

The start-up would need commercial relationships with the big delivery firms and could even also do a tie-up with Amazon to open up access to the Amazon Locker estate, of which I’m a big fan and there’s a clear commercial and Customer Experience benefit to all for others to be able to deliver to the lockers.

As a further improvement I’d like to see Amazon Lockers deployed into local Royal Mail sorting stations and Post Offices – and it’s not as if there isn’t room in these often cavernous buildings like my local sorting station:

I pass this office twice daily, so being able to collect any and all deliveries from here 24 hours a day would be both a great Customer Experience and massively convenient.

No doubt some Union organisations wouldn’t be happy with the idea however – and that would definitely need working through.  If it was the first step on outsourcing some Royal Mail logistics to Amazon (who are amazing at it) it would clearly have a massive financial upside to both organisations.

The fact that I already receive some Amazon deliveries fulfilled by Royal Mail suggests that at least one of the organisations is open to working with the other!

You could also go further again by updating the tired, dated experience stuck in the 1970s of the local Post Office – turning it into an Amazon run delivery centre that would be far busier than the Doddle locations that I see at some train stations.  With the massive investment in automation and technology that Amazon would bring, it could be open 24 hours a day too.

Now I’d best go and find that ‘Sorry we missed you’ card … I have a long queue to stand in.