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.

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