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  1. Analysis
May 3, 2016

Customer service in the age of smart rail technologies

Smart ticketing systems and other new technologies are revolutionising how passengers experience rail transport, with flexible, remote journey planning and purchasing the order of the day. But when it comes to customer service, there’s still no substitute for a friendly face, writes Sarah Baxter, account director at Interserve.

By Gary Peters

customer service

The past five years have seen an explosion of technology and connectivity that has forever changed how customers and service providers interact with each other. There is now an ‘at your fingertips’ service culture, whereby customers expect every purchase, enquiry or complaint to be handled remotely and instantaneously – more often than not via the all-powerful supercomputer that is our mobile phone.

This is certainly true in public transport. The planning, purchasing and management of journeys has moved from ticket halls to the tips of passengers’ fingers, giving the user unprecedented levels of control and autonomy over their journeys. Meanwhile, the customer service function is now largely delivered through the medium of social networks, with an increasing number of passengers using Twitter as their first port of call for complaints.

These technologies have brought numerous benefits for both passengers and operators. With connectivity continuing to boom and smart ticketing firmly on the government’s transport agenda, there’s undoubtedly more to come on this front. The industry needs to be mindful, however, of the impact that the ‘appification’ of rail transport is having on the relationship between operators and passengers, and take steps to ensure that the digitisation of services does not come at the expense of good customer service.

The personal touch

With digital platforms now able to fulfil many of the traditional roles once performed by station ticket halls, operators are bringing their employees out from behind the ticket windows and deploying them elsewhere – and we are seeing the physical space of stations changing to reflect this. Ticket offices are often now being removed, or replaced with retail space or restaurants to encourage dwell time, capturing more value from the space.

This trend is likely to continue and there’s no reason why operators shouldn’t embrace it, but they also need to recognise that retaining as many passenger contact points as feasibly possible is vital to customer satisfaction. When it comes to customer service there is still no substitute for a helpful, friendly face, and the departure of customer-facing employees from the ticket halls could leave a void that needs to be filled.

With many stations no longer having a clear focal point for passenger queries or concerns, we are seeing more and more passengers using cleaning, security and maintenance teams as their first destination for information and assistance. The truth is any person wearing high-visibility clothing is a natural port of call for lost or confused passengers, regardless of whether that person is an actual member of the customer service team.

"We are seeing more and more passengers using cleaning, security and maintenance teams as their first destination for information."

Rail operators are now capitalising on this trend, using the employees of their support services partners to act not just as an extension of their own customer service teams, but the visible face of their brand as well.

This requires additional customer service training to be provided to support services personnel, and support services providers need to work with operators to facilitate this cross-skilling process. At Interserve, a UK based services support provider, all employees, regardless of their role, receive dedicated customer service training to arm them with vital skills, such as how to respond to platform enquiries and manage potential conflict situations. By equipping them with station packs specific to each shift location, detailing key facts about the area, employees are also prepared with suitable responses to the questions most likely to be asked by passengers.

This model of collaboration means that operators can embrace the digital revolution, providing the instant, online service demanded by passengers, while continuing to retain contact points at stations – still a critical contributor to customer satisfaction. Crucially, all this can be achieved without the operator needing to hire extra people.

The value of cross-skilling

Operators are also recognising that outsourced partners’ employees can be quickly upskilled to assist not just in the customer service arena, but to support other teams across busy station environments as well. This cross-skilling is proving particularly important in security, where the threat of terror attacks is putting more strain on security providers than ever before.

Spotting potential threats in a crowded environment is not an easy task and requires a large, roaming security team. With many budgets fixed or reduced, resourcing such an operation is not always practical, so rail operators are using support services personnel to bolster station security teams and act as additional threat-spotters.

Working alongside operators and the British Transport Police, Interserve’s cleaning operatives are trained to deploy the British Transport Police’s ‘HOT protocol’ – a system to identify potential threats, determine the level of risk and then report it based on three criteria. The criteria include whether an item is hidden, that is, has been deliberately concealed from employees and the public; whether the item is obvious, for example in its physical appearance or placement; and whether an item is typical of what one would expect to find in that environment.

By working together, we are essentially providing transport operators with additional eyes on the ground – ensuring that passengers stay safe without any additional expenditure for the operator.

Learning from Madrid

When it comes to managing the interplay between digital technologies and face-to-face support, there are lessons we can learn from success stories around the world.

Madrid is widely acknowledged as having one of the world’s best public transport systems. Despite the Spanish capital’s relatively small size in global terms (population 6.5 million), its metro system serves around 1.5 billion passengers each year and is one of the largest networks relative to the city’s size, comprising 21 lines, 396 stations and 294km of track.

"Their model integrates technology with the provision of personal customer support at stations."

Spanish transport operators have changed their approach to customer service during recent years, embracing the advantages offered by digital services and the move away from traditional ticket halls and information desks. However, their model integrates technology with the provision of personal customer support at stations to provide an optimum experience for passengers. Customer service employees now ‘work the floor’, equipped with remote technologies such as tablets to help passengers process ticket purchases and plan their journeys.

New technologies are also proving vital in Madrid to creating a positive environment for passengers and tackling issues before they become complaints. Our cleaners for one of Spain’s national rail operators, for example, are armed with mobile device apps that allow them to manage and log activities in real time. With every cleaner recording this detailed level of information, Interserve and the operator have been able to build up a huge database of information about how assets are being cleaned and take proactive steps to improve services and the environment for passengers on an ongoing basis.

Just the ticket

With passenger numbers continuing to rise at an unprecedented rate, never before has it been so important for operators to ensure the quality of the passenger experience is preserved while keeping a sharp focus on operational efficiencies.

Technology certainly has a role to play and new innovations such as smart ticketing will be crucial to managing the increased flow of passengers. However, it’s vital that operators do not lose sight of the importance of good customer service, or the role that face-to-face interaction can play in improving the passenger experience.

By combining new technologies with a more collaborative relationship with suppliers, operators can have the best of both worlds: realising the benefits of the modern era, without losing the personal touch, while continuing to operate within their budgets.

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