Passengers at Kings Cross underground station; Passengers at Kings Cross underground station;

Leading Customer Service: Positive change through developing leaders

In a highly regulated industry, based on procedures and rules, we gain insight into a very human approach to inspiring change: the Leading Customer Service (LCS). Rob Jones of Arup interviews Brian Woodhead, Director of Customer Service, London Underground.

Brian, how did you come up with the LCS initiative in the first place?

LCS was designed to respond to two needs. First, the industrywide problem we face working in an operational environment: how do we evolve to meet rapidly changing societal needs when we operate in such a reactive culture?

Second, how do we make sure that London’s travelling public have a better experience when using our service? We saw an opportunity to develop our leaders to enable them to respond to changing communities and business requirements more effectively.

What were you hoping to achieve when you put LCS into motion?

Let’s look at London Underground (LU)’s exemplary management of the 2012 Olympics. How do you create the same passion, energy and pride that we experienced back then, but every day across multiple locations, during all possible scenarios? For instance, how do we ensure world-class customer service in a crowded station following a football match or on a freezing evening during Night Tube services? How do you take individual examples of world-class customer service and make them the norm every day, in every situation? Special public occasions create specific conditions, such as media exposure and political scrutiny.

To maintain this on a day-to-day operation requires the whole system to feel connected to the organisation’s vision. We also need to understand how this pragmatically translates to consistently managing all aspects of the network to a high standard.

How do you go about creating consistency?

Acknowledging that each leader will start the LCS journey from somewhere different, we tailor the experience with the aim of all the leaders finishing in the same place, akin to the analogy of running a race ‘in reverse’. In other words, leading and engaging people in a consistent way. LCS offers a series of sessions centring around topics driven by organisational data and feedback from different levels in the business.

The format is experiential and conversational; it creates the space for our leaders, who have highly demanding roles, to think differently about the way they approach their roles as leaders, managers and coaches. Leaders are given the space to take learnings and insights back to their teams. This allows them to experiment with different approaches to engaging with frontline staff and the impacts this ultimately has on customers. Categorically, this is not a training exercise. This is about creating space and stimulus for people to connect with the vision and how they can adapt to more effectively lead it.

Success means positive change for the entire LU network, from our leaders and internal stakeholders to our customers and external stakeholders. All aspects of the system will experience the benefit of more empowered and engaged leaders.

Within our leadership team, this is a mindset shift from being extremely good at reacting to an incident, to anticipating and preventing it from ever occurring. Currently, we do this well when there is a compelling event, as previously described for the Olympics and more recent events such as the Extinction Rebellion climate change protests in central London. Being diligent and forward-thinking, meant the worst-case scenarios did not happen. The challenge we’ve been embracing is how to do this all day, every day – without that significant stimulus.

What have you noticed about the impact of LCS?

Due to the safety-critical nature of the work and the command and control governance structures, this environment is highly structured, and this typically suppresses creativity. It’s easy to find reasons not to do things or barriers to making even the smallest change. Despite this, I can see LCS is unlocking our leaders’ passion and opening new ways of thinking about leading and engaging our people. LCS is demonstrating the power of igniting motivation internally, rather than relying on external factors.

Although it is early days, we are already seeing leaders who are challenging the status quo by implementing local initiatives to build engagement; engaging their teams in understanding how the business works and building more collaborative relationships with internal and external stakeholders where ‘silos’ once existed. I’m excited by the opportunity to create something that has a lasting impact for our teams and the customers they serve every day.