Customer centric rail; Customer centric rail;

People first: What does customer experience mean for the rail industry?

Experts from Canada and UK discuss what customer experience really means to the rail industry, how to ensure customer-centric designs and how to deal with people’s most sophisticated needs.

  • Matthew Hudson, Head of Strategy and Technology and Data, Transport for London

  • Sean Schofield, Senior Innovation Adviser, VIA Rail

  • Nille Juul-Sorensen, Global Architecture Business Lead, Arup Toronto

  • Charles Ormsby, Senior Engineer, Arup Montreal

There is a lot of talk, in rail and in transport systems in general, about customer experience. What does quality customer experience mean to you?

NJS: I believe rail systems and public transport should know no borders. To me, customer experience is about travelling through quality spaces in a nice, logical and seamless way. When you are in a transport system, you should also have a spice of something extra that you don’t have at home; something that makes you think, what time of the year is it? What time of the day is it? Things that add sparkle your life. It’s about connecting you to a broader urban fabric.

SS: To deliver customer experience you must start by exploring what experiences fit customer needs and drive differentiation. There are a lot of vectors for the transformation of customer experience: employee experience, operational staging of assets, and use of blended space. A trend we are seeing is traditional space (concrete, steel) being blended with natural plant life and digital layers (often visual). With augmented reality, these environments become even more dynamic. Overall, I expect a lot change in the demand and supply of experiences, even in the short term.

MH: I come at this from a slightly different angle, representing urban transit that is set up by the state to provide a service for all. I’m definitely trying to put myself into the shoes of our customers. At TfL we have a phrase, ‘Every journey matters’. This pulls us away from thinking in large numbers like ‘four million journeys a day’, to a point where we are focusing on the individual, and here the key is … I’m going to call it ‘frictionlessness’. We want to make journeys as easy as possible. That involves a range of interventions, from consistent signage to paying with your bank card, to excellent maps. It also includes journey-planning apps that work for everyone and integrate all the public transport modes in a city, including walking and cycling. Certainly, for us there’s a slight element of utility here and I don’t say that with shame. We want to get people through stations as quickly as possible and out on their journeys; providing a high-frequency rail service. This defines to us the frictionless flow and this is the building block on which many other things can be built.

How do we keep up with what people want so that we can consistently deliver a good customer experience?

MH: Surveys are not the answer. Ideally, every single person who’s travelling in London would tell me who they are, their intentions, their preferences, the journey they are making. The more data I have, the more chance I have of making better operational decisions and meeting customer needs. But getting access to this type of data is still a challenge – how do you collect it, and how do you anonymise it and respect customer privacy? Engaging with customers will also allow us to manage their expectations and say, yes, the Tube train will be crowded for the next hour, so don’t expect anything else.

SS: You have to be very careful trying to anticipate what people want. It’s about trying to understand the underlying fundamental needs of different customers. The customer is often the wrong unit for analysis (i.e., their attributes: age, gender, occupation, etc. do not cause any given behaviour), but their underlying needs not only cause specific behaviours but are highly stable over time. It is important not to overly focus on a single means of fulfilling a need, because you become really vulnerable to being quickly outdated or displaced.

MH: Some of the expectations may be undeliverable for various reasons, such as cost. The Tube line will never run directly to your door. But understanding our customers helps us to come up with the right messaging and to some extent influence their choices.

SS: In any context where you are trying to nudge behaviour, you need to think about the path of least resistance. You have to consider what behaviour will people default to and what behavioural incentives or disincentives can be used to tip the scales towards the desired outcome(s) at any stage in the journey.

How can we translate people’s needs into physical designs?

NJS: What I do is visit stations. I walk around and take trains and walk in and out of stations. When we do new stations in a city, I spend days in the system, finding out what’s working and what’s not working, how people behave in the system – because a lot of things are cultural. It’s about observing and finding out what’s happening elsewhere. We can also learn a lot from other industries, such as aviation. The idea of adding shopping malls to stations, for example, came from airports. How to spot the next thing that passengers didn’t know they needed is a different question.

MH: I want to share two examples on this topic. First, when we designed the stations for Docklands Light Railway in London, we worked out how to balance safety and cost through a more open design of the stations. By design, we saved the money that would have gone into the operational staff that would have been required to make people feel safe on the platforms.

The second example is the extension of the Northern line to Battersea Power Station in London, which rather than a response to a particular set of customer demands, materialised due to a set of favourable circumstances: a keen investor, a good business case, and perfect political timing. It’s a balance between what future customers want and need, and business opportunities.

SS: In any context where you are trying to nudge behaviour, you need to think about the path of least resistance. You have to consider what behaviour will people default to and what behavioural incentives or disincentives can be used to tip the scales towards the desired outcome(s) at any stage in the journey.

MH: An ongoing challenge is how to create attractive entry points to the rail space, persuade people to come and experience shopping or restaurants – be it part of the journey or not at all! Think of the gardens at Atocha station in Madrid or the restaurants around King’s Cross. Whether it can or should continually adapt, I’m not sure. There has to be flexibility, while recognising it takes time to invest in it. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but it’s worth exploring.

Speaking of balance – how can we best respond to customers’ sophisticated needs without compromising on operational performance? Does smart always mean complex?

CO: This is an element where partnering becomes critical. There’s great value in leaving transit agencies to do what they do best, which is moving people from A to B. Partnerships could bring additional layers of services and experience, while ensuring that your core offer is not neglected. Mobility as a service, for example, is a case where you start to leverage different players and let everybody do what they do best but with a common platform that’s coordinated and integrated. A supporting business model for the integrated, collaborative approach is very much needed.

One of the core practices of good user-experience design is – to paraphrase Einstein – to be as simple as possible, but not simpler. I think the exact same kind of logic applies to trains and stations. A minimalist design and core service offer is what’s going to win.

NJS: I’m fully with you. For example, thinking about when I travel and the apps I use, where do I get help, if at all? In Oslo, they have a magnificent app for the train leaving the airport into town: it’s just telling me the essential information I need: when the trains are leaving, what my options are. It’s so simple. They’re delivering exactly what I want. Smart, in some cases, is not sophisticated at all: it’s just doing exactly what you ask it to do and nothing else.

MH: Again, we should not forget the cost challenge. Let’s take mobile phone coverage on the London Underground. How can I cover the expense of installing that radio network? I’m not going to earn huge amounts with it, but it does help my customers. There’s always that practicality of getting access to the investment. What worries me are some aspects of operator-customer interaction, namely, if they happen using a third party’s digital tools and platforms. Third parties have their own priorities and want to instigate specific customer behaviours – which may conflict with what we are trying to do. Finding a common ground and shared goals is a prerequisite to enable commercial partnerships.

SS: The other aspect is how we make the infrastructure agile and adaptable over time. Even how we fulfil fundamental needs is likely to change significantly and frequently over 50 years. Being able to build flexible, modular, multi-purpose spaces will determine how successful we are in adapting to the future. This is a challenge, as we typically operate with pre-existing assets with no real flexibility for multiple rebuilds. Recognising these limitations can teach us how to build better spaces and save future generations from facing the very same challenges.

MH: To come up with a good business model we would need to fully understand how cities operate and make sure everyone is paying their fair cost for the services they use. We’re using market mechanisms to incentivise behaviour, but how do we ensure fairness and equity across all users? It’s a great space to research further.

SS: It’s going to be really interesting to see how policy might play a stronger role in setting boundary conditions, so that when business models for mobility as a service are viable, they’re actually viable in the best interest of all travellers.