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Investing in people is the key to passenger satisfaction

Alistair Gordon, chief executive of Keolis UK – operator of Nottingham Express Transit (NET), the Docklands Light Railway and Manchester’s Metrolink – argues that while technology is a valuable enabler of customer satisfaction, staff development must remain a priority.

The UK transport industry is increasingly  focused on how we can use digital technology to create more efficient networks and ultimately a better passenger experience. Light rail operators are at the forefront of this innovation, as we have been with our roll-out of smart cards and mobile ticketing on Nottingham’s tram system.. 

Clearly, the application of technology is an important step in meeting the high expectations of our passengers, but it alone is not a solution. The people who deliver transport services are as essential to this as the technology we use, and we must continue to invest in training and development.

Technology is making it easier to connect and communicate with passengers, but it is also raising the bar for customer service. Through social media, we can access information instantly about our journeys and can directly approach service providers, expecting responses in real time. We expect to be able to buy tickets on our smartphones and access wi-fi when travelling. Across all industries, consumer expectations are rising, and transport is no exception.

For a high-density light rail network with a large, diverse passenger base – like those we run in the UK and abroad – this presents clear challenges. Good communication is key to ensuring that passengers feel valued from the moment they board a tram, to when they reach their destination. Yet, the challenge of serving a huge demographic means there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy. Instead our priority is to ensure communication is available in a variety of forms, making it accessible to everyone, particularly during periods of change when passengers are likely to need more assistance. What must underpin all of that, is a commitment to training and developing our people so that they can effectively support passengers on their journeys.

For example, we have taken the Nottingham tram network (NET) through a significant transformation in recent years. The phase 2 expansion has doubled passenger journeys to 12.2 million per year and brought with it a lot of change for passengers and inevitably a level of disruption. Throughout the expansion, the network has maintained solid customer satisfaction, most recently scoring an impressive 97 per cent in the Passenger Focus Survey results revealed in June 2017. Investing in the skills of our customer-facing employees has been critical to achieving this.

Given this, it may sound counter-intuitive that a major change we introduced in Nottingham was to switch to off-tram and digital ticketing – a move that involved taking conductors off the trams. Changing this role enabled us to put more human resource into other areas of customer services, offering passengers a broader range of contact options, but it presented the challenge of continuing to deliver excellent service while having a less visible presence on the network.  We addressed this, in part, by bolstering our reach on social media and introducing an out of hours, ‘on-call’ service with staff equipped with tablets, allowing them to update customer communication channels remotely. We also created a dedicated travel centre in the middle of Nottingham to provide face-to-face contact for people that prefer this.

Critical to this change was the new approach we introduced to training on the network. We put 72 customer-facing employees through the Institute of Customer Service’s accredited training programme, and as part of this we asked them to help identify potential areas for improvement across the network.  Our aim was to embed a customer service mentality within the culture of the network, by empowering staff with new skills and the agency to make positive change. 

To spread the benefits of this training, we physically relocated our customer service team to the network’s control centre. This was both a symbolic shift – ensuring everyone working on the network understood that customer communication should be at the heart of operations – and a practical one, helping our teams to relay real-time information to passengers. In tandem, drivers also undertook announcement training to build their confidence in talking directly to passengers – a step which has been warmly welcomed through social media feedback from passengers. 

Revenue protection is another area in which well-trained and supported staff are fundamental to success. Paying customers expect operators to reduce fare evasion and ensure all passengers are contributing, but taking too heavy-handed an approach risks eroding positive sentiment with customers. On the DLR, our joint venture, KeolisAmey Docklands, has rolled out new training for revenue teams on how to create positive customer interactions. This has enabled us to maintain goodwill while increasing the number of ticket checks from 2 per cent to over 18 per cent of passengers per day. This visible presence also increases the perception of security and makes our passengers feel safer - key elements of customer satisfaction. 

As ever, technology will be high on the agenda at this year’s UK Light Rail Conference, but I also hope to see operators and suppliers sharing their experiences and best practice for staff development. 

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Keolis’ global experience running urban transport networks, it’s that we cannot provide our customers with a quality service if staff have not been trained to provide it. 

As my team takes over operations on Manchester’s fantastic Metrolink light rail network this month, our focus is on improving operational reliability, customer service and security. Technology will enable this and, in time, help us to provide new and better contact and ticketing options for passengers. But transport is fundamentally a people business, and continuing to support and upskill our people is key to success.

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Tramways and Urban Transit Magazine.

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