Getting the rail sector back on track

Why the rail sector must start engaging customers on a meaningful – and digital – level, or risk losing them altogether

Today, the customer really is king.

In the past few decades, across all areas of industry, companies have started understanding the value of getting clients on side – not just to encourage loyalty, but also boost revenue.

The transport sector is no exception: today, airlines, cruise lines, and car services employ everything from loyalty schemes to personalised extras to build a lasting bond with their passengers – and generate additional revenue.

One of the main areas of the transport sector that is slow to recognise the possibilities offered by the end-user is rail.

Railway firms still tend to be old-fashioned, operational companies. They’re all about getting a train from A to B in a specific time; customers are, regrettably, just an incidental extra. However, a few individuals at the top of some ToCs are developing a vision of a future service which will be customer rather than traveller focused

In fact, ‘customer’ isn’t really a word that rail operators use a great deal, even nowadays – certainly not in the same way that a major supermarket or airline would.

And one could argue, why should they? These companies aren’t facing unlimited competition; for certain routes around the UK, you can only use one provider.

So the age-old system continues: get the passengers on and off as quickly as possible, offering a miserly selection of unappealing, overpriced food and perhaps some sketchy WiFi in the interim. It’s logistics, not customer service.

But thanks to this attitude, the sector is missing out on some serious revenue.

The people who use trains are not just people travelling between two points, they are customers and potential customers; they’re also a captive audience for the duration of the journey. And the potential income stream that could be generated – firstly by providing extra services, and secondly via associated advertising – could be significant.

As anyone who travels by train will tell you, there are some obvious actions to be taken that could make the passenger’s journey easier and more enjoyable.

Firstly there’s the whole rigmarole of booking tickets, which means picking them up from machines at specific stations and presenting ID when you collect them – think how much more easy and eco-friendly that would be if you could do it all on your mobile phone, via a simple app.

And say you’re heading from London to Manchester – what might you want at the other end? Maybe transport, a hotel, a restaurant reservation? All of these could be suggested and booked digitally, while you’re travelling, via the same app or online system. There’s even the potential for a rewards programme, with rail operators partnering up with hotel brands and taxi firms to offer special rates and deals to regular customers.

Meanwhile during the journey itself, extras such as decent snacks and meals, on-demand entertainment and high-speed WiFi are all things already offered by other modes of transport across Britain – why not trains? The returns in direct revenue, advertising revenue and simple customer satisfaction would be substantial.

In short, rail operators need to look at what the retail sector has done for its customers: loyalty cards, benefits, quick shopping and home delivery via apps, digital customer profiles and preferences, live online customer support – the changes in the last decade have been incredible, revolutionising not only how people shop but also how they feel about those retailers.

Turning back to the rail sector, some of the more enlightened companies are starting to see the need for change and are working to recruit a new generation of digitally literate and experienced staff from sectors with which they are probably unfamiliar: people who can step up the absent digital offering and thereby improve customer relations and satisfaction.

Admittedly there are challenges to achieving this. Firstly, the people these firms need to recruit – forward-thinking, customer-focused, technologically fluent individuals – will have to face the challenge of working in cultures which are not necessarily knowledgeable about, or comfortable with, the digital arena; neither are there many people in the industry who envisage the provision of transportation as a customer focused, service business.

A new, dynamic digital strategy to engage customers needs to be a top-down initiative: a gradual yet definite process that empowers rather than inhibits new talent, making room for effective change at all levels.

The second issue is one of supply. Although there are a lot of digitally knowledgeable people around, there’s also significant demand for them – meaning there’s a shortage of good, technically aware individuals. And that’s even before you whittle it down further, to find the particular individuals capable of operating in an organisation that is undertaking a cultural overhaul of this magnitude.

Finally, the rail sector must demonstrate a genuine desire to change – because right now, it’s not coming across as a particularly attractive option to those individuals it’s looking to recruit. Certainly there are a few “Pathfinders” in certain companies, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Regardless of the challenges, rail companies must recognise the need to modernise and turn the focus of their business towards technology and customer service. That’s the only way they will be able to attract the, digitally aware, sought-after new generation: in terms of both staff and customers.