In an era of service disruption and inescapable economic uncertainty choosing the right technology can help rail companies to delight their customers. TERRY DUNN explains

Like businesses of all kinds, transport companies are being asked to do more with less. Budgets are tight, and competition is intense. The need to differentiate and service is everything.

The old cliché is wrong. Transportation is not just about getting from A to B. Sure, travel time remains the definitive measure, but we spend so much of our working lives – indeed, of our everyday lives – in transit these days that convenience and comfort are every bit as important.

And these aspects apply to the total travel experience. They cover the wrap-around provision of information, ticketing, bookings, feedback and support. Time and effort saved here, and personalisation in these interactions, can go a way to alleviate the everyday headaches of travel.

As many as one in five trains were late during certain periods last year; cancellations were up by 20 per cent. Road traffic crawls through London at 10mph, and drags up the M60 at just 46mph. Flights out of Gatwick are 18minutes late. And these averages mask the horror of bank holiday getaways, and the vexation of repairs, strikes and weather.

We spend ages travelling anyway, whether accompanied by a briefcase, a backpack or a picnic hamper. The average daily commute lasts almost an hour, and 3.7 million people travel at least two hours a day for work, a third up on five years ago. The rise in home working has not altered this; neither has the number of people working flexibly.

As a nation ‘on the road’, the whole experience of travel should be personal, quick, easy and intuitive. If it adds to our woes, it is not worth a second thought. If it alleviates them, or complements the journey experience, it can make a huge difference.

Meeting customers’ expectations
Technology has drastically altered travellers’ expectations, in terms of their interaction with and experience of transport services, but it has also enabled brands to get ‘smarter’ – to boost efficiencies in the back end whilst raising service in the front end.

Increasingly, this is the discipline of contemporary business – in a constrained economic climate and an uncertain political one – to strike a balance between the need to conserve and the need to expand at the same time. In the right hands, technology affords travel companies a way to achieve just this, and to polish their reputations and improve their margins.

It cuts across four elements: logistics, systems, support and development. In the first instance, the provision of any service is a logistics exercise – faster machinery and fewer cogwheels. In the transport sector, way before the guard blows the whistle, the supply of tickets, cards and passes is a fundamental aspect of everyday service. Done well, it lifts the whole experience; done badly, it kills it, dead. At worst, the brand relationship is seen as acceptable when travel documents are ordered easily and received quickly. At best, the service is commended and the custom is repeated.

A more considerable challenge for transport companies, to keep pace with customers’ expectations, is to reduce digital complexity in back-office systems: to ensure that products and services can be easily discovered by customers, and services do not fall over. Today, transport companies must deliver multiple services via multiple touch-points, on multiple communications platforms, and close the gap between the inputs and outputs of these complex interactions. It’s also about the safe collation and transfer of information and insight, not just passengers.

Leading transport brands are capitalising on sophisticated advanced customer relationship management tools, personalised tokens to tailor their services towards customers, and to beat the pinch of economic austerity and the heat of market competition.

Exceeding customers’ expectations
But, it is not just about technical wizardry under the hood. In the best cases, these back-end management systems are wired directly into front-end contact centres in order to provide dynamic multi-channel support in person – via phone, web-chat, email and social media.

Customers want service representatives to be available, informed, and human. Stilted scripts will not cut it; immature chat-bot automation is a hindrance. Customers’ pressing enquiries should be readily understood. Customers want answers, not friends, but the experience has to be personal, at the same time.

Staff should be armed with ample knowledge and reliable system updates, as well as a friendly manner. A lost railcard, for example, is a fraught experience; emotional intelligence is required to reduce it to a practical one. These qualities are only possible because of experienced, highly trained support teams.

Behind talented front-liners, there is a specialist gallery of account managers, business analysts, systems architects, project managers and data mining technicians, working with advanced technology.

In certain open-and-shut cases, software can take over the customer service relationship entirely, such as with ESP Group’s DelayCheck, used by rail operators to process delay compensation claims faster and easier. DelayCheck is a fully adaptable software solution, which can be used in-house or managed by ESP Group.

Ultimately, the customer experience must evolve. Long-term stability does not come from simply meeting customers’ expectations. Forever scrabbling to keep pace with consumer trends is a sure way to remain a slave to the market, rather than a master of it. As in any sector, the winners will exceed expectations, and dictate the pace for everyone else to keep up with. In transport, Uber has led the charge, as a new entrant – from a chasing pack of established brands with progressive mobility services.

The rise of the ‘subscription economy’ – where society actively avoids outright ownership in favour of hiring or sharing assets as it needs them – makes it clear that the old rule book has been torn up; its narrative has been reimagined thanks to smart software and universal connectivity. Witness the rise in Mobility as a Service amongst the motor industry.

Transport companies, as well as industry organisations and funding bodies, need to build forward-looking business models to improve transport efficiency and raises standards – for every type of user utilising every type of transport. Ultimately, and in time, these technologically enhanced service models will enable the industry to overcome and avoid some of the perils of service disruption.

Today, travel is less about the destination, less about the journey, and more about the experience – from pre-sales to after-care. Getting this right is how transport brands will live and die.

ESP Group provides mobility, information, customer support, assistance, ticketing, payment, booking, feedback, social media and delay repay services to the transport sector.