A well-designed Service Quality Reporting regime could ensure that the needs of rail users are met – and perhaps bus users too

A Service Quality Reporting (SQR) regime has been developed by the DfT and involves mass auditing of the customer experience

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of this great magazine, the Department for Transport has decreed that customer service is, like never before, going to be King of the realm of public transport!

This wonderful gift will be bequeathed with the likely creation of National Rail Contracts, in effect, concessions – the precursors of which are already in place with ERMAs (Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements) and Direct Award contracts. National Rail Contracts are going to have more tightly specified customer service delivery requirements and, importantly, be more rigorously reported and scrutinised, particularly in real time.

And, in a double whammy, bus re-regulation and the creation of Enhanced Partnerships across England will also, I suspect, necessitate, proper governance of customer service. Christmases and birthdays have all come at once!

Recently, there has been much debate behind the scenes at the DfT and TOCs around the monitoring and reporting tool to be used to measure and manage the performance of the operators. A Service Quality Reporting (SQR) regime has been developed by the DfT and involves mass auditing of the customer experience, literally several hundred audits across each TOC per month to test the condition of station infrastructure and rolling stock, as well as compliance aspects relating to the delivery of the service in terms of employees, customer information and gateline management.

Cynics suggest that the DfT is doing this because it doesn’t trust operators to focus properly on customer service. That would be harsh as there’s enough evidence of TOCs being able to do just that, though unfortunately, a small minority in previous eras ruined it for the vast majority.

Auditing, be it through mystery shopping or another means, is about getting the shop window in order for customers and checking the integrity of the customer proposition

Auditing, be it through mystery shopping or another means, is about getting the shop window in order for customers and checking the integrity of the customer proposition.

If you’re not making the checks, holes will still exist and customer satisfaction levels will plummet. There are real benefits of an SQR regime – the more intensely and frequently the service provision is scrutinised, the more likely, surely, it will see an improvement?

Furthermore, if there are contractual incentives to increase the scores of the audits, then hearts and minds will be focused on this task. We’ve seen already in the industry that the requirement to collaborate being built into ERMAs has helped fuel conviction to work with stakeholders.

As someone who has for the past nine years created and presided over mystery shopping and customer service improvement programmes for transport operators, I see a growing recognition that sceptical local managers will be under no illusions that when the results of audits on their part of the network are presented back, they won’t have any choice but to respond by taking corrective action. Imagine the stigma felt by an area station manager who may be losing the company most money, or making the least in incentive payments, by continually failing to address poor audit scores. The names of stations letting the side down will be on the lips of every divisional group CEO.

There are a few trip hazards with SQR. For starters, the incessant regularity of the audits could potentially create a cottage industry within the TOCs of data boffins required to assimilate, interpret and feed back results internally (and to the DfT) – and do so quickly at the end of each period, before they become time-expired – so the financial incentives or penalties can be crunched. The better transport companies already take the audits currently undertaken seriously. They scrutinise the reports for any anomalies and nuggets of information and use them to influence managers internally, but don’t underestimate the resources and expertise needed to do this task thoroughly.

Indeed, “driving improvement” is vital and any SQR regime needs to focus on quality, not quantity. Astute insight should include recommendations which must drive CX Action Plans on a station and depot basis. It’s also important that the audits aren’t just monosyllabic tick box exercises, but involve incisive commentary, requiring thought and reflection on the emotions solicited at each touchpoint scrutinised. It must be scores-based but qualitative – always factual, of course, but also with a section to explain “how it looked and felt”.

Most importantly, any regime should be about the customer proposition. It should not be just an exercise in scoring a few key touchpoints

Most importantly, any regime should be about the customer proposition. It should not be just an exercise in scoring a few key touchpoints, or one that is focused most intently on physical asset condition, but an assessment of how the entire, end-to-end customer specification hangs together in totality. From the very first moment the brand enters the consciousness to the way it builds relationships with customers through meaningful interaction between journeys – no stone should be left unturned. There should also be bespoke reviews that assess the delivery of rail replacement services or the quality of marketing or the management of major events on the network, such as football matches, and the experience felt by customers with a range of impairments (using such customers to undertake the reviews).

Incorporating all of the above so that it is a customer experience assessment, with realistic, value-added recommendations, requires a certain quality of assessor. It isn’t, as can often be the case, a role for someone just looking to earn beer money post retirement, but requires proper remuneration and recruitment of customer experience commentators.

These should be experts with a track record of capturing customer insight, of understanding customer emotional intelligence aspects and incisively translating these into action plans that drive tangible customer satisfaction improvements. It also requires commentators that transcend the full range of demographics in the community served by the transport company. Diversity is as important a factor for a mystery shopping company as it is the board of a FTSE100 company.

Another aspect of SQR that is really important and not, as yet, crystal clear, is the independence of the audits. There’s talk that the sheer number of audits required may mean that they are carried out by a handful of internal auditors and that an external company will need to be employed by the operator to validate the integrity of the SQR process. Potentially, this leads to two areas of a conflict of interest.

Firstly, in my experience, when auditing of the customer experience is carried out internally, it tends to be handed to a small number of auditors. They are easily recognisable when they are “mystery shopping” and also, they struggle to remain fresh and objective. Quite often, they fit a typical demographic mould – an ex-station manager or safety auditor coming to the end of their career, in some respects, seeking an easier life, on a downward career trajectory, approaching the sidings. They reflect more your classic railway manager, than the actual markets served by the company.

Secondly, if it is the TOC that has procured the services of an external company to independently assess the integrity and effectiveness of the internal SQR regime, then will that company feel under pressure not to put in a critical school report for fear of annoying its paymaster and losing its contract? Perhaps this is why the DfT should procure and control the process.

It’s also vital that any regime encompasses and engages everyone. The station manager should not be able to hide behind the property department if the waiting room door hasn’t been fixed properly or the poster frames are tatty, and nor should the property manager be insulated from the pain of poor SQR results.
Similarly, if the regime is to be incorporated into the new world for the bus sector, local authorities must be called to account for low scores relating to the quality of bus stops and waiting areas, or buses delayed because of the absence of a proper traffic management strategy.

Ensuring no one shies away from their responsibility is the very least in terms of engagement that is required. A canny provider of any SQR regime will be able to present back the findings of the reviews face-to-face, in a way that motivates and inspires company and local management teams into action.

Credibility in the way that the results are delivered is vital and being able to draw on the experience of having worked in the roles of those in the audience is a big USP, alongside also availability to help managers deliver the required improvements.

Of overriding importance is to remember why we’re doing all this. There is absolutely no shame in proclaiming that focusing on customer service is about generating revenue. For those who prefer to think of this from a moral standpoint, it’s about unlocking social mobility, broadening aspirations for citizens and ensuring that we can fulfil them by providing consistently high quality transport solutions. Thus, any SQR regime must have as its objective increased customer satisfaction. It must also be capable of preventing customer attrition and of increasing trip frequency. A bad regime will be one that just churns out a load of dull scores relating to the physical condition of the transport infrastructure.

I genuinely believe this is a barnstorming, unprecedented opportunity for the industry, not just rail but also the bus sector

Reviews of this kind, or mystery shopping (assuming it is a “mystery” and not internal auditors) are vital because they help a TOC get its house in order and have a fully compliant customer proposition so that customers are able to be satisfied. Of course, in my “day job” heading up a customer experience transport consultancy, I’ve a vested interest in all this and you won’t be surprised that I’ve long pressed the case of the Customer Experience Health Assessment programmes that I’ve created for transport companies, subscribing to the principles that I’ve outlined above. I genuinely believe this is a barnstorming, unprecedented opportunity for the industry, not just rail but also the bus sector, with the creation of local Bus Service Improvement Plans, to have a vibrant, momentum-driven process to assess the delivery of the customer proposition.

It shouldn’t be an audit, but a deep-dive, insightful review and action-orientated programme that engages and inspires everyone accountable for driving customer satisfaction. This will be a game-changer.

This article appears inside the issue 234 of Passenger Transport.

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