I initially lauded the railway’s new Service Quality Regime but I now fear it is too rigid and will constrain innovative thinking

LNER’s new Family Room at Kings Cross is an example of pro-active and innovative customer service

The Service Quality Regime (SQR) which was established by the Department for Transport to monitor the customer service performance of train operating companies has been in place for around a year. Readers of this column may recall that I lauded its inception at the time and claimed it could be a “game-changer” (PT239). 18 months on and I have mixed views.

For starters, in some cases, SQR measures the wrong things – it looks for quality in assets and often these are not what customers notice. Paint and décor are not considered, even though these tend to have the most immediate impact when a customer sets foot on the railway. A slightly damaged seat fabric will fail the SQR test, but an armrest that has been completely destroyed by catering trollies and clunky luggage isn’t included. Acceptable wear and tear tolerances are way over what a customer considers acceptable, so there were too many failures, such that the results weren’t published because they would have been too damning. I gather the scheme was then changed to avoid embarrassment. The regimes are also adjusted to account for things that can’t easily be fixed both from a practical and financially viable perspective. SQR inspectors ask their bosses why they are bothering as it is so pointless.

Analysis of SQR measures against the drivers of customer satisfaction illustrates that there is little correlation until way down the list of customer priorities. The strict requirements make it inefficient. It makes sense to sample at different times and days but achieving strict requirements to do this drives up costs. For example, inspectors are mandated to make only one vehicle visit per train. Why not do every carriage as half the cost is in getting to the train? They also have to visit every station every quarter (or per period on smaller TOCs). This is actually random, so an inspector could visit a station twice in a few weeks or almost six months apart. Visiting every period is pointless, as most things won’t have changed that rapidly and is it really worth checking small, remote stations at the same frequency as the biggest stations? There are some nuances in the regime that allows for this, but not in all and they are not consistent.

The DfT insists that the management of the regimes is truly independent, however, they deal directly with the TOCs and therefore opportunities for the supplier of the SQR regime to talk to the DfT only occur via the train operator. The way the contracts work also means there is a perverse incentive for the supplier to look after the TOC, rather than be truly independent. I’ve presided over an SQR scheme since last October and my customer is the TOC and it is them I grovel around.

The role of the central SQR team (now in excess of nine people) at the DfT is interesting. A cynic would suggest that they are merely policing the arbitrary requirements and inevitable action plans from things that repeatedly fail and the Treasury can’t fund the solution for! It genuinely doesn’t feel as if anyone in the industry is looking at the detail and making sure the findings are built into future strategy and station and train design. TOCs will likely attempt this on the basis that their scorecard performance could probably be improved by it (if they join the dots of course), but how much influence does a TOC have on train specification in reality? Their influence, I’d suggest, is paltry and especially so now that the DfT takes more responsibility for the specification of the customer product. Network Rail certainly won’t be thinking about using SQR to inform future station designs.

The DfT doesn’t seem to be looking at anything beyond the headline SQR results, so is the data being gathered and actually analysed with an eye to driving customer satisfaction? The regime seems to focus, in a rail industry way, on ‘blame’, rather than ‘innovation’ and ‘improvement’. I’m yet to hear of a TOC proactively assimilating and analysing SQR results alongside other customer insights to create the fullest picture and build the totality of data into a Customer Service Action Plan. There are dedicated teams to manage SQR in each TOC as well, but their time is invested almost entirely in administrating the scheme and ensuring all the surveys are done. Imagine if, along with their counterparts at the DfT, they were reallocated to tasks that involved proper trend analysis and driving more fundamental improvements in customer service.

Whilst I think some form of SQR or mystery shopping is required, the industry should extricate itself from its binary, black-and-white obsession and focus more readily on customer-centricity

Whilst I think some form of SQR or mystery shopping is required, the industry should extricate itself from its binary, black-and-white obsession and focus more readily on customer-centricity. It would be great if the sector could focus on customer-emotional intelligence aspects, on ambiguity – stuff that isn’t defined as compliant or non-compliant, pass or fail, but training and encouraging management and frontline employees to anticipate and identify current and future customer needs in ‘real time’, to assess different customer segments and the nuances of situations in a more tactical and empathetic way. Train companies, as a whole, both strategically and on a day-to-day basis, should ‘read the room’ in terms of their communications and behaviours, toning down or up the messaging whilst reflecting on the kind of service they are providing, not just measuring it by box-ticking surveys.

Last week, I chaired the West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration Board and we had a great paper reviewing the Commonwealth Games, presented by the impressive Lucy Wootton who heads up the alliance. I was keen to commission this review because it was obvious some really good work had been undertaken and I wanted us to ‘bottle it’ for deployment as ‘business as usual’ as well as learn from any shortcomings. The problem with events such as these is that everyone rightly gets worked up into a frenzy and the collaborative behaviours and relentless focus on ensuring everyone are happy – customers and staff – is seen as only needing to apply right up until the closing ceremony. The paper remarked that ‘doing the right thing for passengers’ was a key positive aspect to emerge from the Games. My question, was why shouldn’t the philosophy be omnipresent, even on a wet, dark November morning? It shouldn’t need a Commonwealth Games, for top brass and their teams to collaborate either on the platforms or in a shared control room or on conference calls. We mustn’t now go into the usual monotone, mundane, automated, rigours of railway life with all its lines of demarcation and thinking outside the box is discouraged now that summer is over and all the frivolity of the Commonwealth Games is a mere halcyon memory.

In my musings about customer-centricity, I reflected, once again, on all those consultancy assignments or conference speeches I’ve made about those great service sector providers where the messaging around customers has flair, is instinctive and sincere and is reflected not just in the marketing guff but on the frontline. “Why can’t we be like Pret a Manger, John Lewis, Disney or Apple?” I would implore, often to an audience that knew I was right and would love to do this but realised that their corporate structure just wouldn’t get it.

The problem is that often we make excuses why the service genre at these top brands isn’t replicable in the railway because the infrastructure is different, the clientele more varied and challenging, for all sorts of societal reasons, and the distressed nature of travelling – particularly to work – means that a happy-clappy environment may be more challenging to pull off. The fragmented nature of the industry and the suffocating grip placed on train companies by the DfT and other stakeholders means that even Mickey Mouse wouldn’t have a free run at delighting customers if Disney were running your local station. However, there’s nothing to stop us from trying to understand and emulate what it is about the corporate psyche and customer service strategy at these best practice companies and also identify those everyday customer-centric traits that are then exuded on their ‘frontline’, which can be replicated on our own stations and trains.

There will be many initiatives and behaviours that can be deployed on our shop floor or translated in some shape or form. The problem is that in this ‘black and white’ railway mentality, we just think we’ve nothing in common with the kind of environment that non-transport providers operate within and the shutters come down. A world where SQR and other equivalent schemes across the range of railway disciplines prevail, and where the commercial ingenuity and ability to create a customer service proposition is taken away from the local operator and shoved into some overwhelming, remote central monolith, is one which over time instinctively saps the creative juices and leads to dull, text-book automation that serves little if any benefit to customers. ‘Trailblazing’ isn’t a term synonymous with the railway these days, but in the future, it needs to be.

Thankfully there are exceptions like LNER, which has a strong branded customer proposition and is a laboratory for flexible and creative customer service ideas

Thankfully there are exceptions like LNER, which has a strong branded customer proposition and is a laboratory for flexible and creative customer service ideas. It’s perhaps only coincidental, that LNER does not use the DfT SQR regime, preferring instead conventional mystery shopping and a customer-led customer satisfaction survey. Alan Riley, head of stations, and a cerebral innovator within the sector, was a leading light behind the opening of a Family Room at Kings Cross, complete with a fantastic model railway! This initiative is exactly the sort of proactive, innovative thinking that is a trait of a truly customer-centric company, where dreaming up ideas is seen as a good thing. It’s an example of what can genuinely be achieved within the remit of your average and ambitious station manager and their team.

What a sight King’s Cross was last Friday afternoon – The Flying Scotsman puffing smoke and whistling on the platform, heritage displays, competitions, a Hornby stand with a model railway to accompany the seaside display in the new lounge. And, get this, everywhere, customers were happy and had a spring in their step and there was a real buzz, with photos being proffered by joyous customers all over social media. Free-thinking initiatives like this, which show that the railway knows exactly what evokes positive emotions among its customers, do much more good than the million SQR audits that will have been carried out these last 12 months.

Perhaps the solution is for the government to finally show conviction to try to attract the leading light, out-of-sector, customer-centric service providers. Is it really dreamland to think that some of those household name brands could be enticed to help run a railway? They don’t necessarily need to be the majority owner and could just have a slim share, but enough to infect the minds of everyone in the organisation with their obsessive and all-embracing approach to adding value to customers.

With the future Passenger Service Contracts ensuring that train companies focus on nothing but customer service, without the distractions of the current and previous contractual regime, the opportunity is less onerous for a new player, but it’s important that the regime isn’t ‘black and white’ – it must give the flair playing luxury hotel chains, restauranteurs, entertainment providers and retailers the space to innovate and not be constrained by overly deferential box-ticking. Heaven knows what they’d make of SQR in its current format, though.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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