Communications excellence is key to boosting customer satisfaction. Alistair Gordon explains how this has been achieved on DLR and Nottingham’s NET.

Passenger numbers across both heavy and light rail networks in the UK have doubled over the past twenty years. The latter alone experienced a 5.8 per cent year-on-year rise between 2014/15 and 2015/16, according to the DfT. In response, many networks are being expanded and improved to bring more capacity and provide a better service for additional passengers. This provides added impetus for operators like Keolis to ensure that passengers are given a high-quality customer experience. It’s imperative that this goes beyond merely passing on information. Communications should be a core focus for all rail operators to ensure that customers feel valued from the moment they decide to travel on a network to the moment they reach their destination.

Keolis UK operates two of the highest-performing light rail networks in the country, London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in partnership with infrastructure specialist Amey, and Nottingham Express Transit (NET). Together these networks handle 130 million passenger journeys per year and both networks are consistently amongst the highest rated in the country for passenger satisfaction according to Transport Focus’ bi-annual surveys. These results are driven by a commitment to communication, by placing the customer at the heart of all our operations. Each network has had specific challenges to address and by providing communication through new channels that had not been fully utilised before, Keolis was able to maintain high levels of customer satisfaction.

Communication Both On and Off the Network

In an increasingly digital age, customers expect an accessible, responsive service via a range of channels. Rail travel is no exception, but in serving a huge demographic there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy. Efforts must then be made to ensure communication is available in a variety of forms to make it accessible to everyone, particularly during periods of transformation, when customers are likely to need more assistance.

For example, NET has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, completing a forward-thinking £650 million Phase Two expansion in August 2015. This increased the size of the network to 32km and opened up tram travel to more customers, doubling passenger journeys to 12.2 million per year as of March 2016. The works represented both an opportunity and a challenge for Keolis, to manage this transition and communicate changes to passengers to ensure their experience remained positive. The project involved not only adding additional routes to the network but also upgrading the service to become more efficient, taking advantage of digital technologies to provide support across more channels.

In order to embrace digital ticketing – including smart cards and mobile payments – the NET consortium took the decision to move to off-tram ticketing, removing on-board ticket conductors. This shift represented a communications challenge for the customer service team, to help passengers make a smooth transition without relying on a visible on-board presence. To tackle this we invested in the customer service team’s presence on social media and over the phone, and created a dedicated travel centre in the middle of Nottingham to provide face-to-face interaction to passengers that prefer it.

To ensure that passengers had access to the most up-to-date information possible, the back-office customer service team was physically relocated to be based in the network’s control centre. This was both a symbolic shift (placing customer communication at the centre of NET’s operations) and a practical one, as any disruptions could be relayed in real-time to passengers and detailed contingency plans could be communicated in the most efficient way possible. By focusing so heavily on communication, the network received praise from the Institute of Customer Service for not only cutting the number of complaints but also resolving them with higher satisfaction levels – resulting in a complaints index score of 79.3, compared with a national average of 67 for the UK transport sector. This progress was further evidenced by Transport Focus’ bi-annual satisfaction survey following the opening of the new lines, which scored the NET an impressive 98 per cent – making it the UK’s highest performing tram network.

While our strategy for NET was to bring more digitalisation to the network, our approach to the DLR was driven by different priorities.

When our joint venture with Amey (KeolisAmey Docklands – KAD) took over operation of the DLR in December 2014, we made it an early priority to bring a stronger physical staff presence to the network. The DLR has operated as a driverless network since opening in 1987, and working in close partnership with Transport for London we wanted to encourage a more visibly personable, customer-centric culture on this famously automated system.

In a network first, KAD introduced a new team of dedicated customer service advisors at stations to help welcome passengers onto the network and provide information and support, particularly during peak travel times and periods of disruption. This opened up instant communication outside of tannoy announcements or travel screen updates and gave customers a more personalised and interactive service.

Providing the Skills for Communication

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Keolis’ global experience running urban transport networks, it’s that it is impossible to expect customers to receive a quality service if staff have not been trained to provide it. Across all of our networks, both in the UK and abroad, Keolis places a great importance on instilling a culture of good customer service. We call this ‘thinking like a customer’ and it’s an ethos that is behind every initiative we have introduced on the DLR and NET. In practical terms, this means all team members, regardless of their role, have been given training to understand how their actions can impact a customer’s experience.

At NET, we demonstrated this commitment by becoming accredited by the Institute of Customer Service. We invested in training all customer-facing staff in the Institute’s approved qualifications, part of which included employees identifying potential areas for improvement across the network. This resulted in the origination of 72 new customer-focused initiatives, designed to drive a more customer-centric culture throughout all areas of the business.

Customer training can also be used to target specific areas for improvement, particularly revenue protection and reducing anti-social behaviour on a network. On the DLR, special revenue teams were trained extensively on how to create positive customer interactions while increasing the number of ticket checks from two per cent to over 18 per cent of passengers per day.

Looking to the Future

In July 2017, the successful partnership demonstrated on the DLR between Keolis and Amey is set to expand, with the joint venture KeolisAmey appointed to operate the UK’s largest light rail network, Manchester Metrolink. The expertise and insights we have gained from managing both the NET expansion works and the high volume of services on the DLR will be invaluable, as the Metrolink network is scheduled to build the new 5.5km Trafford Park Line to open by 2021.

These works will need effective communication to passengers while keeping performance and satisfaction levels high. KeolisAmey will again draw upon its prior experience to increase customer communication on the network by increasing staff presence and running engagement sessions. And, significant investments in staff will be made to not only increase the workforce but ensure they have the skills to deliver the ambitious expansion planned for the network and maintain Metrolink’s high performance.

This article first appeared in the August edition of Railway Strategies, Issue 144.