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By Jo Causon, CEO, The Institute of Customer Service

The announcement of the government’s plan for a new state-owned body, Great British Railways (GBR), that will manage many aspects of rail travel was the result of a long-running review, but its publication seems very ‘of the moment’. I say this because the new model for rail reflects many of the key themes that have emerged during the pandemic crisis and which face organisations across sectors as they plan for the recovery phase.

Like many other industries, the rail sector has been hit hard by the effects of Covid-19 with passenger numbers reduced to a fraction of their normal levels. But as the recovery beckons, there is now a chance to ‘build back better’.

So the announcement is very timely. It is also very relevant in several key ways. Firstly, it builds in an explicit recognition that working patterns will be different in the more hybrid model that is coming post-Covid. It provides for this by allowing for more flexible season tickets – for people who commute only two or three times a week. Organisations across all sectors will similarly need to recognise that hybrid working will be different and require new solutions. Flexibility will be key. In addition there will inevitably be the need for trial and error and getting used to learning fast as we try new approaches and revise.

Secondly, a core aspect of the new model is simplification for the customer. It should become simpler and easier to buy tickets through a more centralised system, compared to the old system where finding the cheapest or most suitable option was widely seen as confusing and convoluted. There will also be a wider rollout of digital and contactless pay as you go options. What we see here, then, is a combination of system design and technology to create a more customer-centric service, building on the increased adoption of digital and mobile channels by consumers through the pandemic.

Thirdly, one of the key principles behind the changes is to have clearer ownership and responsibility. In the old world, we have become all too familiar with rail firms blaming another party (usually Network Rail) for a service failure – leaves on the line, over-running repair work, etcetera. Under the new system, it appears that accountability will be more centralised as GBR, as well as selling tickets and setting timetables and pricing, will also be responsible for managing rail infrastructure.

This highlights a key issue for organisations of all kinds: how are hand-offs between different teams within the business or with outside partners handled to ensure that customer service doesn’t fall between the cracks? It’s essential to have real clarity over who is responsible for what, and how ownership is ensured across the supply chain. This will be critical to the success of GBR.

It’s a reminder that no business operates in a vacuum – we are all part of a connected ecosystem. If one part of that ecosystem fails, the customer will blame the organisation they see as responsible for the service overall. For example, someone buying a holiday through a travel company will see them as answerable for the experience across every individual component: the flight, transfers, the hotel stay, car hire and more. This is why ensuring quality of service across the entire end-to-end experience is essential – you can’t sub-contract responsibility to others.

The Transport sector has traditionally performed towards the bottom of the 13 sectors we track satisfaction across in our UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI). Customers often complain about unreliable service, poor value for money, inaccessible information and difficulty in getting problems resolved. It will be fascinating to see whether the new GBR system helps to turn this around. It doesn’t come into effect until 2023, but we will be tracking sentiment closely once it is up and running.

In the meantime, all businesses should be focusing hard right now on the themes that we see crystallising in the creation of the GBR: flexibility for hybrid working, simplification, digitisation, ownership and responsibility.

Those that succeed against these criteria will find that they have advanced a significant way in their journey towards achieving – and sustaining – the brilliant levels of customer service that all organisations should be striving for.

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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