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Transport & Logistics

Rail industry stepping up its customer relations focus

8 Apr 2013, by Informa Insights

We would like to thank everyone who participated in the Australasian Railway Association’s Customer Relations in Rail 2013 Conference.

It was fantastic to see rail representatives across Australia and internationally come together to share stories of their successes and problems encountered as they strive to achieve customer relations excellence.

Customer Relations in RailThe event was kicked off with a panel discussion which posed the question: Are we connecting with our customers? Panellists John McNamara from ARTC, Deborah Hume from KiwiRail, Hans Anneveldt from Aurizon and Ian Luff from Public Transport Authority of Western Australia were tasked with identifying the current strengths and weaknesses in rail providers’ relationships with its customers and gave a frank assessment of where the industry is at.

The consensus was that, having been run by engineers, the focus of railways has traditionally been on train sets not customers. However a ‘customer service movement’ is happening and the industry is starting to ask the question: What do our customers want?

Panellists discussed current gaps in reliability and communication – identifying a technology lag that is affecting staff on the ground in an age where the customers are social media savvy. They also stressed the need for rail operators to become good community members and how customers are accepting of things going wrong, but the true test is how such moments are handled by staff.

We then heard from the Director of Pacific National, Angus McKay who shared insights into how an operator can strengthen customer partnerships in freight rail. The key points were how important surveying customers and creating a dialogue with them is. From the customer point of view we were joined by Robert Agnew of Woolworths who stressed the need for tracking, reliability and communication from the rail operator.

One of the most resinating presentations was from Alan Fedda, Director Customer Services for Public Transport Victoria who argued that of equal importance to reporting of negative incidents is the need to drive customer culture through storytelling, particularly to amplifying the positive actions of staff. The message was to be proud of the good stories and to celebrate the uniqueness of individual staff members or even the moments when staff members may act outside of organisational protocols if it means helping a customer in need.

From there, we were privy to some insights from customer relations experts outside of the rail industry. Vanessa Gavan from Maximus International pushed the need to define the journey and acknowledge the gaps in order to achieve customer-centric solutions for any business. Professor Janet McColl-Kennedy, Professor of Marketing, UQ Business School, University of Queensland joined delegates to offer some advice on service recovery, or, what to do when things don’t go to plan. The message was we need to adopt a new mindset in which the customer is active rather than passive, where they have their own knowledge, skills and abilities and. She also warned that rage can easily build if we threaten a customer’s resources (for example – quiet carriage rage!).

Janet also discussed the idea of rewarding staff for reporting complaints and said we need to start viewing complaints as ‘gifts’. She also examined why it is so important for employees to model the right behavior towards a customer who complains – especially empathy, thanks and taking action. She left delegates with the idea that success is contagious and staff will buy into customer relations strategies if they see the result!

London Underground ‘thought of the day’ customer relations initiative
London Underground ‘thought of the day’ customer relations initiative

We were also privileged to hear international case studies from Mr Xavier Brice from Transport for London who discussed the challenges of delivering exceptional customer service on the London Underground which is one of the world’s oldest and most iconic rail networks. He said change and innovation was part of their DNA. A main driver for this is that their customers simply expect reliable, safe, consistent and personalized service and they need to continually striving to meet their expectations. He also gave examples of initiatives to get staff out of the office and amongst customers more as well as the importance of simply making people smile. Xavier also shared seven aspirational principles for improving customer service which included the transformation of website and apps to ensure staff weren’t lagging behind customer’s information, the need to improve offerings for tourists and the ongoing improvements to the general look and feel of their stations.

Deborah Hume from KiwiRail gave a very entertaining account of the techniques she has deployed to engage staff on the journey to improved customer service delivery. Deb spoke about how when she first began work at KiwiRail, the biggest challenges was overcoming the hurdle of staff believing the negative stories in the media as well as some incredibly critical social media campaigns about the service. She shared her approach which included the use of humor and a sense of fun to engage staff and allow them to enjoy and take pride in their jobs has been a major step to achieving improved customer service outcomes. She showed clips of initiatives undertaken, from interviewing one of KiwiRail’s most enthusiastic and popular customer service employees named Ginny to a video of staff doing the ‘Harlem Shake’ before a staff meeting.

Thank you to all of our speakers for their valuable contribution to Customer Relations in Rail 2013. We had outstanding feedback from delegates and hope to see you in 2014. The ARA also welcomes any feedback or suggestions you may have for next year’s program. Please contact Conference Manager Kara Clifton on email

To encourage all year round networking, we would also like to invite you to join our very active group on Linkedin, Rail Network Australasia, that plays the host of the latest and hottest rail topics discussions in Australasia. We look forward to seeing you there!

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