How Transport for London became a pioneer in customer-led innovationby
Launched in July 2000 with overall responsibility for keeping London moving across multiple forms of public transport, Transport for London has boldly innovated with a series of potentially risky moves clearly in the interests of the public but less clearly good for the organisation in the short-term.
Some companies are great for customers – not only do they care but they change whole markets to work better for the customers they serve. Think of Amazon, easyJet and Sky. They make things easier and improve what really matters – obvious, surely? They have also enjoyed huge business success, growing and making plenty of money.
In The Customer Copernicus: How to be Customer-Led, published in 2021, we answer the question that follows – if it’s obvious and attractive, why is it so rare?
The seven years of research it took to write the book uncovered how to become customer-led, making things better for customers by going first, into uncharted territory. We tell the stories of 18 different organisations who have each become what we call 'customer pioneers'.
We have gone on to study examples beyond the book including organisations set up not as conventional businesses but playing very different roles in society.
One is the public sector organisation Transport for London (TfL), created in July 2000 with overall responsibility for keeping London moving across multiple forms of public transport plus the network of major roads, cycleways and pedestrian routes.
They chose to do this by being customer-led, boldly innovating with a series of potentially risky moves clearly in the interests of the public but less clearly good for the organisation in the short-term.
The pattern is one we found in all customer pioneers. Success depends on the shared beliefs about what matters inside an organisation. Building the relevant beliefs takes a particular kind of leadership, helping people across an organisation change deeply held unspoken assumptions…
From a starting point that is natural but not customer-led, looking from the inside-out, prioritising the organisation’s success, targets and agenda.
To one that is not natural, where success is defined as making things better for customers. The belief is that doing better for customers will also work well for the organisation. These beliefs are outside-in.
The journey from inside-out to outside-in goes through stages
First, Burningness. Organisations only start this journey when the people involved feel that the current situation is on fire, conventional action untenable if they are to succeed. Burningness has three possible causes – pain, fear or ambition, in descending order of effectiveness. Pain is best at creating these conditions because things are going wrong, visibly, viscerally, now. No one argues against taking bold action now. Fear is a step less convincing because things are fine now, but they are going to get worse in the future. Ambition is the least likely cause of burningness to work, not because it’s weak but because it has to come entirely from within. There is no crisis visible but the leading team has a burning desire to reach somewhere further on, somewhere seriously stretching.
Then a Moment of Belief. Stories and statements don’t change people’s shared beliefs. Only seeing something real that works, clearly contradicting the prevailing assumptions, is strong enough to start the process. In this case it means seeing a customer-led initiative work. It is obviously good for customers but clearly costly and risky for the organisation, so when in practice it benefits customers and also works for the organisation, it challenges the most common shared beliefs. We call this a Moment of Belief, like a moment of truth but with the effect of shifting at least some individuals’ unspoken assumptions.
A flow of Moments of Belief. Having seen something counterintuitive work once, confidence grows that something similar might work again. So a second initiative is tried. When that works the third follows and so on, eventually broadening the scope of customer-led activity. People across the organisation see a pattern emerging – ‘every time we do something great for customers it works for us too’. It becomes a way to get a pat on the back or promotion
The burning need to do something different
With TfL we see all three types of burningness play their part – pain, fear and ambition.
TfL’s greatest concern was to shift people away from cars and towards clean, safe and reliable public transport. A city cannot thrive if it is dominated by vehicles. It meant TfL had to make their customer experience not just good but great.
The second layer of pain was money. There were unavoidably rising costs and decreasing grant support from government. The teams’ mood was one of sober realisation at the sheer scale of the task and what was at stake for the capital city. It gave them focus and it led to ambition.
Part of the ambition came from TfL’s sense of purpose to keep London moving, working and growing to make life in the city better. It used to be plain old London Transport, but it was reformed and broadened as Transport for London, transport with a purpose.
This intrinsic motivation was strengthened from an external source, the arrival of a democratically elected, publicly accountable London Mayor - in 2000 - with a commitment to keep London moving. The Mayor of London was the first individual person responsible for all of London’s transport modes together, interested in integration and outcomes not just the performance of constituent parts. They also provided the public transport users of London with one obvious person they could complain to and vote out of office. This was a game-changer.
An outside-in approach
TfL looked afresh from a customer’s perspective. They cared most about three things: a safe and reliable transport service, value for money and innovation in services so there was leading edge practice and technology in what they experienced. Value for money means not just fares but how TfL treats people and the quality of service they give. And when customers talk about wanting a reliable service, they specifically mean that they want to be confident they can turn up at a bus stop or tube station and be on the move within minutes. If the service did not meet this standard, trust in the option being a truly easy alternative would dissolve and people would get in their cars instead.
In the spring of 2010 TfL brought everyone who had something to do with customers together. The aim was to ask a fundamental question about what customer-related issues needed sorting out but, as Vernon Everitt, managing director for customers, communication and technology at Transport for London, describes, the meeting exploded into life.
“We started to talk about, well, what is our purpose? Why should people choose to use us? Billions had been put into improving the public transport network to solve the rush hour, but we can’t double capacity. What we could do is provide people with information that enabled them to travel better. How could we spread demand, give people the tools to travel at less busy times? How do we make the bus network more attractive? And what was most obvious that day was that we needed to run a thread through the whole lot, examining it from the perspective of our customers and not the individual modes of transport offered. We needed to integrate it properly.”
Between 2011 and 2014, TfL redefined themselves as an organisation that exists to keep London moving, working, growing and making life in the city better. Becoming a Customer Pioneer in fact.
The first big Moment of Belief
In 2011 TfL introduced ‘Every Journey Matters’ as their single unifying purpose and promise to Londoners. TfL would now consider everything from the planning of the customer’s journey, the journey itself, through to resolving complaints and issues.
Customers entire experience was being changed. An early example were whiteboards at stations updating service status, maintained by staff who now understood how crucial up-to-date information is to a passenger’s travel and state of mind. Live electronic time-boards followed on tube platforms and at bus stops which gave customers a better experience because they could ‘see’ their bus or train’s approach and so worried less.
TfL was concerned with the emotional side of travel. Poems on the Tube engaged passengers so that the passing of time was less noticeable and less stressful. Drivers updating passengers also took away stress. Even when a driver said they didn’t yet know why the train had stopped, customers were reassured that someone was on it.
Culturally, TfL encourages colleagues to interpret ‘Every Journey Matters’ as they see fit. Across the organisation, colleagues understand that in their different roles they each need to keep TfL’s customers informed when things go wrong. Staff have freedom to do it their own way, leading to consistency of action with diversity in style across individual underground stations, bus drivers and digital service providers.
A second big Moment of Belief
The roll out of contactless payment from 2012 (for buses) to 2014 (for tube and rail) brought a genuine revelation to TfL. It was a win-win-win, benefiting customers through ease of use, staff because they are dealing with happier customers, and the organisation by reducing cost. Many customer-led initiatives work like this in the end, but the benefits can be hard to see in advance of taking the leap.
TfL’s journey to contactless payment instead of tickets was classic outside-in thinking. “The team wanted to put ourselves out of the ticketing business,” Everitt says. An inside-out approach would have been doing tickets better but TfL now understood the underlying problem that tickets solve and had found new and better ways to solve it by having no tickets at all while still getting payment and protecting against fraud.
Contactless payment by debit and credit cards, then smart phones and watches, required innovation from TfL to give each passenger a good deal automatically, so that customers could just tap and go in the knowledge that the best fare would be calculated on a daily or weekly basis. It was what was best for the customer that happened, not what was financially best for the organisation. It was automatic and as customers saw that it worked, trust grew – this was an organisation genuinely working on their behalf.
A third big Moment of Belief
Data is what the next leap forward for customers is all about, drawn from all modes of transport; Underground, Bus, Overground, Tram, River Services and more.
Data comes from trains and buses in terms of where they are, how fast they’re moving and how busy they are. And it comes from customers with data from payment and Oyster cards as they tap into buses and in and out of stations, and also from mobile phones moving around the Underground when their wi-fi is logged in.
Under Everitt’s team, the organisation made all its service data openly available to external developers at no cost to them. TfL’s belief was that this would be best for their customers. They didn’t mind where people find out about their journey as long as the data is accurate, helps people make better decisions, reduces crowding and improves the customer experience.
There wasn’t a business case – indeed data is a saleable asset. There was just a hunch that improving the customer experience would benefit TfL in the end, even if money wasn’t made directly from the execution.
If justification through cost savings was needed, the TfL team reasoned, then it would only slow things down – it was better to start small and wait for quick wins to prove the concept.
“We got into the realms of open data to populate apps that would enable you to navigate the city in a more effective way,” Everitt explains. “People still say to me, ‘You should have sold the data’ but we would have had to create all these products ourselves at a time when we had limited resources and expertise in the area.”
“Liberating the data unleashed a small industry in travel information apps. Citymapper and others took our open data and innovated with it. TfL has benefitted from partnerships with Waze, Google, Apple, Bus Checker, Bus Times, Mapway and others, some of whom reciprocally supply TfL with their own data.”
“We had to be brave to do all this because there was nothing to prove how it would work, but it said something about the progressive nature of the organisation that everyone pulled together to make it happen.”
Managing London’s public transport system is tough. Numbers keep growing yet the infrastructure is limited. Relationships need to be formed with trades unions and myriad other stakeholders. It is a complex environment but TfL has achieved extraordinary things.
The mode shift out of private transport (cars) to public transport and active travel (walking and cycling) was 11% from 2000 to 2019. Perceptions of ‘does TfL care?’ are high. In March 2013, 43% of customers agreed that TfL cares about them, in July 2021 figure was 58%. Over this eight-year period, the rise in customer care scoring has been consistent and sustained.
Thanks to their faith in opening up data for free there are now 600 apps that it powers. The customer database stands at 4 million live contacts, while 2.3 million people follow TfL on Twitter. A 2017 report by Deloitte estimated that the release of open data by the organisation generated annual economic benefits of £130m for travellers, London and TfL itself.
The Department for Transport’s plans for a state-owned body to replace Network Rail are being modelled on TfL, vindication of its work. But in summing up where TfL has got to, Vernon Everitt displays all the healthy signs of an organisation that is determined to maintain the trajectory and momentum of its customer-led transformation.
“Delivering 80% sustainable mode share by 2041 is our North Star. Before the pandemic, we were at 63% and we are looking forward to welcoming more and more people back to public transport, walking and cycling as restrictions are eased.
This is a journey that, despite its success, has no end in sight.
The Customer Copernicus: How to be Customer-Led by Charlie Dawson and Seán Meehan is published by Routledge, priced £26.99, available from Amazon and leading international booksellers