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Award-winning train firm offers customer service excellence

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2nd Apr 2009
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Independent rail ticket retailer thetrainline.com has won the Gartner CRM Excellence Award for creating the most effective customer initiative. But what makes its customer service so "effortless" and how did it get on the right track?

By Chris Middleton

Rail ticket retailer thetrainline.com recently won the Gratner CRM Excellence award for providing a service and experience that was "effortless" for customers. But the process of getting there wasn't quite as straightforward.

The firm began its initiative by rolling out a system to build a single view of customer interactions and improve enquiry handling across phone, email, web and chat channels. The tool is also used to gather customer feedback and help the firm in boosting quality of service. As the first step, the firm had to identify issues that might prevent them from using thetrainline.com, or booking rail tickets online.

"It started about 18 months ago, with the business decision that we needed to invest more in the brand and improve our share of the market and make the brand more related to cost savings," explains Bill Hopkins, operations director of the website. "The next stage was to do a lot of market research, including a usability study of the website. A whole project came out of that with focus groups exploring usage of the site across every demographic group."

"What was overwhelmingly coming back was the need to communicate better, to get over those emotional barriers and make it easier to do business with us."

Bill Hopkins, operations director, thetrainline.com

The company discovered that many people weren't aware of the savings benefits of booking in advance and, more disturbingly, that people were being put off using rail websites altogther because they perceived them as "difficult". "Customers use airline sites to buy tickets but there is a certain 'fear' around rail tickets," says Hopkins. "It's hard to get on the wrong plane but easy to get on the wrong train. What was overwhelmingly coming back was the need to communicate better, to get over those emotional barriers and make it easier to do business with us."

Avoidable contact

The company looked at every aspect of its approach and established that the best way to avoid customer complaints was to be proactive in communications and the avoidance of problems. Initiatives included a 'Best Fare Finder', which tells customers when the cheapest time to travel is, and an SMS ticket alert, so registered customers can be texted details of when low-cost tickets are released for sale. "The old-fashioned view is that if a customer is a problem then a good help desk agent can turn him into a loyal customer," says Hopkins. "But the best way is to reduce effort from a customer perspective so there is no reason for the customer to contact us in the first place. You identify issues and proactively contact them."

With rail travel being an often controversial issue, having complex and often high pricing and dozens of competing companies, he admits that thetrainline.com is in the front line of customer interaction with the rail industry. Refunds because of late-running or cancelled services are just one example, as regulations say tickets have to be returned before refunds can be issued. The company now uses the same proactive approach to text people when thetrainline.com has received the ticket, when refunds are being processed, and so on.

"Communicating proactively with the customer seems to correlate with customer satisfaction and lower effort. The more you make it easy or resolve something for them, the happier the customer is," he says, citing an example where customers received texts saying they had been overcharged on one occasion and that the money had been refunded.

Where firms go wrong

So why do many companies get it wrong and end up deploying technology as a barrier between customer and company? "Often people end up in silos," Hopkins offers. "We link our programmes between every part of the company – IT, operational, marketing, and so on. We want to grow but we ask ourselves how we want to grow. If we invest in advertising we will only really grow our business if we improve our business first.

"We want to grow but we ask ourselves how we want to grow. If we invest in advertising we will only really grow our business if we improve our business first."

Bill Hopkins

That said, advertising was core to the deal. Part of the success of the CRM programme was imposing a deadline, which Hopkins admits was driven by a planned advertising campaign. "We put a date on it, so there was a goal for the whole company to work towards," he admits, but adds that the starting point was how to improve the business. said.

And it seems to be working as even though customers are being "more prudent and savvy" during the recession, there has been a 30% annual increase in customer registration and a 5.1% increase in repeat spending since the start of the programme. "It's a process: you're continually improving," Hopkins adds. "You keep learning and you keep looking at it; you ask customers, spot trends and then try to correct them; you use that information and then test it, as well as genuinely listening to the customer, rather than doing a once a year survey. We're now in the process of doing it all again."

 

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