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Blog: Getting back on track – how rail firms can recover and increase customer confidence

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Anyone who has ever commuted to work by train is likely to have been left waiting on the platform at one point or another.

For travelling office workers, holiday makers and exacerbated parents, the appearance of dreaded delay messages on train station displays has become an all-too-familiar part of everyday life.

According to Which? figures, around 80 trains a day faced significant delays throughout 2018, with eight million commuters held up for at least 29 minutes. If one person was forced to wait for the total time of 2018 delays, they would be left standing at the station for 448 years.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that customers are increasingly expecting simple, quick and appropriate compensation for their time spent waiting for delayed or cancelled trains. But a recent report from independent transport watchdog, Transport Focus, has revealed that customers aren’t receiving what they’re due, and are becoming increasingly frustrated at the companies they travel with as a result.

The £100 million ticket

“Too many rail passengers miss out on compensation for late running trains,” says Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus.

“When things go wrong train operators must ensure every eligible passenger knows about Delay Repay [the national refund scheme through which consumers can receive compensation for significant delays] and how to claim … They must also do more to make it easy to claim and automate this process wherever possible.”

According to the watchdog, only 39% of passengers make a claim for delays longer than 30 minutes. If the delay is longer than 15 minutes, this figure falls to only 18%.

In total, there could be as much as £100 million left unclaimed every year.

We’re not exactly a population predisposed to complaining here in the UK – remember that the FCA claims 15 million Britons are regularly missing out on remedies and refunds because they lack the confidence to complain – but with such a large amount of money still waiting to be returned as compensation, more obviously needs to be done to encourage customers to come forward.

Mind the gap between customer expectations and reality

In the rail sector, customers are typically unable to switch to another competitor service due to the simple fact of geography. Customers may be unable to ‘vote with their feet’ like they would be with, say, financial services firms or energy suppliers, but they are more than able to vent their frustrations in other ways.

Customers may share negative experiences on social media to the detriment of the firm’s net promoter score, encourage boycotts or even undertake sharper action that could materially harm the business and its staff.

Rail firms are trusted with a great level of responsibility, being something like the arterial flow of the UK economy. They are expected to work in good faith and deliver the best for the customers that rely on their services. And for the large part, they are achieving this – but much more needs to be done.

Firms in this sector have, for example, embraced social media and other app-based forms of communication to provide rapid responses to enquiries and live updates, but this uptake has not been uniform across the network. Nor has the level of compensation normally paid out.

Investing in improvements to the customer experience in this sector will pay huge dividends in the long run, especially in a world in which travellers are becoming more conscious of their carbon footprint. Many are even choosing to become ‘flightless’, opting to take the train wherever possible in place of flying.

Massive infrastructure projects, such as Crossrail, HS2 and the continuing electrification of many lines across the country, are also opening up new opportunities for rail firms to ‘tempt’ people off the roads.

If train operators want to take advantage of upgrades in infrastructure and the trend towards ‘green’ travel, they should be encouraging customers to use their services on the premise that they will receive excellent service at every touch point, from booking tickets, to claiming compensation.

Customer advocacy can have a massive impact on the bottom line. Research conducted for our Complaints Outlook 2019 suggests that a third of all people who have a positive complaints experience will share it with others and encourage half of those to become customers. There is a potentially powerful snowball effect here that firms could benefit from – if they deliver a good claims and complaints experiences.

Firms can and should be using claims and complaints data to drive necessary service improvements. Think of it as free customer experience research. If a complaint is made soon enough, and firms respond quickly enough, they could potentially spot and solve small issues before they become larger ones – and before they become headline news.

But if few people are actually coming forward to make a claim, it becomes difficult for rail businesses to effectively prioritise action.

Opening the floor for more claims

Transport Focus will continue campaigning until it sees the compensation process within this sector made quicker and easier for passengers, and firms doing more to promote how and when passengers can claim money back. The watchdog has also called for the introduction of an automated compensation scheme, putting more responsibility on rail firms to proactively rectify identified issues.

While an automated compensation system would obviously be great news for customers, such a system is only possible if firms have the capability and data to deliver it.

Without customers coming forward to complain and share their experiences, there is only so much businesses can do to rectify any given situation. They may know that a train was delayed for X number of minutes in Y location, but they probably won’t know the conditions on the ground (overcrowding, failed air-conditioning, and so on) that really cause customers pain.

We have referred to this in the past as the ‘complaints iceberg’. Though firms may think they are receiving a fair and representative spread of data from the claims or complaints being made, there are actually far more issues to take into account bubbling ‘under the surface’. Without encouraging these non-complainant customers to come forward, firms will find it difficult to drive the real change needed.

Getting non-complainants on board

There are a number of goals that rail firms can be working towards now to increase customer satisfaction and confidence. Working towards these methodically and self-critically will help businesses engage both complainants and non-complainants:

  1. Encourage complaining – When customers have issues, you want them raised so you can fix them, regain the customer’s trust and prevent the same issue happening again. Give your business a greater insight into the issues affecting customers by removing the barriers to complaints. Some common barriers include confusing or long forms and low customer awareness of channels through which they can complain.
  2. Turn complainants into advocates – This can be achieved through an effective complaints handling process that focuses on delivering fair outcomes.
  3. Root cause rectification – Proactively put right the issues that cause customers to complain in the first place. How do you do this? Well, the keys are the quality of your analysis and gaining your senior executives’ buy-in to ensure that actions are implemented and tracked.

Rail companies should look towards sectors such as financial services and utilities where businesses have had to make complaints processes more effective. By doing so, they have been able to encourage customer advocacy and create deeper, more meaningful relationships between firm and customer.

The question now is: “all aboard?”

A fantastic starting point for any major change-project within the complaints department is Huntswood’s Complaints Outlook 2019. While the Outlook was developed from financial services and utilities data, the practical guidance within it will be applicable to any firm handling customer issues on a regular basis. This invaluable report will be the ‘go-to’ handbook for any complaints department for years to come. Download it for free today.

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