7 ways to Improve the Customer Experience on Europe’s Railways… and Why it Matters

In Customer Engagement, Featured on App, Marketing and Sales, The Mobile Customer by Angela Sands

Europe's high speed rail market is increasingly competitive, as market liberalisation paves the way for international competition between operators. Rail companies are starting to change their outlook from a state-owned service with little need to impress passengers, to customer-facing brands which need to find new ways to improve the passenger experience, and ultimately offer a competitive service. Here are seven innovative strategies that operator's are using to dramatically boost passenger experience on Europe's high speed rail network:

1. Mystery traveller

In 2012 Stockholm's Arlanda Express introduced the Mystery Traveller (a company plant posing as a regular traveller) as a tool to measure their customer service. Their end goal was to increase add-on sales by way of more return ticket sales. They also wanted to test the visibility of their staff on the platforms and welcoming reception at the platform and on-board. This simple initiative achieved return-ticket sales increase of 57%, indicative of the importance of station and on-board staff's customer service performance. It's a great way to check that the actual customer service matches with what senior management assumes is happening (Undercover Boss anyone?).

2. Distribution

Waymate is a cute Berlin-based travel comparison website which covers the entire European route network of Deutsche Bahn. The website displays the duration, price and availability of various transport options for requested itinerary in one easy-to-read timeline. There are few options for comparative rail search and journey-planning which encompass the whole of Europe's rail network (which continues to irritate my Australian friends trying to plan European backpacking trips by rail) so it will be interesting to see if Waymate develops to fill this void.

3. Advertising

Traditionally in the minds of the rail sector, the journey started when passengers arrived at the station. In recent years the sector approaches the journey beginning at the point of leaving the house. In fact, the journey begins when the potential passenger opens their laptop to start planning a trip. If you take that as the first point of passenger experience, marketing campaigns and advertising become very important. Elvis Communications is the fantastic advertising company behind Virgin's ‘Fly Virgin Trains' campaign. While in fact Virgin's service is unremarkable (sorry Virgin), I always board a Virgin Train with the sense of starting something special. The quality of the brand and how it's presented to travellers goes a long way in creating a positive passenger experience well before I've left my house to start my physical journey.

4. Passenger TV

It's a no-brainer if high speed rail want to be seriously competitive in Europe, particularly against the short-hall aviation market. Several operators are now offering passenger TV on board (check out this example from Italy's NTV). I also really like Volo TV's customer-focused approach on their website. They encourage viewers to shop around in a very personable manner. One other thing – do you charge for it or make it freely available? If boosting ticket sales with better passenger experience is the end goal, then free to view all the way.

5. Eye tracking

This is an amazing study being conducted by SBB, GfK Switzerland and SirValUse ahead of renewing the signage at SBB's stations. The goals were to better understand how travellers orient themselves, determine usability issues associated with the existing guiding system and evaluate the impact of new pilot measures aimed at improving the identified wayfinding issues. Customer's wore SMI Eye Tracking glasses which recorded their visual orientation behaviour when looking at existing signage. The results will be used by SBB to improve station signage and ultimately improve the station experience for passengers.

6. Virtual Agents

Virtual Agents can answer customers' questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week helping them find the information they need. They can take passengers to specific pages within a website and offer a speedy alternative to making a phone call. Virtual Zone is an interesting company that supports the Virtual Agent platform for National Rail Enquiries and First Great Western in the UK. They use word and phrase recognition technology which gives the feel of talking to a ‘real person' online.

7. Apps

There is a world of opportunity opening for railways with the advancement of mobile and tablet technology, both operationally and from the passenger experience perspective. Some of the interesting apps on the market for rail passengers are compiled in this list from Railway Technology (I was going to write you one myself but stumbled across this list in my research). Enjoy!

So those are my top tips to railways looking to improve passenger experience. What else would you recommend?

If you would like to explore this market further, join us and 150 operator executives at Rail Experience World in Amsterdam this November.

You might also be interested in our most recent e-book which details 25 ‘unexpected' railway suppliers and includes the likes of Waymate offering interesting (and in many cases customer-facing) solutions for this market.