Maritime & Transport

How the London Underground became a world-leader in metro customer service: Insights from the frontline

Rail conferencesThe Australasian Railway Association is pleased to welcome international guest Xavier Brice to the speaker faculty of Customer Relations in Rail 2013. Xavier is the Head of Customer Service Strategy for the London Underground and was an instrumental part of the delivery of customer service strategies for the tube during the 2012 London Olympics. We had the opportunity to talk to Xavier before he heads to Sydney in March.

What are the main customer service objectives of the London Underground and what is the most important driver in delivering this?
We want our customers to have safe and secure access to a reliable train service. Without that nothing else matters. Then we want to ensure that they have a consistent experience, delivered in a personal way. Our people are absolutely critical to this. We are not and will never be an unstaffed railway; if you’ve travelled on our system I hope you will have seen why – it’s the human touch that makes our railway special, and that we know our customers value.

How important is it to have buy-in from all staff across the entire organisation in the delivery of optimum customer service? How do you ensure a strong culture of customer centricity?
It is essential. We measure performance of all areas of the business using two key metrics – Lost Customer Hours for delays and our Customer Satisfaction Survey, which post-Olympics stands at a record high. The Customer is one of the four pillars of our strategy and all senior managers are required to spend two days working, in uniform, on the frontline.

Are there any particular areas in which you perhaps fall short of expectations at the moment? And what steps are being taken to bridge the gaps?
Customer expectations are increasing all the time. Our ability to deliver consistent, up to the second service information is okay but not as good as it could be and we are tackling this. Of course today’s service improvement is tomorrow’s business as usual so we are instilling a culture of continuous improvement to ensure that we continue to meet, and where possible exceed expectations.

This year the iconic London underground turns 150. What challenges are associated with delivering exceptional customer service on an ageing rail network?
The challenges are immense. We are upgrading a Victorian railway at the same time as moving four million people a day – more than the UK’s entire National Rail Network. This has been compared to playing the final of Wimbledon whilst having open-heart surgery. To give but one example, the signal box at Edgware Road – on a critical junction, where the Circle line meets the Hammersmith and City – manages 950 train movements a day; around one every 40 seconds at peak. It dates back to 1926, complete with a lever frame (updated in the 1950s) and a valve room that’s hotter than a sauna. This will be redundant when the whole sub surface signalling is upgraded – just one of our upgrade programmes and yet the largest engineering project in Europe. In the meantime, that signal box has to keep London moving, day in and day out.

Last year the London Underground faced its ultimate customer relations test during the 2012 Olympics. What did you learn from the experience?
First, that we can deliver a service that is absolutely world class. Transport was identified as the Achilles Heel of the London bid, and if we’d dropped the ball then all the eyes of the world would have been on us. And the UK press were itching for us to do just that! We didn’t. We delivered record performance. Second, that nothing galvanises performance like a clear, single purpose. A lot of resource was focused on preparing for those summer weeks. But it was the dedication and attitude of our people that actually delivered it.

You will be delivering an international case study at ARA Customer Relations in Rail. What can delegates expect from your presentation?
An account of how London Underground has come to be recognised as one of the best metros in the world for customer service, and of what we’re doing to ensure that we continue to meet rising customer expectations.

You can find out more about ARA Customer Relations in Rail 2013, which is being held on the 19-20 March 2013 in Sydney, here.

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