We have been working hard on our responses to the many questions in the consultation paper on the requirements for the new Southeastern franchise from December 2018. There’s lots to say, and we will be sharing some of our draft responses here for public comment and improvement. This first instalment is to the questions on customer service, complaints and compensation.
- What comments, if any, do you have on our plans to improve customer service and the overall passenger experience?
In his introduction to the consultation document the Secretary of State says “Passengers rightly expect to be treated as individuals and for staff to be able to respond quickly and effectively to their needs. We strongly support this aspiration.
On page 19 improving customer service is said to be a challenge and it is said that improvement will be sought in journey planning, ticket purchase, on-board experience, provision of information before, during and after the journey, communication during disruption, dealing with complaints and providing compensation when things go wrong. However no further details are given of DfT’s “plans” for improving customer service are given and so it is not possible to comment upon them.
Nevertheless action is needed in all these areas.
The basis of the operation of the franchise should be the principle that customers come first. Incentives and penalties need to relate to the customer experience. Perverse incentives to improve measured performance by lessening customer experience (such as “station skipping” to reduce knock-on delay effects on PPM scores) need to be eliminated.
[What should we say here?]
Please see response to Question 8. [in a forthcoming post]
[What should we say here?]
Provision of information before, during and after the journey
Southeastern’s website fails to provide the information that customers need in the form that they need it. For instance, of the three forms of assistance available to pregnant women, two are on separate pages and one is not mentioned on the website at all. This shows a lack of customer focus. In addition some website pages are inaccurate, misleading and do not align with the needs of customers. The new franchisee’s website should be required to give accurate, up to date information orientated to the needs of customers.
Communication during disruption
Southeastern have failed to make a noticeable improvement in this area over the period of their franchises. Customers can still get better information from each other on Twitter; different Southeastern staff give different explanations; on-train and on-station information about disruption depends on the individual nature of the staff involved; and information about diversion of services is patchy and often unrealistically late. It is not as though Southeastern have not had enough disruption to practice on. Therefore it is key that:
- customers are given accurate, up to date and actionable information.
- customer communication needs to be given priority among the franchisee’s management team and in the control room. Customer communication is as important as getting the trains back on time.
- until this problem is solved, communication during each major disruption should be reviewed, actions identified and relentless pursued. To ensure an effective pressure to improve each review should be published.
Dealing with complaints
Southeastern have demonstrated the lack of importance they attach to customer service and complaints by contracting the function out to a remote agency. Responses to complaints are usually bland boiler-plate text, and we have some examples where the agent did not even bother to read the original complaint. While statistics are sent to the company, and some high-level figures are published, there is no evidence that Southeastern use complaints as a source of drivers for continuous improvement. Indeed when they established a “customer panel” they deliberately chose not to even read the complaints there.
- The new franchisee should be required to show how complaints will be used to drive improvement, and to provide evidence showing how this has been done.
- To improve transparency and create a pressure to improve complaints should be published as reusable data, with personal details removed unless the complainant requests otherwise.
- There should be an independent “Southeastern Ombudsman” to whom complainants can refer their issue if unsatisfied with the response and who has a right of access to all information held by the franchisee (including commercial information). In addition to making recommendations on individual complaints the Ombudsman should be able to make general recommendations, and these recommendations and the franchisee’s response should be published.
The process of dealing with complaints needs to be improved. In particular:
- there should be a maximum waiting time of 30 seconds for an answer from the customer service centre.
- it should be possible to file a complaint by email. Use of a webform is very difficult when on a train or on a mobile device. (The necessary technology to receive emails and automatically insert them into a CRM system workflow has been available for many years.)
- a substantive response should be provided within one day (rather than 10 days, often missed, currently).
- where follow-up action is required (for instance repairing a light at a station or a toilet on a train) the complainant should be informed when the action has been taken and asked to verify that the problem has been resolved. Currently Southeastern do not provide feedback or use their customers as their agents on the ground (see Question 20(a) below).
- If the complainant is dissatisfied with the response they should be able to go to an independent Ombudsman (see above)
Providing compensation when things go wrong
While compensation for extra expenses is essential, Southeastern have come to present the availability of compensation as an excuse to fail to deliver the service correctly in the first place. There is no evidence that “Delay-Repay” has been effective as an incentive on the train company to improve their performance and that of their suppliers, including Network Rail. There should be stronger incentives on the new franchisee to deliver the service correctly. It should never be cheaper to pay compensation than do it right in the first place.
Part of the reason that Delay-Repay has not been an incentive to improve performance is that the amounts paid out in Delay-Repay are very substantially less than the amounts paid to Southeastern by Network Rail in Schedule 8 payments, and the difference is retained as extra profit by Southeastern. The new franchisee should be required to ensure that any Schedule 8 payments received are either paid on in compensation to customers or reinvested in specific measures to improve performance in the future.
Moreover claims for compensation are bureaucratic and time-consuming to make and often denied on spurious grounds. Intervention by passenger groups such as local rail travellers associations and Transport Focus is needed more often than it should. It is suggested that:
- Compensation claims that the franchisee intends to refuse in total or in part should be subject to (genuinely) independent adjudication and the franchisee should be bound by the result.
- The full set of rights under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 should be available.
- Payment of a successful claim of compensation should be accompanied by an ex-gratia payment to cover administrative and other expenses by the complainant.
- Compensation should always be available as a financial transfer (rather than a voucher for future rail travel).
- As Oyster and other smartcard fare payment are introduced, payment of compensation for delays should be automatic.
While the Delay-Repay scheme has been generally welcomed by customers, it is aimed at redressing major delays on occasional journeys. it does not compensate regular commuters for chronic delays less than 30 minutes (15 minutes in the new franchise). In addition to Delay Repay for serious delays, annual and monthly season ticket holders should get a refund of a percentage (5%) of their ticket price if right-time performance is below an agreed threshold during the period of their ticket. It should be possible to automate the payment of this refund without smartcards since the relevant data is collected as part of the ticket issuing process.
Do you have any other ideas or priorities for improving customer service?
The most significant omission from DfT’s list is the “at-station experience”. This is often the most dismal part of the journey, especially at unstaffed stations and those with few waiting amenities. It is also often the most stressful part of the journey, with uncertainty about when the train will arrive and the lack of information. Improving the at-station experience should be added to the list of priorities for customer service improvement.
What do you think? Please let us have your comments and suggestions here.