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“Ultimately Our Customers Aren’t Just on a Journey – They’re People with Different and Individual Needs”


Tim Cowley

Tim Cowley discusses First Group’s approach to creating a customer focused culture

Whether it’s a young person travelling on their own for a first time, who’s unsure of where they’re going, or a seasoned commuter who wants to know what platform their train is leaving from, everyone has different needs on their journey from A to B. When the stakes are high and nerves are heightened with time-pressured scenarios, there can be a tendency to forget this when the task of getting people through the gates takes precedence. Traditionally, rail has been a very operationally focused industry that has shied away from its customers – Tim Cowley, People and Change Lead at First Group, knew this needed to change fundamentally. Responsible for three different train operators – Hull Trains, Great Western Railway (GWR) and TransPennine Express – Tim’s main objective was to help his employers empathise with customers and develop a toolkit of how to interact with day to day commuters.  He says: “Our customers aren’t just on a journey – they’re people with different and individual needs – it’s our job to help them and not  treat them as inept or an inconvenience.”

The customer-centric focus was in part inspired by the ethos of the Olympic Games and how positively people responded to it.  Rather more negatively though, there has also been mounting pressure from consumer champions such as Which? who launched a campaign against ‘unacceptable services’ and for the rail industry to ‘finally deliver for customers’.

From creating new customer roles with a primary responsibility for helping people, to passenger information screens – Hull Trains was the first rail operator to install this on their trains to give customers up to the minute information –  First Group has committed to putting customers first. Regional Development Managers liaise with local authorities, businesses and charities, as well as chambers of commerce to ensure rail services are more relevant to the area’s demographic and needs.  Tim says: “We’ve taken a closer look at what needs prioritising to make life easier for customers, whether it’s investing in installing easier to use vending machines or creating more side entrances.” He adds: “Digital technology has helped to enable face to face interaction too, with more staff on hand to assist in these situations.”

The positive impact of First Group’s customer-focused approach is clear. The Institute of Customer Service runs the UK Customer Satisfaction Index, which records annual changes in levels of customer satisfaction across UK sectors and organisations. The Jan 2017 edition lists GWR as the UK’s 5th most improved organisation in terms of customer satisfaction. Figures published in January of this year show that Hull Trains has an overall customer satisfaction score of 97%, the highest ever recorded for any operator in the UK this decade. Other scores include 98% for satisfaction with the train (versus average industry score of 86%) and the attitude and helpfulness of staff at 97%, versus 81% industry average.

Of course, it won’t work when employees aren’t engaged. And Tim has made this a priority too through beginning to dissolve the command and control structures within work hierarchies.  “It’s simple but when customers are happy, employees will be too. When we open up the channels of communication, they’re more willing to contribute and give their ideas.”  He adds: “This leads to more engaged employees who are entrusted to come up with ideas that display not only their own initiative and innovation, but their empathetic side that wants to make a difference.”

In particular, this has worked when dealing with the sensitive topic of reducing the number of suicides on the railway, where employees have used their own initiatives to alert each other.

Interestingly, statistics from the ICS also show how employee engagement leads to greater customer satisfaction and loyalty. The research found that a one point increase in employee engagement equates to a 0.4 point increase in customer satisfaction. Tim says: “We no longer hide from our customers but actively engage with them. This has, in part, naturally developed from enabling our employees to develop self-efficacy, which in turn helps them to feel good about themselves.”

Meet Tim Cowley at Working Futures where he will discuss how to develop a customer focused culture with engaged staff.

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