Can a railway be more like an airline?

By Rebecca Joyner

Many of our clients use Net Promoter Score (NPS) to help them understand customer opinion, and they often ask us to help make sense of the findings by providing benchmarks from across their own or other sectors.  While we try to help, we’re inevitably somewhat limited in this: we can only share information which is already public, and the comparability of information can often be slightly compromised by differences in survey method and respondent profile.

So, we’re setting up a purpose-built NPS benchmarking study for the travel sector, to provide NPS ratings for individual brands, sector comparisons, and an investigation of the reasons that organisations (and whole sectors) achieve a high or low NPS.  We’ll be doing this in early 2016, but we ran a small pilot in August this year covering airlines, airports, car rental firms and train companies.  Here are some high level findings and a few thoughts on what they tell us:

Trains like planes blog chart

High flying performers

Airlines achieved the highest Net Promoter Scores on average (although of course there is variation between individual airlines within this), meaning their customers are more likely to recommend them than customers in other travel sectors.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising: airlines have more opportunities to engage with their customers over the course of every journey than these other sectors; through booking, check in, the flight itself, baggage handling and of course, direct communications throughout.  Car rental firms have similar customer touchpoints and opportunities to engage, but during a flight – over some hours – there is also constant opportunity for face to face interaction between customers and staff, which there isn’t for car rentals.  Comments from the people taking part in our study demonstrate this: those who gave airlines a 9 or 10 out of 10 for their likelihood to recommend them explained their ratings with points like:

"Excellent customer service from online booking through to disembarking from the flight."

"As a disabled traveller, they were so accommodating and helpful."

"No Stress while booking and while boarding."

"It's just pure class when flying with them; everything they do is customer focused, from check in to the boarding departures... the only way to fly."

"Everyone was really friendly, food and drink was offered throughout, we were kept updated of timing and weather conditions. Luggage was fine and was quick on the belt... Overall as nice and productive as a flight gets."

Of course, having more touchpoints and face-time with customers means there is also more risk, but on the whole, airlines in this study were seen favourably.

A different context

Train companies received the lowest NPS on average – again unsurprising given the nature of the customer interaction.  Of the transport categories we surveyed, train companies are the most likely to be used in an ‘everyday’ context; these are typically less ‘special’ journeys, and less conversation-worthy.  Indeed, even among those scoring their train company 9 or 10, there was a sense of lower expectation:

"The trips I take on this line...are always satisfactory. They arrive on time and the carriages are fairly clean and tidy."

"I've travelled with them frequently and not experienced too many issues with them."

"Everything was okay."

"Trains arrive mostly on time and the service is good where I live."

"The trains were on time and I didn't have any problems."

"[It] is a perfectly fine way to get into London and is easy to use. However, it's not perfect - there are delays and sometimes it's grubby."

However, having said that, and suggested that airlines and train companies are two very different things on which people travel with very different mindsets…. is this really the case?

Acting like an airline?

Our small study also indicates that where train companies act more like airlines, advocacy is much stronger.  Demonstrating this, Virgin Trains (operating only on the West Coast Mainline at the time of this survey) achieved a great Net Promoter Score of +30.  That was the highest of all the train companies, and higher than many of the airlines we surveyed.  Virgin Trains is somewhat unique, enjoying brand halos from its namesake airline – but it does also act more like an airline. In our survey its high-scoring (‘Promoter’) customers sounded more like they were describing a flight than a rail experience, spontaneously mentioning great service from staff, a great on board experience, great First Class offerings, and talking about how journeys make them feel, much more commonly than customers of other train companies:

"It's always a pleasant journey travelling with Virgin Trains"

"They are professional, very comfortable and I enjoy travelling with them. Also there is a sense of humour about the company, especially the loos!"

"Comfort is high quality, a lot of leg room to move freely in and the ride is enjoyable"

"Virgin Trains is a first class train operator and are very reliable and fast."

"I always travel First Class and am always more than happy with the attention and service I receive."

I’m aware that there is another way to look at this – perhaps it’s not that Virgin Trains is acting like an airline, it’s just that both Virgin Trains and Virgin Atlantic are both just acting like Virgin.  It’s also not news – we’ve certainly heard rail users talk about Virgin Trains more positively than other train companies before.  What I think is more interesting is the implication that Virgin’s offering might be having for other train companies which operate long distance routes.  In this survey and other research we conduct, we’re seeing rail travellers’ expectations raised: they assume that other long distance journeys will be similar to what they know or perceive about Virgin Trains.  This can be hard on customers and service providers alike if those expectations are not met – but now that Virgin also operates on the East Coast as well (and assuming they act in the same way there) I would expect this trend to continue.

"£269.50 for a First Class ticket and that DOES NOT include the  whole range of food and drink available on the train. Terrible! You should take a leaf out of Virgin West Coast's book - they have a proper First Class."

"I was very unhappy about being told one minute before departure that there were no catering facilities on the service. Being up from 5am with no food or water until I am at my destination at 10am was unacceptable"

"Could do with more space for working with a laptop and two power points."

Feedback from passengers in our various projects suggests that there is still a mindset in many train operating companies that is more akin to public sector services – getting the operational work done (moving people from A to B), communicating with users when there is a ‘need’ (when something has gone wrong and people need to be informed), and not marketing as a ‘brand’.  But train companies (at least those running long distance journeys) need to act more like airlines: they need to use every customer touchpoint as an opportunity to build brand and reputation, and they need to capitalise on the fact that for many customers the journey is something special (and that includes the relatively frequent travellers – airlines make as much if not more effort with their frequent flyers), if they are to maintain a footing in the opinion stakes.  After all, these rail routes are competing with domestic airline flights.

And looking further ahead, perhaps we will see that raising the bar in long distance rail travel could help raise expectations – and in turn, therefore, service, in commuter rail services…?

This blog post only scratches the surface of the findings in this small study on Net Promoter Scores – and I’ve mentioned nothing here about the insights we gathered into airports and car rental firms.  We’re also running a larger scale study in March 2016 (and again September), which will enable us to go into more detail about travel company reputations - find out more via the NPS Benchmarking webpage or email us.

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