‘Mind the Gap’ – Is the London Underground the greatest ever customer experience innovation?


As is often the case at the end of a long hard day, I collapsed on to the sofa to watch a little bit of television last night. I noticed that there was a programme on BBC2 at 9pm about the history of the London Underground. The programme was absolutely fascinating, and made me think completely differently about an institution that I have been using my entire life. I am not quite sure when I first boarded ‘the Tube’, but I did use it to get to school when I was 7 years old!! The programme can be seen on BBC iPlayer until the 23rd May http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01sjtzw/The_Tube_An_Underground_History/

So why I am I writing a blog post about a transport system? What does the Tube have to do with the subject of customer experience? Well having watched the programme last night, I strongly believe that many organisations can learn from the 150 year history of the London Underground. To help explain why, I must first take you through a little bit of customer experience ‘thinking’. I have posted in the past about the components that make up an experience. I am a huge advocate of the model created by Bruce Temkin:

The FUNCTIONAL component looks at whether or not the experience you are trying to create does what people want it to do – or in other words, does it work?! The ACCESSIBLE component looks at the ease and convenience of the experience – how easy is it for people to do what they want to do. Finally, the EMOTIONAL component looks at how the experience makes people feel – this is the component that really determines what people will remember. The model can apply to any organisation, and is one that works well as a self assessment of how capable you are of delivering the experience that your customers want and need. So how can we apply this to the London Underground.

150 years ago, London (like today) was getting pretty crowded. Londoners were finding it difficult to get across, through and around the city. The FUNCTIONAL component of the existing transport experience was no longer working. The only way to solve the problem was to think very differently. The only solution to the problem was to do something that had never been done before. It took very bold and innovative thinking to propose creating a transport system that went under rather than over. Making the decision to completely change the way we do business is not an easy one. It takes entrepreneurial and agile thinking to determine a better way. The men that founded the Tube in 1863 were brave, bold and very very clever.

They hit on a solution that worked – it worked so well that within a few years other companies wanted to get in on the act. A whole series of underground lines were constructed by different companies. Demand was unrelenting – the Tube almost immediately became the best way to get about London. The ACCESSIBLE component of the customer experience was looking in good shape. However, like modern businesses today, you must continually evolve. ACCESSIBLE as per the definition of the customer experience model looks at how easy it is for people to do what they want to do. The tube was a great way to travel, but in the beginning, the trains were powered by steam. as trains started to trundle under London, the users, or more appropriately the customers, were finding the experience less and less pleasant. Smoky stations meant that the service worked, but it was not that easy to experience.

The introduction of electricity changed the Tube forever. Electricity not only enabled the service to go deeper and further, it made the experience so much nicer and more pleasant. Now customers could travel in lit trains – a driver on the programme last night suggested that at the time, London Underground trains were nicer than most of the passengers houses!!

The Tube also very quickly addressed the EMOTIONAL element of the customer experience. By making the lives of millions of Londoners easier, the transport system improved the daily routine. In the early 1900s’ many Londoners could still not read or write. That meant that many customers did not know when they had arrived at the right station. The solution – tiled patterns were created on the walls and ceilings of station platforms – using a variety of colours, they still exist today. Such a clever thing to do to improve the experience for passengers.

The London Underground is full of literally 150 years of memories. As many people know, Tube stations were used as air raid shelters for millions of Londoners during World War II. The Tube has been the place where relationships have started and ended. It has been the place where lives have begun, and tragically where lives have been lost. We all have memories of the London Underground – there are not many institutions we can say that about. Personally, my favourite memory is the sight of my brother, Mark, getting his head trapped between the doors at Golders Green Tube station on the way to school. The look of terror on his face should have seen me being very sympathetic – it was instead the funniest thing I have ever seen.

The EMOTIONAL component of the London Underground experience is also demonstrated by what I think is amongst the most consistent and powerful brands ever created. The London underground logo is recognisable anywhere on the planet. The font used for decades is unique to the Underground, but so recognisable and memorable. And then there is Mr Harry Beck – the creator of the most famous map in the world.

The innovation that inspired the look and feel of the tube is what has created such a memorable brand. Despite being 150 years old, the London Underground has stayed true to this today – the fact that the brand is still essentially the same is an amazing credit to the men that invented it.

In 2013, the Tube looks very different to 1863. The trains are new and modern (and continually being modernised). The trains are powered by a driver with no need for guards. The stations have been improved and most can now be accessed by everyone that needs to use them. The ticketing of the Tube has been transformed – the Oyster card – another amazing innovation has made the ACCESSIBLE component of the London Underground experience to become even easier. You can now read this blog whilst travelling deep under the streets of one of the most vibrant cities in the world – the introduction of Wi-Fi is something that I am sure the founders of the Tube would have been proud.

So what can the modern business in 2013 learn from the London Underground?

  1. FUNCTIONAL – if your business model no longer works – then change it – you may not need to go as far as digging miles of tunnels underground, but you may need to be brave and bold and take things in a different direction
  2. ACCESSIBLE – continually make the experience of doing business with you easier – ‘being easy to do business with’ is something that should be a ‘given’ in your organisation – be innovative, agile and flexible
  3. EMOTIONAL – what do you want your customers to remember about their experiences of interacting with you? Ensure that your brand look and feel and tone of voice are consistent across all channels. Do whatever it takes to enable customers to have great memories that they can tell their families and friends all about

One more thing should be noted here – there is a fourth thing that the business world could learn from the Tube. The reason that it has reached the ripe old age of 150 – and is likely to keep going for evermore – is almost entirely down to the skills, strength, commitment, and passion of its people. From the men who dug the first tunnels, to the men and women who drive the trains and staff the stations today. They have spent 150 years helping keep London moving – and they deserve a huge amount of credit and recognition for that. Like your business, nothing is possible without your people.

The tube is so good, that most of us now just take it for granted. We often like to focus on the sweaty armpits in our faces on hot sunny days, or the odd delay now and then. But one thing is for sure – we could not do without the London Underground – it has established something that any business would love – it has established an unbreakable bond – we cannot do without it – it has become a part of the lives of the people who live and work in London. If your business can get even slightly close to doing the same, maybe it too will be around in 150 years time.

Your comments on this or any of my blog posts are very welcome.

8 thoughts on “‘Mind the Gap’ – Is the London Underground the greatest ever customer experience innovation?

  1. Ian, another interesting post. I agree that there are multiple components of customer experience. I would prefer to break it down even further. Many companies think about the Accessible and the Functional, but do not address the Emotional. When they do however, they don’t always consider what the drivers are for that emotional experience. We should allow ourselves to analyse the individual stages of each experience and make a conscious assessment of what these are and how they affect customers. However, going one further, it is worthwhile allowing ourselves the opportunity to intuitively consider how we feel about something sub-consciously. We don’t always understand why we feel the way we do about a thing, but that does not mean that this emotional response is invalid. For example, many people complain about the Tube, its delays, its hot tunnels, its often frustrating platform arrangements when changing lines and either diving deeper or schlepping up from the bowls of the earth. This all said, like most commuters, despite saying I hate the Tube on a fairly regular basis, I am strangely affectionate about towards it. That said, there are definitely ways that TFL could improve the Tube’s customer experience beyond the Functional and Accessible though. I wonder how much thought they’ve given to both the sub-conscious and conscious emotional journey of their passengers? I fear that without the ‘unbreakable bond’ of necessity which you refer to (and indeed a monopoly), the Tube would need to think much harder about how its customers’ emotional experience.

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    • Thanks for your comprehensive comment Kirsty – I completely agree with you – very few organisations manage successfully to tap in to our emotions as consumers – it is without question very hard, but not impossible. I once delivered a presentation to a senior leadership team entitled ‘memories’ – some thought it was cheesy and over the top – others completely understood the point. We want customers to have good/great memories of their experiences with companies – that is what will keep them coming back time and time again.

      I do also agree with your point on the Tube ‘monopoly’ – however, when you consider that they have a one (a monopoly that is), they have still made huge strides in making the experience better – but like any organisation, there is still much to do!!

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  2. I would like to offer a different viewpoint. As a Scot, I don’t get the opportunity to visit London much, ( thanfully, given a recent hotel experience ) but when I do, I find the tube a thing of beauty and wonderment. Probably not words that you associate with the underground, if you use it on a daily basis.
    However, the sounds, the smells and the sights mean that there is always something to catch your eye. The engineering feats that have been met to provide the most famous transport system in the world, all add to any journey, along with the sights that meet you at the end, as you emerge from the subterrainian jungle.
    Is it customer centric? probably not. Does it provide an experience ? You better believe it.

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  3. An excellent post! I agree 100%, especially with the emotional component. I have almost the same point of view Gordon up here, since I’m not English. I’m not even a Briton, I’m from Argentina. But I assure you that everytime I have the chance to go to London I’m fascinated and very emotionally attached to the tube. I’m not sure if its the awe I feel when I realise that I’m riding in a transport system that’s150 years old, or if its knowing what an amazing engineering structure the whole thing is, but I assure you that even for foreigners, for tourists, and for outsiders, the tube is the most loved transport brand in the world.

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