Why would you recommend Virgin Trains? Why NPS should not be the default question to measure all customer experiences


Virgin Trains - why would you recommend them to anyone when there is no other option?
Virgin Trains – why would you recommend them to anyone when there is no other option?

I am very fortunate to work with and alongside some exceptional Customer Experience Professionals. As a specialist in the profession myself, the ability to continually learn from my peers enables my own development. Whilst I love writing about all things to do with Customer Experience (as I hope you know), some of my colleagues are not as keen as I am to rant on a regular basis. That being said, I often try to ‘twist the arm’ of the experts I know others will be keen to learn from.

I am absolutely delighted that my friend and fellow Customer Experience Professional, Maria McCann has finally caved in and written about an experience of her own. If you do not know Maria, you should. Maria is one of the most accomplished leaders I know in the Customer Experience field, having held senior roles at Red Letter Days, ASOS, Spotify and Aurora Fashions. Her story (which I am hoping you have guessed involves Virgin Trains) is one that I am sure we can all relate to – I know you will enjoy reading it:

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We’ve all been on the receiving end of a train delay. It’s often a no-win situation for the train company focused on getting everyone to their destination safely, while passengers are left feeling impotent and frustrated.  I feel protective of the customer facing teams dealing with confused, sometimes angry customers and the social teams whose twitter handles get put under immense pressure to respond with lightening speed.

However a first time trip using Virgin Trains left me with more steam coming out of my ears than one of their Super Voyagers! Let me set the scene. My train was cancelled. The next one was delayed. Updates from the concourse and on twitter citing reasons outside of the train Operators control. A blameless situation and a communicative company.  All ok so far. Expect in the middle of my chaos, I received a survey asking me how my recent travel experience was and how likely I was to recommend Virgin Trains to a family or friend. The good old NPS question.

When I told them there was zero chance of me recommending them, I was asked why.  This is what I told them.

  1. Why would I need to recommend the only operator that runs this route?
  2. My train is delayed. I wouldn’t recommend anyone right now

I’m going to pivot here for a moment and talk about Net Promoter Score; the methodology that Virgin Trains, and countless other businesses use to measure their customer experience.

I was an early UK adopter of NPS, first implementing it at Red Letter Days in 2007. The reason I used it was a purists’ one. I wanted something we could use to measure organic growth. As a company coming out of Administration, it was crucial we had a sustainable customer growth underpinning our strategy and NPS was a great way to measure this.

Since then I have seen the use of NPS evolve into a benchmark measure for customer satisfaction or experience reaching out beyond commercial markets into sectors with consumer monopolies such as train travel, and even NHS Direct in health.I’m all for having a measure that provides insight which organisations can act upon. However, I would challenge NPS as the default question to measure customer experience in all cases. It was certainly the wrong question to ask about my train experience.

Anyway, back to my frustrated self, standing on the platform. NPS question asked and answered. Check. Algorithm picked up key word, prompting more detail from me. Check. Detail given in form of mini-rant. Check.

‘We’re sorry you experienced a delay’ was the answer to my response ‘If you have been delayed by more than 30 minutes, please click here to download a form to claim for compensation.

WOW! I thought; this business is so sorry that I have to do all the work to pick up the pieces.

My train finally arrived and it was elbows at dusk as two trains worth of passengers attempted what looked like a line of rugby scrums as they boarded. Deciding that standard class was going to be more like cattle class, I decided to seek out a member of staff to see if I could upgrade to 1st, (which took up a third of the train and was practically empty). ‘Upgrades are only available at weekends’ was the flat response.  I had no idea what this meant and was losing my calm. And so I turned to Twitter to see if I could get what I wanted. #Epicfail

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I got no response from Virgin Trains after my final tweet and I spent the rest of my journey calming myself over a gin and reflecting on what I could learn from my experience.

Data gives us opportunities to see further ahead than the customer. So why do we often act out of kilter with our customers’ reality?

When I headed up Customer Service at ASOS, I obsessed over being one step ahead of our customers. Especially on delayed deliveries. Then we developed the capability to predict delays, communicate the failure and refund the delivery charge. All in one smooth service experience. This presented a culture problem. If we refunded 100% of failures, we might refund some customers who didn’t deserve it and we would definitely spend more in refunds.

However we decided to put the right experience over our fears and became one of the first retailers to tell customers of a problem before they felt the pain of experiencing it.  Customers who had previously complained fell, rapidly.  Refunds ballooned but we were able to reinvest the resources we had saved from reduced customer contact, into finding the root of these delays and fixing them for good.

Virgin Trains could have mashed up mine and the train’s data. They could have emailed me to tell me of the delay. They could have reassured me I didn’t have to do anything because they were sorting the compensation. And they could have avoided sending me a survey at the worst possible moment in my experience.

 We love training our teams to be empowered. So why don’t we support them to be autonomous?

I know some of you will be thinking empowerment and autonomy are the same and I’ve lost the plot.  Admittedly my mind can sometimes make quantum leaps of logic so let me try to explain what’s going on in my head…

Empowerment is a set of pre-defined powers handed from manager to employee, usually to manage a set of processes. Autonomy starts from the other end. It is an individual using their purpose, self-reliance and judgment to handle any situation, with their leaders supporting their needs. Talk to me about autonomy and I get inspired.

My experience could have gone differently in a completely autonomous environment. 1st class seats could have been sold without referring to process limitations to those interested in paying. If a totally customer obsessed train manager had been in charge, free WiFi and coffee might have been given to the flagging passengers! Although it was clear the team were empowered to manage the overall situation of the delay, I felt like I’d been shoved through a linear process.

To be fair to Virgin Trains, my overall experience is no better or worse than most consumer face everyday. Most brands are just not brave enough to push the boundaries in how we can use data and support our teams to act autonomously.

So I’ll leave you with this thought …  if we did use data to manage and measure the hygiene parts of our customers experience and leave the awesome parts to our autonomous colleagues, I believe most brands would have a better relationship with their customers as a result.

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I am sure you will join me in thanking Maria for taking the time to write this excellent post. You can connect with her on Twitter @mariamccann or LinkedIn