But in 2012, the brand for which National Express Group is best known had suddenly become, in the words of chief executive Dean Finch, “its most significant challenge”.
While some divisions performed well that year, the UK coach business - National Express Coach - saw a precipitous drop in passenger numbers and profits, after the government withdrew subsidies for older and disabled passengers. The move sent shockwaves through the business, making 2012 one of the most difficult years in National Express Coach’s 40-year history, according to Finch, and hurting operating profit across the Group as a whole.
Down the road
Fast-forward 18 months and it’s clear that National Express Coach is back on track: in the half-year to 30 July 2014, passenger numbers were up 6 percent over the corresponding 2013 period. Revenues, meanwhile, were up 7 percent to £130.5 million, even though fares rose by just 1 percent - an important metric, given that the division’s customer service strategy focuses on offering passengers frequent coach services at low prices.
By introducing better yield management to the mix, the company’s management team reasons, National Express Coach will be able to entice more customers to travel, leaving fewer seats empty on individual services and thus improving profitability, too.
All that, of course, takes insight based on data - so part of the turnaround effort at National Express Coach has involved the implementation of business intelligence tools from Qlikview that help employees to more effectively analyse the performance of the company’s sales channels and route network.
Until mid-2013, they had relatively little technology at their disposal with which to turn data into insight, says Frank Kozurek, business intelligence manager at National Express Coach. One of his first tasks when he joined the company 15 months ago, in fact, was to perform a ‘situation assessment’ to help him identify what was required. What he found wasn’t pretty, he says:
What we had was a load of Excel spreadsheets and a handful of Access databases, too. We had reporting silos. We had different versions of the same numbers and it was extremely difficult to get one view of the business. We had standard reports, but if the numbers on these were questioned by management, it took a big effort to go away and work out where those numbers were coming from and give a definitive answer to those questions. A lot of effort went on churning out reports manually.
This situation clearly wasn’t sustainable. Kozurek’s vision was to introduce a BI environment that would help people across the business get a real grip on the customer experience and how that impacts financial performance.
Before that could happen, however, he and a BI team of two other people needed to better organise data in the company’s Microsoft Windows SQL Server 2008 data warehouse and then layer QlikView’s Business Discovery platform on top, to create an intuitive self-service portal for National Express staff in functions such as finance, sales and human resources. Kozurek recalls:
One of the most important objectives was to give staff the flexibility to interrogate data in ways that they needed to. I didn’t want to be putting in place the kinds of set ‘drill paths’ that I tend to associate with more traditional BI tools. I wanted staff to be able to explore data in lots of different ways and move through data fluidly.
One of the biggest benefits of the implementation for these staff is being able to drill down to the level of an individual journey - National Express Coach delivers 18 million of these each year - which wasn’t possible using spreadsheets alone. And the self-service approach, Kozurek adds, has had important benefits for he and his team, too:
The data warehouse, meanwhile, is currently fed by bookings systems and customer service systems and Kozurek is constantly looking for new data sources to incorporate. One target he has in his sights, for example, is the National Express Coach Tracker system, which displays real-time information on the punctuality of services to passengers via online and mobile apps.
It frees some of our time to make sure we’re focusing on delivering new BI capabilities, rather than constantly having to go back and provide staff with new views on existing data.
It’s about bringing the customer journey to life for our staff. Essentially, they want to know how passengers find the booking process, how smoothly their travel plans go, how satisfied they are with the experience.
But there is also the potential to use data to launch new routes, for example, or cut the times of existing routes by eliminating under-used stops along the way, concludes Kozurek:
We’re not even 12 months down the line with Qlikview yet, and while we’ve already delivered a huge chunk of BI function, there’s still much, much more we can do.
But crucially, the benefits for yield management, arguably National Express Coach’s most important weapon in the competitive battle against rail services, are already being felt.
While vague about the details, the division has publically said that it expects a “six-figure revenue benefit” as BI increasingly enables it to set prices at rates that bring in the most passengers - and the most profits.