It’s perhaps an understatement to say that the railway industry in the UK is incredibly complex. From the outside looking in, it appears to be one of those age-old industries that has been complacent when it comes to the ‘digital revolution’ - maybe because using the railway relies so much on the physical infrastructure and experience. And once you’ve won a contract to operate a certain route/serve a certain region, where’s the incentive to innovate?
There is a huge amount railway firms could do to improve the customer experience of travelling by train. You’ve only got to look at companies like Trainline, which have revolutionised the ticket buying experience to see that railway operators were themselves slow to change.
Virgin Trains is waking up to this and CIO John Sullivan spoke to diginomica about how the company is ditching industry norms, replacing legacy systems, taking back control and making use of data to better serve its customers. Central to this is the ServiceNow platform, which is being used as the Virgin Train experience platform both within the business and externally. ServiceNow is essentially unifying the data held across Virgin Trains and using it to solve ‘experience’ use cases across the business.
Virgin Trains CIO John Sullivan explains:
If we rewind about three years ago, to when I joined Virgin Trains, I think one of the biggest challenges we had was complexity. The rail industry is complex. If you go from Euston to Milton Keynes, you’ve got around 40 different ticket types. The second layer is that the applications in rail were really, really complicated.
We quickly realised that we needed to get in a platform that is intuitive, that makes these things far more simple. For both our customers and our colleagues. ServiceNow is now in many departments and we are creating many projects - but the key thing is, we need a platform that could link all of our data together across the business. Also, we need a platform that could make things really simple.
Virgin Trains followed the typical route to ServiceNow, implementing the platform for ITSM. It then moved it into its CRC (customer relations) function, and it is now in seven departments across the business. The company is largely adopting an approach that aims for vanilla out-of-the-box functionality, only adapting for unique use cases (e.g. customer service). Sullivan’s key aim - recognising the flexibility within ServiceNow, particularly its ability to capture data across a number of silos - is to focus on creative use cases that could improve the experience for both internal and external uses. He says:
But what we are really focused on, is how we can use this brilliant tool in a creative way. How we can make things better for our customers and colleagues, but being creative. And that is the challenge of any modern technology team. Because the technology is so good now, we don’t have to worry about the tech. We’ve got to worry about two key things - one is business engagement, and secondly, being creative with what we’ve got.
This has partly been made possible by insourcing Virgin Train’s processes from suppliers that have been operating functions on the behalf of the company for 20 years. Virgin Trains notes that it had not visibility into its processes, or the work that the supplier was doing. It is now taking ownership of its data, putting it into ServiceNow, and using the platform to focus on the customer, being agile, and piloting innovative use cases.
Dean Underwood, Head of Technology Services at Virgin Trains, notes:
They were holding us back by keeping us in their data systems.
Making disruption a more pleasurable experience
One of the key ‘creative’ problems that Sullivan is attempting to use the ServiceNow platform to solve, is the issue of disruption. Anyone that regularly travels by train in the UK will know that railway disruption is fairly common. Whether that be delays, being stuck on the tracks, cancellations, or even being thrown off the train halfway to your destination - none of it is unusual.
However, Virgin Trains is keen to improve this experience when things do go wrong. Key to all of this is having accurate data to hand, which is being enabled by the ServiceNow platform. Sullivan explains:
The one that we are incredibly excited about is disruption. The one that will have the biggest impact on the business is disruption. And that comes from a really nice culture that I think we’ve got at Virgin Trains. In times of disruption, and I think it does happen too often in rail, everyone at head office puts on the Virgin Trains Red Jacket and goes on to the platforms in the stations to help out.
When we were doing that, the information we were given was poor. We were giving customers the wrong information. We had the right intent, but the quality of information wasn’t there. The second thing is, there is a huge amount of confusion when disruption happens - where should people be? What should they do? Everyone is calling the control centre, sometimes they take 1,000 calls in 90 minutes and they only have three telephone lines. What that all added up to was a massive amount of confusion.
So we thought, at the highest level, was engage with ServiceNow on this really, really big business issue. What’s the challenge and how are we going to fix this? It’s really about clarity of where our staff should be. Are they safe? And what should they do?
We’ve cleaned up all the data and information, so we can tell both our colleagues and our customers the right information. If we get our customers home half an hour earlier than we would have done beforehand, which I strongly believe we will do, we are going to be extremely happy. We know from our customer satisfaction scores and index, it really drops at a time of a disruption.”
Improving customer satisfaction - internally and externally
Sullivan explains that the primary objective for using ServiceNow is to improve the company’s customer satisfaction scores, both with internal colleagues and external customers. Sullivan states that “everything we do starts from the customer”. Since using the ServiceNow platform, the internal customer satisfaction score has increased by 44% - largely through streamlining efficiencies. However, the external customer base is even more impressive. He says:
When we started the customer satisfaction index, we used the same mechanism that Virgin Trains does for the business. About three years ago we were at 25%, which is just a disaster. Every week now we are at 80% or above. ServiceNow has been a very significant part of that.
As noted above, Virgin Trains has been using out of the box functionality for the ServiceNow platform wherever possible. It is being pushed as a best practice workflow. In addition the company has been ripping out and replacing industry applications that are broadly used by other railway companies and have been in place for 20 years.
One area that Virgin Trains is keen to take advantage of is ServiceNow’s advancements in AI and automation. The company is about to turn on a virtual agent for its internal service portal. It is aiming to adapt and use this for its external CRM portal too. Virgin Trains is also part of ServiceNow’s Design Council, where it is working with the vendor on a proof of concept to reduce fraud, using machine learning.
However, one area Sullivan is particularly excited about is the use of sensors on trains. He explains:
The other initiative that is coming quite soon is around sensors. There’s a huge amount we can do around sensors. If a train has a sudden stop, why is that? And we can send the information in to the right people. If the toilet is off, we can identify that and do something about that proactively.
If the temperature isn’t right for the train driver isn’t right, we can do something proactively. If the temperature in the fridge isn’t right, then we can do something about that. Directing customers to carriages that are more empty. All of that will land within ServiceNow. Hopefully that will turn into a companion app in the future.