Virgin Trains: Using data and intelligence creates the best customer experience

Tyrone Stewart

Claire Cardosi Virgin Trains East CoastMaking the customer happy, as I expect you all know, is the key to success in any customer-focused business. With the masses of data now available, this is easier than ever before for businesses that rely heavily on the digital world.

When Virgin linked up with Stagecoach in 2015 to acquire the rights to the InterCity East Coast franchise on the East Coast Main Line, the pair set about to completely overhaul the customer experience across digital platforms and throughout each customer’s journey. To do this, what was now Virgin Trains East Coast – which is owned 90 per cent by Stagecoach and 10 per cent by Virgin – had to take inspiration from elsewhere.

“From a train perspective, we are looking at other industries to see how they are dealing with customers. And customer expectations are huge when they’re travelling by train – a lot of that is because of what people experience when they’re travelling by plane,” said Claire Cardosi, head of customer experience management (CEM) at Virgin Trains East Coast, speaking at the Festival of Marketing 2017.

“The airline industry has made huge leaps and bounds in using data, using intelligence, personalising the experience, and making sure the customer experience is exactly what you expect. But it’s bloody easy when you’re going by plane. They know every single customer that’s going to arrive at that airport, they know everybody that’s going to board that plane, they all leave at the same time, they go up in the air, they go to the same destination, and they all leave at the same time. So, of course, you can give them a consistent customer experience – you have all the data about every single one of those customers, so it’s quite straightforward to nail.”

Not so easy
On a train, it’s all a little bit more complicated, however.

Virgin Trains, as with any rail service, has passengers that get on and off at various locations before its trains reach their final destinations. Some of these people book through Virgin Trains’ online portals, some through other ticketing sites, and some at the station itself.

Obviously, the data only exists for a portion of these passengers and it’s for these people that Virgin Trains has created a pre-departure program and what it calls the ‘single customer view’ – which provides each online booking customer with a personalised experience through the company’s CEM system.

“When people arrive in the station, they are in different mindsets and they’re travelling for different reasons. Some people find it easy and less stressful than others,” said Cardosi. “So, one of our key tasks was to make sure that, when a customer arrived at the train station, they had every single bit of information they could possibly need. But, the problem there is we don’t want to bombard the customer with a ridiculous amount of information they can’t make sense of.

“Instead, we built our pre-departure program. It has nine possible different emails you can receive in the leadup to your journey, and there are 840 different customer segments that are built in the data behind this, and hundreds of content pods that enable us to generate an email journey that is completely personalised to you and why you’re travelling for that booking.”

Shining a light on the customer
To take this a step further, Virgin Trains launched a staff app earlier this year called ‘Spotlight’. The app enables its frontline staff to ensure the best possible experience for the passengers through the providing of some of the data from the company’s single customer view.

The app means that staff can reward customers based on a variety of different situations, or use the app to look after customers to the best of their ability.

The passengers that get rewarded aren’t necessarily those that have had a milestone number of journeys, but those that have experienced several delays when travelling aboard Virgin Trains could also be rewarded as a way of saying sorry, according to Cardosi.

“The customers are loaded up on to the app, and it’s all done in the order that people are getting on and off the train, and where they’re sat or what their seat number is. And then any of our frontline teams, any of our managers, have this on their staff phones,” she said.

“When you get on the train, you can open it up and, if you’ve got the capacity, take a look to see who you want to surprise and delight today. Head on down, see if the customer is sat in the seat that they were booked in to and the frontline teams have up to three different rewards they can give to the customer – we control those based on the level of reward we want to give but it’s up to them to monitor based on time of day, who that customer is and what they might like.”

Cardosi continued: “It [Spotlight] also enables our onboard teams to look after the customer. If you’ve got a situation where it may help to know a bit of basic information, such as do they have an open case with our customer relations team meaning they’re not in a happy place with us at the moment.”

Despite the wealth of data that Virgin Trains uses to help it to give its customers the best possible experience, it – like every other company – is struggling to come to terms with the introduction of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will be implemented in May 2018.

Cardosi admits the company is still not where it needs to be, though is working hard on being prepared for when the regulations come into force next year.

“To be honest, I don’t think we feel we’ve truly got a grip of it at the moment,” she said. “We’ve got a team internally, cross-functionally that are starting to try and pick a part with our legal team what does this actually mean. We are also relying heavily on our agency partners to guide us through the process and go through a bit of a flagging process to understand where do we believe our risks are.

“I still, personally, think there are loads of bits that are a bit grey and we don’t understand where they are. We’re trying to approach it in as simplistic way as we can, which is to go through a flagging exercise to see where do we think our biggest risk areas are and turn it into how we’d usually manage a project, and hope that gets us to where we need to be.”