A great experience starts with staff not systems


I often blog about bad experiences I’ve received, but I also like to highlight great experiences and examine why they’re great. One of these I received recently from National Express – a UK based inter-city coach operator. This experience was so good that I have completely re-evaluated the brand.

National Express quite bluntly competes with train operators to move people around the UK. They’re often a lot cheaper and beloved of retirees and students as a result. When I graduated I kissed goodbye to National Express and moved to the more expensive but faster experience of trains – that was several decades ago.

Fast forward to 2016 and I recently had to travel from Luton airport. The airport is outside London and unlike Gatwick or Heathrow it is not well connected by public transport. I knew I could get a free shuttle bus into Luton and then catch a train from their into London, but I also knew that there was a lot of scope for error when you arrive tired, late at night, and have to negotiate unfamiliar interchanges.

That’s when I noticed I could get a coach instead from directly outside the airport and into London. No changes and the price was slightly cheaper. Not expecting much, I opted for this.

This journey made me re-evaluate National Express though. Not only were the coaches clean, air conditioned and the driver pleasant and welcoming, but they even had WiFi on board and at stations! Now I could work onboard and catch up with my emails, and the journey itself went without a hitch.

That’s why a month later when I had to repeat the journey with a colleague I insisted on travelling with National Express – it’s easier and cheaper I said. What I didn’t expect is how their employees would adapt to what turned out to be a horrendous journey home. Problems started in Nice when the airline announced there might be a hole in the wing – in which case no-one was going home that day. It turned out to be just a dent and was duly fixed with tape. We were now over 2 hours delayed. Even though I had allowed ample time to get through customs and to the coach station, we were still going to miss our coach.

Arriving hot, anxious and tired we lined up to find out what to do. That’s when a dispatcher arrived. He knew we were all late due to the plane delay. He shepherded us together to the right stop. He sympathised with us for our horrendous journey. He explained we had arrived too late to get on the coach we had booked. We expected to be forced to pay for another ticket, ticked off, or to have shoulders shrugged at us. Instead we had smiles and enablement. He told us what we wanted to hear more than anything in the world. “National Express is going to get you home. Let’s see if we can make your day a little better.” He told us he’d filled up the previous coach with walk-up passengers (it was just getting ready to leave as we got there), but he was going to get us on the very next coach which wasn’t long. He kept us soothed, entertained and his calmness calmed us.

Onboard we had the same, seamless pleasant experience. Our driver was really kind when we got off. He not only helped us with our luggage, but asked if we knew where we were going and pointed us to public transport so we could continue our journey. He wished us a good journey and hoped our day was getting better.

What National Express achieved that day was better than any money they could spend on advertising. All the passengers affected will have told everyone they know (and everyone they don't know via social media) about how great this company is. How when things went badly wrong through no real fault of theirs, they went that extra mile to make it better. My colleague and I now have a very different view of the company. We compared this experience to the more expensive train firms and found them lacking in comparison.

Customer experience is more than just having systems and processes. It’s about knowing when to break the rules. It’s about having a human face to your company and really caring about your customers. I’m sure that National Express is guilty of customer experience misdemeanours like any other large company. But that day they got it right. They made just as much revenue in the short term, but by not 'billshocking' us by forcing us to pay again, by understanding the customer, by showing empathy and efficiency they created a better long-term business for their company. You can’t buy better advertising.

And what a fantastic concept from their employee - that his company's job is not just to move you like freight from A to B, but to get you home.

All too often employees are disempowered zombies following rigid processes that alienate customers, driven by the threat of redundancy if they show their humanity. Companies need to understand that in the future as more things become automated, the employee becomes an ever-more critical differentiator. Technology will do the heavy lifting and will support the employee in his or her role, but it's the employee who will deliver the quirky, idiosyncratic, unexpected, warm, funny and human moments that turn an efficient company into a great company.

To attract the best workers in future, companies need to show them humanity. A happy worker is more productive, more loyal and more passionate about the company they work for. So investing in people is just as important as investing in technology.

Published as part of BossFest16

Omnisperience: experts in digital experience

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