Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) do talk so much nonsense and the marketing press lap it up! I don't know if it's because it's a group of people who like to pat each other on the back to appear competent or whether they just take what VTEC say at face value. The mainstream press are also guilty of copy and pasting VTEC press releases (usually incorrectly adding a picture of a west coast Pendolino or Voyager to show how little knowledge they have) without any critical questioning.

This particular post is about an article in Mobile Marketing, I discovered this when @Virgin_TrainsEC retweeted the following:

Let's analyse what's written...

Making 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.

I certainly agree making the customer happy is key to success. Therefore things such as cutting back on on-board crew meaning that it's not always possible to get the advertised catering offering, cutting back on small things such as soft drinks in the King's Cross 1st class lounge, introducing a website that is lacking features we've had since 2007 including the ability to modify tickets online, book cycle spaces and doesn't offer the full range of tickets are all things that can make a dent in customer satisfaction. Of course scrapping the best loyalty scheme in the UK doesn't help in customer satisfaction either, particularly when you try and insult your customers by claiming the replacement is an improvement.

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.

If they'd taken inspiration from what was already there (East Coast Rewards) they'd have been off to a good start. If they thought it was too generous they could have tweaked it, or if they were totally against giving tickets away so easily they could have looked at previous East Coast Mainline operators loyalty schemes for high spenders such as GNERtime. Even within other Virgin companies you had the 'Traveller' loyalty scheme on Virgin Trains West Coast (although cutbacks over the years have completely devalued what was a decent scheme) or they could have added a status element like airline schemes such as Virgin Atlantic Flying Club have where frequent travel takes you to a higher tier unlocking benefits such as lounge access.

“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.

So VTEC marketing like to tell us how much hassle flying is, but apparently also customer expectations are huge when travelling by train because of their experience travelling by plane? Do they even know what they're talking about?

People have high expectations travelling on the East Coast Mainline due to the high standards set by the previous operators GNER and East Coast. The VTEC website still describes an excellent on-board product, and when it is delivered it is a product that hands down beats the airlines on shorthaul. The first class menu offers complimentary hot food from the first train (breakfast) to the last (rest of day menu), although there's no on-board restaurant serving three course meals like we had with GNER (although this was not complimentary) being able to enjoy a meal on board makes the trip more enjoyable. The chef prepared evening meal trains in particular can offer some excellent food, much better than you can get on a plane.

VTEC Evening Meal

So when you're looking forward to some hot food and then find out that due to staff shortages, kitchen failure or supply issues that this is not available and instead all you get is a sandwich in a box (or occasionally nothing) then this is sure to disappoint. There's always been the odd occasion when the promised catering can't be offered but these instances have started to increase recently and it can't be a coincidence that this started when the shift rotas changed mid-March meaning fewer staff on many trains.

It's quite obvious that not delivering the advertised product is a key factor in not meeting expectations.

“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.”

I doubt many people travelling on airlines have a personalised experience. Although British Airways issue iPads to crew with passenger information it would be impossible for the crew to deliver a customised experience on a short haul flight. Sometimes frequent travellers will get a personal greeting but this is still relatively rare.

I don't think anyone would choose the plane just for the remote chance of some personalised service, what they may choose the plane for is the defined benefits in the frequent flyer scheme such as being able to reach new tiers that unlock benefits such as lounge access on economy tickets, fast track, priority boarding as well as the ability to use points for flights and upgrades.

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.

This is misleading. There's two separate companies that refer to themselves as Virgin Trains. If you book your tickets through Virgin Trains West Coast then VTEC won't have access to your passenger information. This is also another source of customer annoyance, if you book your standard class ticket through the wrong (west coast) Virgin Trains site you won't benefit from a free WiFi code, or indeed frequent flyer miles or Nectar points.

“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.

VTEC are notorious for bombarding the passenger with needless emails.

“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.”

The only way they can personalise these is based on the "purpose of journey" option on the booking site and that doesn't really tell you much. Sometimes the cheery tone of the emails does not go down well.

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.

This has already been covered in an earlier blog post "Surprise & Delight Rewards", rather than having a scheme with defined benefits giving people things they find attractive such as free tickets and lounge passes they will randomly surprise people either by email or on-board. You may get something such as a small bottle of prosecco and a snack or an on-board upgrade. This also assumes that the on-board team have the time to provide these benefits.

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.

Paying Delay Repay claims in a timely manner might be a better way of saying sorry.

“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

This also means those with the most expensive tickets (flexible) may never be rewarded for their high spend if they take advantage of the flexibility and don't reserve a particular train.

“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.”

As it clearly states it depends on the crew having capacity. They're often run off their feet these days due to the rota changes and so getting a surprise and delight reward that you're due is a bit of a lottery, but as it's a surprise you'll never know.

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.”

I wonder what my customer record says about me at the moment. Due to the staff cutbacks and terrible website rollout they're not my favourite company at the moment. They had a promising start but in 2017 everything they've attempted seems to be a disaster.

The remainder of the article is about data protection regulation so will not be covered here.

Conclusion

Although some of the ideas VTEC have are good, the implementation is poor. Surprise and delight is fine, but there also needs to be some defined loyalty benefits that people know they can achieve. They also need to get the basics right. Ensure that the advertised catering service is delivered and complaints are dealt with promptly.

What is more likely to make you switch from plane to train?

  • If you book direct with Virgin Trains East Coast you may at some undetermined time in the future get surprised on-board with a small bottle of prosecco as long as the crew have the time to do so. Depending on luck you may get something within a few months or you may never get anything.

OR

  • If you book direct with Virgin Trains East Coast you will earn points that can be spent on free travel, lounge access as well as many other benefits. These benefits are guaranteed if you get the required number of points. The more you travel the better you get rewarded.

VTEC still have a product that, on paper, is much better than what airlines can offer. The unreliable delivery of the on-board catering is one of the key reasons I now look to flying more often. 

^DH