Across all sectors of the UK economy, consumer-facing businesses are finding themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, consumer expectations are inexorably rising; driven ever higher by rapidly evolving technologies and an ‘at your fingertips’ service culture. At the same time, however, the hangover of the recession together with competitive markets means businesses continue to squeeze more out of fixed (or more likely, reduced) budgets. The transport sector is no different. Public transport operators are expected to provide services in an engaging, instantaneous and innovative way by increasingly savvy and time-poor passengers. Not only this, passenger numbers are growing at such an alarming rate that it is challenging just to maintain service levels, let alone improve them. Infrastructure improvements are coming, but perhaps not quickly enough to release the strain that rapidly rising passenger numbers are adding to an already pressurised sector. According to the Office of Rail and Road, the number of journeys made by rail across the UK reached record highs of 1.65 billion between 2014 and 2015, and there’s no doubt this figure will continue to rise in the years to come. This transport trilemma of fixed budgets, increased customer expectations and rising demand may seem on the face of it to be irreconcilable. Yet some operators are finding a way to bridge the gap – and they are looking to their outsourcing partners for answers. Changing stations The role of outsourcing in transport has grown in part due to a seismic shift in the way passengers and transport providers interact. Passengers have long been able to purchase tickets from unmanned machines. Now they can also pay for their journeys remotely via smartphone and tablet apps or, in the capital, simply forget about it and deal with everything at the swipe of a bank card. Managing journeys has also been almost entirely digitised, with every piece of information passengers could need – from disruption reports to journey planners – available either online or through dedicated apps. With digital services now able to fulfil many of the traditional roles once performed by station ticket halls, operators are bringing their employees out from behind the ticket windows and deploying them elsewhere. However, when it comes to customer service there is still no substitute for a helpful, friendly face, and the departure of customer-facing employees from the ticket halls has left a void that needs to be filled. The face of transport Transport operators recognise that retaining as many passenger contact points as feasibly possible is vital to customer satisfaction. Across the industry, operators are now realising that their outsourced facilities management providers can be used as an extension of their own teams, with support services employees acting not only as customer service personnel, but the face of their brand as well. More and more passengers are using cleaning, security and maintenance teams as their first destination for information and assistance. The truth is, any person wearing high-visibility clothing is a natural port of call for lost or confused passengers, regardless of whether that person is an actual member of the customer service team. Transport operators and their outsourced partners need to work together to turn this to their advantage. For example, by providing all of their employees, regardless of role, with dedicated customer service training, facilities management providers can ensure that they are armed with vital skills, such as how to respond to platform enquiries and manage potential conflict situations. Equipping employees with station packs specific to their shift locations, detailing key facts about the area, will also make sure that they have suitable responses to the questions most likely to be asked by visitors. Using support staff to act as additional passenger contact points provides an invaluable support for the operator’s own customer service teams, especially during peak times. More importantly, it means operators can provide a quality service for a rising number of passengers without needing to hire extra people. The value of cross-skilling It is not just in the customer service arena that the supply chain can help alleviate pressure for transport operators. Rail companies are now recognising that their outsourced partners’ employees can be quickly upskilled to assist other teams in a busy station environment. For example, working with transport operators and the British Transport Police, we are providing our cleaning operatives with special training so they can support security teams at key transport hubs. They are trained to deploy the British Transport Police’s ‘HOT protocol’ – a system to identify potential threats, determine the level of risk and then report it based on three criteria. These are whether the item is hidden ie. has it been deliberately concealed from employees and the public; whether the item is obvious, for example in its physical appearance or placement; and finally is it typical of what one would expect to find in that environment. Training employees provides transport operators with additional ‘eyes on the ground’ – ensuring that passengers stay safe without any additional expenditure for the operator. It takes two This upskilling model is simple to implement. There is no reason why other sectors could not profit greatly from a similar approach. For example, in light of recent terror attacks, shopping centre management teams are having to rethink their attitude to security. Spotting potential threats in a busy, crowded environment is not an easy task and requires a large, roaming security team. By training roaming outsourced employees such as cleaners to act as threat-spotters on the ground, retail managers could quickly upscale the resources at their disposal. A number of sectors are now starting to push the model of cross-skilling further and are discovering far-reaching benefits as a result. Members of outsourced domestic and catering teams, for example, are being trained to fulfil a variety of other roles in addition to their daily duties. Of course, different organisations in different sectors face their own specific challenges, and this collaborative outsourcing approach will not suit all. However, as the transport sector and other industries have shown, it can offer a springboard for improvements and innovation in service and delivery that many companies are striving for; enabling positive change, while operating within their budgets.
About the Author Sarah Baxter is account director for transport at Interserve. Sarah leads a team of 1,400 to self-deliver facilities management services to one of London’s busiest transport providers. Starting in the facilities management sector more than 20 years ago, Sarah has been responsible for both single and integrated service delivery across London and the south-east.