What can public transport do to lift its poor customer experience perception?

For the third consecutive year of our annual report on customer service and experience, public transport operators have come out as providing the worst customer experience.

Nearly four in 10 (38%) respondents cited public transport & train operators as one of the worst three sectors – narrowly ahead of utilities (37%). This represents a four percentage point rise in citations over the last three years, the second biggest jump of the 14 sectors covered in the study behind broadband/pay-TV companies (who've seen a 7-point rise to 33%).

Of course, public transport is naturally hampered or 'skewed' by the fact that few sectors outside of public transport have such a high proportion of 'captive customers' – those that have no option but to travel with the operator of a particular route. Furthermore, many customers have to experience public transport very regularly, so there's more chance that they will experience service disruption more often.

The negative perception is not only indicative of how public transport performs but also stems from the more positive experiences consumers receive in other sectors. The rapid developments in customer experience in other industries plays a factor in public transport seeming increasingly out-of-date in today's world.

For example, the current provision of rail service and ticket information to passengers feels inconsistent and can be hard to access and the style of communication around service disruption can sometimes feel dry and abrupt. As a result operators are missing an opportunity to connect with customers, empathise with their situation and show they care. This is particularly acute on social channels.

There are of course a number of factors that make it a challenge for operators to improve the experience for passengers:

• Service and disruption information is presented on websites and social channels in slightly different ways meaning the information cross-platform is often out of sync when customers most need consistency and reassurance.

• Ticket enquiries are complicated by hard to understand pricing structures and at least six types of railcards in operation.

• With each operator using different CRM systems, there is no single customer record or history of contact with the benefits of that being shared with the customer.

• As important stakeholders in passengers' experience of rail travel across the network, the train operating companies also have their own commercial objectives. As such they have both an incentive and a disincentive to share customer data and to collaborate with other TOCs with whom they may also be competing for passengers and operating contracts. For customers this means an inconsistent level of service.

These are just some of the reasons why passengers feel alienated and the service requires a radical rethink for it to start to work as efficiently as customers have grown to expect. Public transport can learn from other industries that have joined up the dots between the various touchpoints to understand customers better and make their experience as easy and convenient as possible.

The best individual companies for service in our survey were dominated by retail, with Amazon leading the way followed by John Lewis, M&S and Tesco. The leading sectors and companies in customer service don't think of it as an add-on at the front line, they put as much effort into designing the customer experience as they do their actual products and it pays off.

The importance of the experience is shown by that fact that consumers are more than twice as likely to recommend a company or brand based on the quality of service (66%) than they are on price (31%). So, use the information that customers share about their travel to provide more tailored and relevant recommendations at points in the journey that those customers are most likely to value. What would truly transform the rail experience, and save the customer from having to repeat themselves, would be improved industry-wide back-end systems that ensure a seamless and efficient customer handover between National Rail and train operators.