Excellent customer service is critical as new technology takes over

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2013

Increased investment in rail infrastructure and the rise in popularity of e-commerce and social media are placing technology skills in high demand in the industry. However, these changes are also putting pressure on staff to deliver excellent customer experiences as the way they interact with passengers changes, says Alessia Vinerba of sector skills council People 1st.

Research into labour market trends and skills requirements in the rail industry carried out by People 1st, the sector skills council for hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism, shows that low staff turnover rates mean employers are finding it easier than other sectors to maintain the expertise they need to operate within the industry. 

But with changing technologies and an ageing workforce that will increasingly need to be replaced in the next few years, demand for new skills and talent is growing. 

People 1st’s ‘State of the Nation in Passenger Transport and Travel 2013’ report shows that although the percentage of employers with hard-to-fill vacancies is low, employers with these vacancies are finding it particularly difficult to fill specialist engineering roles, where changes in technology have prevented many applicants from performing their role without specific training. 

Elaine Clark from the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) said that the impact of technology is far-reaching and that the need to develop new skills will become more important to support the sector’s growth. She said: “The planned investment in the rail infrastructure, together with the delivery of the Rail Technical Strategy, will drive innovation and the introduction of new technology to the industry. 

“Currently the percentage of people with higher level skills (level 4 and above) is relatively low at just 18%; this will need to increase significantly as we electrify major parts of the railway while driving energy savings, introduce the new European Rail Traffic Management System (in-cab signalling), build HS2 and utilise new technology to support asset management and maintenance strategies. 

“New skills will be required to ensure we equip the existing workforce to get the best out of the technology available.” 

In addition to technical job roles, employers are seeing major changes in customer service roles, especially as social media grows in importance. 

And with nearly half the current workforce aged 45 or over, this could provide the ideal opportunity to attract a younger, more IT-savvy generation. 

Simon Tarr, chief operating officer at People 1st, says that new media such as Twitter, the use of apps, and interactive websites are revolutionising the way rail operators engage with their customers. 

“Our research shows that 44% of employers believe social media will be a positive driver of change in the next two to three years.

“If used effectively, this technology can provide tailored marketing and help improve customer service levels. On the other hand, there are drawbacks for companies not equipped to manage this form of communication effectively. 

“Rising ticket prices and changing spending patterns are making customers demand more value when they use the rail network. 

“As a sector that depends on many factors to operate effectively, the relationship that we have with customers and how we communicate with them is one of the few things that we can control.” 

He added that although new technology has taken some of the traditional customer service roles online, passengers still expect to receive excellent face-to-face service from rail staff. 

“With the rise in technology, some of the traditional customer service roles are less common, but passengers still expect high levels of service from operators. So we need to make sure all our staff understand the value of customer service and can deliver what customers expect and need. 

“Almost any role is now likely to attract customer queries, from cleaners and catering staff to maintenance operatives and train guards, so making sure staff members have the training to answer questions and provide high levels of service is critical. There are now customer service training programmes like WorldHost that are designed specifically for people working in the service industry. We need to focus on helping frontline staff develop these skills – from effective listening techniques to diffusing difficult situations and welcoming customers from other cultures or disabled customers.”

 The good news for the rail industry is that improved customer service skills will not only generate positive perceptions among our customers, but will also give staff members a transferable skill that could allow them to progress to other roles in the industry, contributing to the creation of strong career pathways in rail.


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