Going places

05 February 2016

Spain's newest trends in the transport sector are coming to the UK, from the use of remote technology to the cross-skilling of cleaning operatives. Andrew Liston, account director for transport at Interserve, explains more

The UK transport sector has experienced a seismic shift in recent years. The way passengers use public transport has changed drastically and quickly, driven by rapid advances in digital connectivity and handheld technologies. Customer service demands are high, with instantaneous, at-your-fingertips transport planning and purchasing now the default expectation from passengers. 

Set against the context of constrained budgets and rapidly rising passenger numbers – the UK expects 400 million extra passenger journeys by 2020 – the challenge for transport operators is particularly complex. How can they continuously improve the experience for increasingly savvy and demanding passengers, without breaking the bank? 

The support services sector – and cleaning providers in particular – have gone at least some way to help transport operators find the answer to this dilemma. Not only are innovations in cleaning technologies and techniques improving the cleanliness of stations and trains (one of the key drivers of customer satisfaction), but cleaning operatives are now playing an active role in the customer service process; taking the strain off operators’ own teams and improving the overall experience for passengers.  

Spanish lessons

The UK has the fastest growing, safest and one of the most punctual rail networks in Europe. Yet there is always room for improvement, and there are lessons we can learn from other centres of excellence around the world that are leading the way on providing a quality customer experience – especially when it comes to cleaning. 

Madrid is widely acknowledged as having one of the best public transport systems in the world. Its metro system is extremely busy; serving 1.5 billion passengers each year. It is also one of the largest network systems relative to the city’s size: with 21 separate lines; 396 stations; 294km of track; and nearly 1,700 escalators (more than any other transport network in the world).

Transport operators in Madrid have transformed their approach to customer service during recent years. Customer service employees have been brought out from behind the ticket windows to ‘work the floor’, using remote technology (iPads, smartphones, etc.) to help passengers process ticket purchases and plan their journeys.

Cleaning operations themselves are extremely sophisticated, and supported by ongoing investment in technology and equipment. Our cleaning operatives for one of Spain’s national rail operators are armed with apps that allow them to manage and log activities in real time. They log when they start to clean a particular carriage, for example, detail any unusual or challenging elements of the work, and log when the job is finished.  

With every cleaning operative recording this detailed level of information, Interserve and the operator have been able to build up a huge database of information about how assets are being cleaned. This is now being used to improve services and the environment for customers on an ongoing basis.  

Cross-skilling has also been wholeheartedly embraced by Spanish transport operators, with other disciplines trained to support cleaning teams as well as the other way round. Rail catering teams are now trained to carry out reactive cleaning as they move through the train; speeding up the overall spill response time and reducing the reliance and pressure on dedicated cleaning teams.

It takes two

In the UK, similar processes of innovation are now under way. Many transport hubs have initiated the move away from conventional ticket halls to adopt a less static approach to customer service and are increasing their digital presence.     

However, Britain’s transport operators recognise that it will take time for customers to become accustomed to this new style of working; many passengers still rely on a helpful, friendly face when they have queries or concerns and the departure of customer-facing employees from the ticket halls has left a void that needs to be filled.

Interserve provides support services for a number of the UK’s leading transport operators. Across the locations we work at, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of passengers who use our cleaning teams as their first port of call for information and assistance. The reality is any person wearing high-visibility clothing is a natural target for lost or confused passengers, regardless of whether that person is an actual member of the customer service team.   

The transport operators have recognised this and are working with us to turn it to their advantage. Across the industry, they are now using their cleaning providers as an extension of their own customer service teams.

Through a dedicated Ambassador Programme, all of our cleaning operatives are provided with transport-specific customer service training, designed to give them key skills and information such as how to respond to passenger enquiries and advice on conflict management. Our employees are also given guidance packs specific to their shift locations, detailing suitable responses to the questions most likely to be asked by visitors to a particular area.  

During peak times, these additional touchpoints act as invaluable support for the operator’s own customer service teams. More importantly, it means operators can provide a quality service for a rising number of passengers without needing to hire extra people.  

Keeping people safe

It is not just in the customer service arena that cleaning operatives are helping to alleviate pressure for transport companies. Operators are now recognising that cleaning teams can be quickly up-skilled to assist other disciplines across busy transport environments.   

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 i.e. 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 whether it is typical of what one would expect to find in that environment.  

By working together, we are essentially providing transport operators with additional eyes on the ground – ensuring that passengers stay safe without any additional expenditure for the operator.

Direction of travel

The ongoing evolution of the role of support services in transport brings its own set of demands for cleaning providers. Investing in the workforce is now more important than ever; not just in hiring the right people for the job, but in providing the training and support those operatives need to be able to handle the additional demands of a quasi-customer service role. Greater investment is needed from cleaning providers to achieve this, but it will bring significant dividends in terms of the quality of overall delivery and the strength of the transport operator/cleaning provider relationship.