"Customer Expectations Are Changing All the Time – We Need to be Able to Respond Swiftly"


The First TransPennine Express customer service director talks about managing a "customer service business that just happens to run trains".

Kathryn O’Brien is the Customer Service Director at First TransPennine Express (FTPE), where she is responsible for managing and transforming a customer service team of 600 people. She is accountable for providing a great customer service daily whilst staying attuned to the ever-changing customer preferences and requirements and sustaining delivery of the highest possible standards of quality and service.

CX Customer service

Appointed as Customer Service Director in 2014, having worked in the rail industry for the past twenty-three years and within FTPE since 2012, Kathryn had transformed the culture of the business, defining and delivering a new vision for the customer service strategy. Recognising the importance of a personalised service, she restructured the management teams and the way the business communicated – and, more importantly, invested and continues to invest in the people.

In the first part of her interview with CX Network, Kathryn talked about her role at FTPE, overcoming industry challenges, her focus on personalisation, and the changes driven by digital and mobile disruption. Today she discusses providing customer service within the travel industry, employee engagement, key trends for 2016 and she shares her ultimate tip to provide a memorable customer experience.

Hi Kathryn, welcome back. The travel sector – and rail in particular – provides a unique set of opportunities and demands when it comes to customer service, can you tell me what the most rewarding and most challenging aspects are of working within rail specifically?

The rail industry is a fascinating place to work. Traditionally we have been very operationally focussed, which is important of course, but one of my mantras is 'this is a customer service business that just happens to run trains', rather than a train operating company that thinks about customers as an add on.

Clearly there are a number of challenges we face, particularly when things go wrong, whether that's a train breaking down, or a signalling failure at a major junction which can severely disrupt our operation. Sadly there are a number of external events that can happen that are out of our control, such as severe weather and people taking their own lives.

I've been in this industry a long time, and it's been a huge part of my life. One of the most rewarding aspects for me has to be the people; this industry has a real family feel to it. Plus I met my husband here!

Despite the rise of self-service, employees are still at the heart of a great customer service team, what initiatives do you have in place at First TransPennine Express to encourage employee engagement?

Employee engagement is an important focus for us in FTPE, and we strive to make this a fabulous place to work for all our colleagues.

Firstly, we think it's important to listen to our people, and there are a number of initiatives in place to do that, including an annual survey called Your Voice, face-to-face meetings with line managers, conferences, award ceremonies, the list goes on.

Secondly, we do a huge amount of work with local and national charities in support of our Corporate Responsibility strategy. We also sponsor many of our colleagues through their individual charity efforts. We have a team of runners who take part in the Manchester 10K each year, and some drivers will be pedalling across the Pennines as part of the TransPennine Cycle challenge.

Wherever there are people there are real stories to tell and we try and make coming to work fun for our employees. We also try and recognise how we can appreciate their lives are affected and each year we ask them to vote for their charity of choice, which is Prostrate Cancer for 2015. We have numerous MacMillan cake bakes across the network which always creates a buzz, as do some of our wellbeing initiatives such as pound for pound, a weight loss idea.

What do you believe will be the biggest trends impacting upon customer service in 2016? What key steps are you taking to prepare for these?

Customer expectations are changing all the time, and we need to be able to respond swiftly. Customer numbers are on the rise, year-on-year, so crowding will remain a challenge for us in the short term. We are currently going through a re-franchising process which effectively means our business is up for sale and will be awarded to a new owner to operate from April 2016. The specification for the new franchise outlined by the department for transport is exciting, promising more capacity and a step change in customer service excellence.

The icing on the cake for me very recently has been securing an external accreditation that endorses our approach to customer service. We partnered with Customer First, whose assessors came into the business and did a drains up review of our whole approach to customer delivery. We were delighted to pass this first time, which only 1 in 3 businesses manage to do. That doesn't mean we can be complacent, it's now about driving consistency, ensuring we deliver for our customers each and every time.

First TransPennine Express has won several customer service awards, what ultimate piece of advice can you give your peers to help them enhance their own strategy and deliver a memorable customer experience?

For me it’s about building trust with your customers, and genuinely listening to their feedback and responding positively where you can. I am a very visible leader and I expect the same from my leadership team, it’s the only way you get to know how it feels for customers.

I have high standards and a relentless focus, it’s the only way to deliver the results you are striving for. Customer Service Excellence is in our gift to deliver!