London Underground tube train, shot from outside of train in subway station.
Editorial

Customer Experience in a Tube: London Transport Lessons Learned

9 minute read
Matthew McQueeny avatar
The customer experience in the London “Tube” was enlightening and gives a peek into the future of digital CX. There remains room to grow.

I recently had the opportunity to visit London for a long weekend. I watched my hometown New York Giants vanquish the Green Bay Packers in Tottenham, in between business meetings and the typical touristy galavanting. I have been to the city several times in my life, but it had been over a decade since my last visit. 

The Future of CX and Phygital?

This gave me a real opportunity to see how far technology had come in remaking transit in and around the city.  While many of the advances I experienced may be becoming more commonplace in big cities, the “customer experience” in the London “Tube” — and its surrounding transit hubs — was enlightening and could give a peak into the future of CX and its interplay between the real world and digital.    

Before even reaching the London transportation, I had the opportunity to partake in JetBlue’s great customer experience on the cross-Atlantic flight. With great value-for-money, friendly customer service, free Wi-Fi, live television, catalogs of on-demand movies and TV shows, near farm-to-table meal offerings, unlimited soft and hard refreshments, and more, it definitely went above and beyond. 

Related Article: 3 Questions Customer Experience Professionals Should Ask About Phygital

When Customer Experience Gets Uneasy

Flying JetBlue to London, however, puts you at London Gatwick Airport, which is 30 miles south of downtown. Figuring out how to close that distance is a difficult thing for a bleary-eyed (“redeye” flight) and uninitiated traveler. Think of me as akin to the unique user to your website, “landing” there for the first time — or for the first time in a long time and seeking a familiar customer journey in the unfamiliar environs.

How will I get to my destination? Does Uber work here? Will I need cash? What is the currency now anyway? With transit, which mode of transportation do I take? Do all roads or rails lead to the same place? And (inner voice speaking now), please don’t look silly or amateurish navigating these decisions. The one thing I did do going into this trip was to purchase a daily international phone plan, one which matched the features of my domestic plan. I knew that if I had my phone (charged and wirelessly connected) and the full complement of features, I should be alright.

An Underlying Mobile Customer Experience

Once landed, I made my way via inter-terminal shuttle over to the train terminal at Gatwick. Here, there were many transit workers on-hand to help the influx of air travelers. They undoubtedly built up customer service capacity at a key potential bottleneck where (uninitiated) consumers needed to be guided on their way. This happened to be the only physical “ticket” I purchased on the entire trip. Once on the train, it was smooth riding about 30 minutes north to my destination. The trains also boasted (reliable) Wi-Fi, something that I had not been as accustomed to stateside.

At this point, I was still not fully aware of the “mobile-first” and, in my opinion, futuristic experience available to me in the transit system (which, come to think of it, is the ultimate mobile platform, no?). I’m not sure if this was my own peripatetic absentmindedness or if the transit communications could have been more explicit. It was actually only after two separate pre-scheduled meetings with local technology leaders that I started to dig into the information on each of their recommendations. In keeping with our industry, Let’s call those “word-of-mouth” referrals. 

Related Article: Why a Connected Mobile Customer Experience Should Be Automotive's Holy Grail

Mobile-First Design?

What I found out was pretty cool and mirrors many of the main benefits we often profess in the composable Digital Experience Platform (DXP) industry.  Purchasing train tickets has given way to “contactless” (some might say “frictionless”) transacting. You can simply use your smartphone or smartwatch (via Apple, Google, Samsung Pay) as you leave or enter stations. Like magic, you swipe and the doors open. For those who might not be as up to speed on paying through phone or watch (like my dad who was accompanying me), you can use your credit card (as long as it is “contactless,” which most are these days) in exactly the same way. 

One of the things that consumers might not like about “frictionless” payment is that they also don’t know or can’t keep account of when and how much they are spending. It’s all happening in the background: legal tender is not changing hands, a credit card is not being swiped after a price is shown. I always like to joke that when money is being taken from my account ledger and paying out to a person or entity, I want lots of friction. I want it to be somewhat painful (slightly kidding).

Learning Opportunities

In this case, the London Transport has a good solution for that. Your payments are frictionless, but there is also a price cap for all of your journeys that you can pay in any one day or week. After you reach the caps, you are not charged any longer for that day or week. 

Transit Mapping: Superior Customer Experience

The other element of London Transport that provided for a superb, modern and clean user experience was its mapping integrations, especially (through my use cases) with Google Maps and Apple Maps. The timetables, locations and data surrounding journeys were real-time and extremely intuitive. The Transport’s adoption and optimization of and with existing transit mapping protocols — a great omnichannel use of its content and data — made travel seamless, especially as it accounted immediately for time changes and delays and explicitly told information like what platform you should go to at each new station. When moving with the herd in a sea of people, with little chance to gather yourself, these kinds of flourishes can be invaluable.

These payment and mapping utilities provided an example of meeting the customer where they are, allowing for a personalized transit experience, all while one would assume keeping Transport of London’s own potential hardware (and software) overhead costs down. 

Related Article: Where Does Location Tech Fit in CX Roadmap?

'Focus Group of One' CX Recommendations

In this customer experience game, we all learn and know that there are always opportunities for improvement. Plus, things are always evolving based on user tastes and proclivities. And with London Transport, there were some “edge cases” that could be addressed:

  • Connecting multiple payment modes to single, unified user. As it stands now, to be eligible to take part in the price cap (per day or week), you must exclusively use the same payment method. In other words, your smartphone, your smartwatch or your credit card. As someone who moves between the iPhone and Apple Watch regularly and without thinking much about it, it would be great if the system knew it was me — the single user — across those two modalities, and a third if you include the credit card. Remembering which payment method I used was not overly intuitive. Also, when you use the credit card method and move between many stations, I constantly had an anxiety that I would lose the credit card, which was always in my pocket within hand’s reach.
  • Power! I was the omniscient London Transport expert, so long as my phone maintained its charge. If I lost charge (which thankfully didn’t happen, though it was close a few times), I would turn pretty useless in figuring out where to go and how to pay. Also, by using your phone actively for all these new and intensive features, you are drawing down your battery that much quicker. I was often out for much of the day, and the “range anxiety” that I might feel with my electric vehicle now extended to my smartphone on the train. This is a real thing, as the London Transport even mentions on its website the need to “make sure you have enough battery otherwise you’ll pay the maximum fare…” A natural option would be to have charging capacity on the trains, perhaps in the form of USB or multi-option ports. (Hey, maybe the train could create the electricity that charges it?!).
  • Wi-Fi. As noted earlier, Wi-Fi is available on trains; however, in my experience it was not available on the London Undergroup (aka “The Tube”). Once underground, I also lost access to my cellular internet. By losing this connection, I risked losing the information — real-time or otherwise — on what I was to do next. If Wi-Fi could be extended to the “Tube,” this would maintain trip continuity, almost like the confidence we gain in our industry from a service-level agreement (SLA) uptime promise. 

Digital Customer Experience Trends Come to Life

The London Transport system was a welcome surprise to this traveler, who hadn’t been to the city in many years. It is certainly leaning into the future and provides an example of many of the trends we are seeing not only within the transit industry, but within our own digital and customer experience confines.  Mobile-first, omnichannel, frictionless/cashless transacting, personalized experience. There are a handful of things to improve upon, especially as it relates to that “last mile” with power and Wi-Fi considerations. But, as things stand with its customer experience, it is clearly on the rails!

PS — funny enough, I met up with a co-worker while on the trip. He would be coming from a few hours west. His phone happened to smash the night before meeting up, rendering it useless to him. So, even as he espoused London Transport’s cashless system and its map integrations, he had to travel in the old-school manner, with a handwritten note and on a purchased ticket. See his notes for getting around below. At least he would not fall victim to power or Wi-Fi issues!

hand written travel notes

About the author

Matthew McQueeny

Matthew McQueeny works in leadership at Konabos, focusing on relationships, marketing, community, and project management. He has worked with clients ranging from Fortune 500 to startups.

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