Teodora Miscov
Teodora Miscov 22 September 2017

SWT Smartcard needs to live and breathe “A Better Experience”

The experience that South West Trains offer their customers proves itself to be lackluster in the face of today's competition. How could they improve their strategy?

I commute on South West Trains (SWT) and enjoy my quiet 19 minutes each way most days. However, their recent Smartcard initiative has switched me from being a loyal customer to a detractor – because it seems as though SWT has forgotten who their customers really are. Smartcards could be a massive opportunity to engage with customers, but SWT are currently missing out.

Firstly, let me set the scene

I like SWT trains and my tolerance level is well above the occasional delays. As I use a popular station, even with occasional cancellations there is always another train soon.

I’m also a geek that is an early adopter of digital tech. I have three Alexa devices at home that enable me to voice control my Nest heating system. Voice control is a convenient luxury but more efficient heating is a definite win.

As Client Partner at Lab, our promise (and this is my only plug!) is “A Better Experience”, and this is in relation to our clients, to their users and to each other. We work to create environments that inspire, engage and challenge – solving problems for our clients and their customers alike, all centred around deep human understanding. 

So, efficiency is a priority for me, I’m more than willing to try new systems that can make my life easier, and my working days focus on making experiences more streamlined, more human, and more effective. Why wouldn’t I be a convert to a Smartcard system for my daily commute?

However, I’ve made the choice to switch back to paper season tickets. Here’s why.

Why Smartcards?

I’m not going to complain about the granularity of the scheme; the banal marketing campaign, the disjointed enrollment process, the gates that don't read your card or the amount of guards who don't have a reader. I want to get to the strategy of WHY smartcards exist – why SWT chose to implement them – and the effects of this implementation on users.

The commercial benefits for the train company are really easy; they get valuable data on who their customers are and digital ticket purchasing helps free up ticketing staff. However, this is an internal rationale and is completely without any end user benefit.

The stated user benefits are that the system is “faster” and more “convenient”, but all information lacks any support to say why this is. In my experience neither is true. Gates are now slower to respond to smartcards, and they have to be topped up two hours before travel, instead being truly ‘on the go’ and responsive.


Better customer experience

We live in a consumer age where the customer has more power than the brand. Excellence in consumer experience is paramount, and with excellent experiences becoming ‘the new normal’, brands have to work extremely hard to ensure that they don’t stick out for offering anything less. Accordingly, the bar is constantly getting higher – as companies fight to give their consumers a better experience than that offered by the competition.

- Book shops add coffee bars to make their shops more enjoyable. Customers stay longer and buy more.
- Oyster cards can be topped up hassle-free. Customers can travel at will and only get charged the lowest fare.
- Shops have installed Wifi so customers can browse online whilst in store, and tend to buy more after being able to compare prices. 
- Airlines have loyalty schemes to reward existing customers and encourage loyalty.

There are thousands of examples of brands creating an experience that takes into account needs, motives, and interests of their customers – and in turn reaping the commercial rewards. However, in the case of SWT, as the only train provider for my area, they know customers don’t have the luxury of being able to choose a company based on their best experience with them. Therefore, their Smartcard scheme, while appearing to approve efficiency for the end-user, really only focuses on the metrics that work for their management, and reveals their lack of focus on customer experience.



My recommendations would be to start actually treating Smartcards as a customer engagement scheme that helps your users and empowers them. Here are my five recommendations for SWT.

1) Smartcards should be digital enablers. You now have both real-time and trending information. Use this to help people. National Rail allows you to sign up for alerts - why not integrate and improve on this with one-to-one, real-time communications?

2) Smartcards should beat the queue. Insisting on 2 hour pre-ordering or topping up defeats the point. Why not release an app with one click reordering of your last ticket or popular tickets? Let me order it on the go, instead of having to queue for 10 minutes and then miss a train.

3) A disadvantage of Smartcards over paper is that a customer can’t physically see an expiry date to double-check when to renew. Therefore, why not create an app with renewal notifications sent out the day before? Link to one-click ordering above to make this frictionless.

4) Smartcards should be a digital record of your journey. Oyster shows your touch-in points, so why not add this to an app or customer portal?

5) Smartcards are intended for loyal customers but there is no incentive to sign up. Why not look at rewards such as free weekend tickets (similar to annual passes) or money off station coffees?

Imagine this scenario:

*Phone bleeps*

“We’ve noticed you are on the 18.35 train home. There are signal problems so you may be 10 minutes late with an arrival time of approx 19.45. Here is a £5 coupon for the train trolley to make your journey better.”

Over to you SWT.

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