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Swedish rail company SJ has become a digital role model for companies in its sector, after spending 10 years working to improve customer experience and now selling almost all of its tickets through digital channels.
Jenny Gejke, head of digital channel development at SJ, told Computer Weekly its journey to improve digital customer experience, from searching for train tickets to paying for them on a smartphone, started a decade ago.
Gejke started working for SJ 10 years ago and was tasked with building its presence on social media – a new frontier for the company back then. Facebook and Twitter were the first platforms they used, and SJ – like other customer-centric companies – had to learn how to use them.
Today, social media and mobile communications with customers is second nature to SJ. “Smartphones came 10 years ago,” she said. “Now, we’re so used to them it feels like we’ve had them far longer.”
Five years ago, SJ took the huge step to become even more customer-focused when it introduced digital services on the internet. “Things have changed dramatically since then,” said Gejke. “Today, as many as 98% of all tickets are bought online, either on our website or through using SJ’s mobile app.”
From the beginning of its digital transformation, the company made a decision to take a customer-centric approach that focused on the fundamentals. “We focused on creating a positive digital experience for the customer, and succeeded in making it easy for them to use [our services] and get help if necessary,” she said.
SJ initially carried out a lot of research to ensure it was focusing on the right areas, checking how customers used other digital tools. It used crowdsourcing to find out what customers’ needs were and asked them how they would like SJ to implement its digital services, and the feedback guided the project’s continuous improvement. The company also followed news trends and spoke to consultants to keep track of what other firms were doing.
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When SJ finally launched its website, its design was based both on the results of customer feedback and its own research.
“We want to be on the same page as our customers, and discovered that people were ready to use their smartphones to buy tickets,” said Gejke. “Based on our research, we decided to commit more to this. The website, which we launched in 2016, is therefore optimised for mobile phone use.”
Long before the website launch, customers had the opportunity to use a beta version, providing the development team with valuable feedback and influencing the creation of SJ’s mobile app. “When it came up that people were interested in using specified apps on their smartphones, we decided that we needed to include ways to make our services even more personal in an app,” she said.
The app also arrived in 2016, and included features that made tasks easier for customers, such as a seat map to allow them to book specific seats.
“Customers gave us the idea, saying it’s easy to choose a seat in the cinema and that it should be possible to do the same when booking a train journey,” said Gejke.
Another feature that has been added is the Swedish payment service Swish, making it easy to pay from a smartphone and offering a faster alternative to paying by card.
SJ is still working to further improve communications with it customers through digital marketing. Automation is used to send out emails to customers, such as membership card offers and reminders to book trips ahead of busy periods.
It also sends personal message ahead of a customer’s journey, warning them of any delays and even letting them know if they have time for a coffee before the train arrives.
Challenges remain in perfecting customer experience, not least due to the fragmentation of the travel network. “It’s difficult because there are often other companies that handle parts of the journey,” said Gejke. “If one of these companies cancels a departure, we can’t always inform passengers in time or provide suitable alternatives. The network of different companies serving our customers, including buses and local train operators, is huge.
“When it snows or gets very cold, for instance, a local train can be cancelled and our passengers have already started the journey on our train before it’s known to our staff,” she said. “But we’re interested in working to eventually make the whole customer experience a good one.”
An internal digitisation process is also now underway at SJ, as it looks to improve how it works with its software development teams – an increasingly important part of the business. “This work is a long-term project which initially started as a pilot in a small team,” said Gejke.
“We regularly discuss our working methods and every member of the team can try their own ideas. The goal is clear, and we’re working at a steady pace to continuously improve the customer experience,” she concluded.
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