Action stations

The pressure on privatised railways to increase profits and minimise costs has never been greater. Since its launch 18 months ago, Great North Eastern Railway (GNER), which services 920 miles of route between Inverness and London, has committed 17m to impress the public by refurbishing trains, modernising facilities and improving its passenger charter.

Thanks to new branding and advertising, as well as pricing initiatives to shift customer flows and smooth out capacity on trains, GNER passenger numbers were up eight per cent in the first year after privatisation. There was also an improvement in customer perceptions of staff on trains.

But Britain’s fastest railway is not out of the tunnel yet: over the next five years, GNER has to increase profits enough to make up the shortfall of its current 65m government subsidy, which falls to zero in 2003.

Many changes are still needed to improve customer service, quality and efficiency, explains Rachael Culver Dodds, internal communications manager at GNER. But to keep the customers happy, the staff have to be happy too. They have to understand and support the company’s aim to set the highest standards of service, speed and quality.

“We’re operating against a background of restructuring in a number of areas,” adds Culver Dodds. “Change makes people feel uncomfortable. People are already feeling a bit insecure, having to come to terms with the commercial world after years of assured jobs. You have to explain to people how change will affect them, personally .”

To find a way to involve all the company’s 2,600 staff in the plans for change and to make sure everyone is running on the same track, GNER called in communication consultancy Banner McBride, part of WPP. James Harkness, Banner McBride’s director of consulting, says: “Involving everybody is a huge challenge. GNER services 50 stations. People are very disparate. Some are off and on trains and are rarely around. They do odd hours. We have to find new ways of communicating with them.”

GNER believes that changing working practices is best achieved by involving employees in the entire process, “starting with the on-train employees because they come into most contact with customers,” says Culver Dodds.

Last September, GNER and Banner McBride set about conducting the first company-wide survey of employee opinion on company goals, communication and change. The aim is to identify what employees feel are priority issues in the business and what GNER can do to support change. Despite some staff members’ insecurity about the notion of change, Harkness says of the survey: “Staff were generally favourable. They saw it as an opportunity to give their views. They are very customer-focused and appreciate that this is the way forward.”

The first stage of the process was to interview a selection of senior and middle managers to find out what message they wanted to give staff through the internal marketing exercise and what they wanted to get back from them. After this they ran a series of discussion groups with GNER people in different jobs and sites to find out what they thought about their roles, what complaints they had and what suggestions they had to improve things

Finally, they set about designing a questionnaire that would reflect the issues raised in the discussion groups, that would encourage emp loyees to think about their own contribution and that would be simple to complete.This was done with qualitative focus groups and one-to-one interviews with a range of people.

Harkness says: “A project team made up of not just marketing and human resources people, but including people from operational areas, looked at the questionnaire and gave feedback on what sort of language would be appropriate for staff in different roles.” The theory is that this way the questions don’t sound like they have tumbled from the lofty desks of management consultants, but are much more credible to the people on the ground and driving the trains.

“We had to get into the shoes of the people working for the organisation,” says Culver Dodds.

They then had to encourage all 2,600 staff to complete the questionnaire, which asked 90 questions about customer service, the future of the organisation and job security. Harkness says: “We gave people reminders to return the form on payslips; managers mentioned it in briefings; and there was a poster campaign.”

Culver Dodds says: “One of the hardest parts was reassuring people that it was confidential.” But the questionnaire still achieved an encouraging response rate of 40 per cent across the organisation. “Although it was higher for senior staff, we didn’t have a lack of response from any area that made the results insignificant,” says Culver Dodds. “The vast majority of the responses were very positive, showing a lot of passion and enthusiasm for their jobs, the organisation and the future.”

Probably the hardest part is yet to come: interpreting the results to pool the best ideas about the company and help it establish the most efficient ways of giving customers what they want. GNER must now keep the momentum going by beginning to change working practices in line with the lessons emerging and develop a communication strategy to support its plans for change.

With staff spread over 50 stations and hundreds of miles, Culver Dodds says the main thing that has come out of the study is the importance of “communication, communication, communication”.

Throughout the process, GNER has learned a lot about how important it is to keep those scattered staff informed of what is going on and how to talk to them. “Team briefings need to be revamped,” says Culver Dodds. “There will be more communication in future.”

Harkness echoes this point:”One of the questions we asked,was where people got their information about what was going on in the company. We found that different demographic groups like to get their information in different ways. Older groups like it in written form and the younger staff prefer to hear news face to face or through other media.”

In aiming to appeal to different sorts of customers in different ways, all companies fragment their external communications. In managing the process of restructuring the company, GNER is learning how importantit is to apply the same rigorous process to its internal communications programme.

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