Workshop Executive Summary

Reinventing the User Experience in Transportation is an emerging research challenge at the Northwestern University Transportation Center (NUTC).  To explore this concept further with industry, NUTC hosted a workshop, “Improving the Customer Experience in Travel and Transportation Using Information Technology (IT),” with Teradata Corporation on October 25, 2011.

The workshop explored examples of good customer care and tools for improving the experience for both travelers and users of freight and logistics services in two panel discussions. The evidence suggested that current practices are only “fixing” disruptions in the current service delivery model. That is, when an experience fails to meet a predetermined expectation, agents intercede to alleviate the damage. 

In his opening remarks, event co-chair Peeter Kivestu of Teradata stated, “(although) meaningful progress in the customer experience increasingly depends on information technology, finding the sweet spot for leveraging information technology is not something that is easy to discover.”  Noting that “customers will have an experience, but is it the one you intended?,” Kivetsu asked the following:

•    Does the customer see the picture differently than you?
•    Does the competitor see the customer better than you?
•    What is customer behavior during pre-planning, execution, post trip?

And given all this data…

•    Where is the best place to apply customer experience management?

While much potential exists for IT to improve the user experience, the traveler panel discussants (Dick Alexander, Veolia Transportation; Perry Cantarutti, Delta Airlines; and Kivestu) suggested customers still expect “warm, friendly service”. Yet, they agreed technology will be a strong tool in aligning the customer’s and the provider’s expectations so each can navigate smoothly through service disruptions.

For example, Cantarruti noted that social media is particularly useful in this regard in allowing agents to serve multiple customers at a time. Customers tweeting their concerns and rebooking requests do not have to endure twenty minutes of elevator music interrupted by the periodic “all agents are busy, your call is important to us, please stay on the line” recordings. Both airlines and public transit see the emergence of these technologies as another medium for customers to access service information, but do not suggest that these methods will ever replace the traditional call centers.

Two common questions surrounding enhanced customer traveler experience are: how much data is needed to make a difference, and how safe is that data? In order to answer these questions, researchers and providers need a clearer understanding of people’s willingness to share private information and the level of customer participation required to minimize uncertainty.

Kivetsu concluded by pointing out that the digitization of the customer experience makes it more measurable and leverage-able. Whether we “place the fulcrum at the price point or at creating a moving experience doesn't matter, we are creating brand new tools,” he said. The challenge is turning today's mental models into tomorrow's tools.

In the freight panel, the presenters (David Adams, GTNexus; Dr. Mark Cooper, FedEx Services; and Gary Smith, Con-way Freight) shared insight regarding how businesses have been successfully benefiting from new information models, continually improving service quality indices, and using customer information for business decisions.

Freight companies, like their passenger carrier counterparts, are inspired by the latest developments in the internet environment. Examples provided by Adams included cloud storing of data, one-to-many and many-to-one ways of communicating as in social media platforms, and crowd sourcing in order to improve data quality by providing unmatched collaboration and correction opportunities.

Going from inter-enterprise to intra-enterprise, Cooper discussed the importance of measurable service quality indices in evaluating performance. These indices must reveal and address the true expectations of the customers, be continually reviewed to adapt to changes in technology and demand, align with the operational team of the company to reach aggressive but attainable goals, and focus on the entire enterprise rather than a specific department. Smith provided a solid example of the synergy between customer focus, innovative thinking and social media. Con-way leveraged customer feedback and IT to make a significant capital investment decision in a sour economy to address a critical user dissatisfaction – damaged freight.  

In closing the workshop, NUTC Director Hani Mahmassani charged all participants to look beyond only meeting expectations to the delivery of new and pleasurable experiences for passengers and users of transportation services. During the traveler panel, for example, he asked Alexander whether any post trip surveys were being used to ask about experience, or whether there is any information about what customers are doing, and if so, how is that data being used?  His vision, of course, is to collect information to understand the existing experience in order to design a better experience, and provide it in real time. 

Future research and applications should use tools and knowledge of user (traveler and freight customer) behavior to anticipate disruptions and avoid them altogether. NUTC hopes to improve the experience for future users by advancing research in this area.


NUTC graduate students Charlotte Frei and Ömer Verbas and NUTC Associate Director Bret Johnson contributed to this article.