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Pamela Whitby spoke to Eurostar’s head of digital who has his feet on the ground and an eye on the future

There is plenty of hype around about cool, shiny new technologies such as AI, chatbots and voice search but Neil Roberts, head of digital at Eurostar, is focused on making a difference, and not headlines.

He explains: “I come from a tech background and, yes, technology may be a solution, but what I’m really interested in is solving problems…The trick is to resist focusing only on the seemingly cool stuff, and rather look at where you can really add value to customers.”

For Roberts, who joined Eurostar in 2011, this means viewing technology within the wider business context, and engaging more collaboratively across all departments. With the exception of its on-board entertainment systems (Eurostar partners with a startup called Go Media), this was one of the reasons, along with the rise of software-as-a-service, that Eurostar’s tech development was brought in-house in 2014/15.

“This gave us more flexibility and control. Now we just have to walk across the landing to explain [to relevant people] that our priorities have changed, and that we need to address this. It’s much simpler.”

What’s also changed since Roberts joined the company is the speed of technology release. “Back then we used to do one release every three months. Now we can do multiple releases a day.”

This is the result of automated testing and integration, which means that if a bug is identified in the morning, it can be fixed and re-released on the same day.

“The ability to do this is not straightforward, and is something that developers and CIOs get really excited about! But while it may not thrill business teams who like to leave the technology to the ‘techies’, if you get it right, it really does enable the business.”

Technology is certainly enabling Eurostar’s business, which Roberts’ team oversees. Their focus is product design, user experience and functionality of all digital products that include: a responsive website for eight markets, translated into three languages; an app for Android and iOS; on-board entertainment systems on new trains that can be plugged into a passenger’s own device; various digital screens in stations, on the trains and in premier lounges; and, of course, ticketing machines, which will be revamped towards the end of this year.

But with the pace of change there is no time to stand still, and Roberts, who will be speaking at EyeforTravel’s Digital and Data Summit in Amsterdam, says the two-pronged approach, outlined below, is needed.

1.  Leading with service design

Eurostar has 100,000 active users of its app and this is growing considerably year-on-year. So despite some talk that apps could be on their way out, Eurostar continues to invest in app development, and does so by taking a service design approach.

Across all areas, says Roberts, frontline teams are tasked with identifying how technology can be used to improve the overall experience. Part of this process is fed by speaking directly with customers in stations, and the result is that app improvements take place continuously over the course of the year.

One development under way is that frequent business travellers want to be able to repeat trips in the same seat, add loyalty, store payment details and so on. Says Roberts: “This is about moving towards a one-click repeat book, which may sound fairly old hat but adds real value to the customer. We won’t do a big press release about this, but it will make a difference!”

2.  Looking to the future

Being service driven may underpin the core of the business, but what grabs headlines today are things such as artificial intelligence, voice search, chat bots and the like. These developments cannot be ignored, but the issue here, stresses Roberts, is working out the right time to market; when people will actually adopt a particular technology? So, will chatbots end up with Google Glass in the “all hype before disappearing” file? Is voice search a slow burner like the Apple Watch – still on the market and with a small band of dedicated users but falling short of the broad consumer adoption.

It’s clear though that Eurostar is not ignoring the hype, and will be investigating AI and conversational interfaces over the next 12 months, and testing market with range of different concepts. Yet in looking to the future, what Eurostar understands is that the technical infrastructure needs to be in place to move quickly if, say, Alexa becomes mainstream in the next year.

“What the customer sees is just the tip of the iceberg. The most important bit for me is the back-end infrastructure because this is what allows us to be responsive to our customers.”

So, whether it’s the responsive website, mobile app or a conversational interface, there needs to be continuity of service, and Eurostar has been building its tech infrastructure and APIs in such a way that so that, if and when, it can change the interface.

How voice search will be used remains to be seen, but Roberts foresees that initially it might just be for low-level enquiries like ‘Can I take a dog on the train?’ which would ordinarily have gone through FAQs or in contact centre.

Going forward, Eurostar is also looking to understand the impact of shifting customer behaviour. “People aged 18-24 consume media completely differently, and we are still trying to understand exactly what this means for us,” says Roberts.

What is clear, however, is that this demographic engages far more with social media, and interacts less with traditional broadcast channels such as TV. For this reason, Eurostar has recently done a proof of concept to test the possibility of taking payments in social channels, and to understand how this generation wish to transact.

Technology and skills

In many businesses there are hierarchical structures but customers, says Roberts, are transversal, “which is why we need to improve transversal working!”

To this end, Eurostar has borrowed some of the methodologies – including SCRUM, Sigma and Lean – used in the software industry over the past ten years, and will continue to explore different models. Today SCRUM is one that is now being applied across all working practices. An empirical process, it involves a two-week delivery period, an assessment of what has been delivered, whether it has met expectations, and how the process could be improved. “It’s an evolution rather than the big silver bullet or the holy grail,” Roberts says, and is resulting in more cross collaboration between departments.

An added benefit of this is that it helps to improve the working environment for employees. “We are in London, where there are a lot of tech startups, and lot of big tech players so there is always competition for the best skills,” says Roberts. So, not only does Eurostar need to be competitive on salary, it also has to offer a great working environment, invest in infrastructure and apply industry best practices. “This is as much for customers as it is for the business and for our employees,” he says.

To hear more from other heads of digital from Eurostar, Finnair and Heathrow Airport join EyeforTravel in Amsterdam (Nov 29-30)

Main Image Credit: Eurostar

 

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