How Virgin Trains introduced Alexa to its customer service team

Virgin Trains’ CIO, John Sullivan, doesn’t do technology for technology’s sake. He’s the man who ensures that every bit of tech works for employees as well as customers. He tells us about how he’s introduced Amazon’s Alexa into the mix…

Something that’s always resonated with me is Richard’s mantra, “If you look after your staff, they will look after customers.” So we don’t just take on new technology for the sake of it. The key thing in my mind when starting a project is to ensure that it’s good for our colleagues as well as being good for our customers. We work very closely with the commercial team. If you’re making big changes, relationships between departments and colleagues, as well as with customers, are critical. We always ask, “Is it good for the business? Is it good for our colleagues?”

In my view, Amazon is the company doing innovation best right now, so we asked them over for dinner and came up with some great ideas on how voice assistance could help Virgin Trains. It takes seven minutes for the average customer to make a booking using web technology, from searching for the train route through to payment. That’s with any train company – not just us. That’s quite a long time, so we looked at how we could make this easier and quicker.

And the easiest option was of course, to let the customer use their own voice.

I think it’s just over two minutes now, so we’ve more than halved the time it takes to book with, us by using virtual assistant Alexa.

But how will booking train tickets via Alexa affect Virgin Trains’ employees?

Well, it’s about self-service; the customers can do it themselves via Alexa, which in turn makes it much easier for our customer service call-centre staff, because it frees up a lot of their time to focus on customers who have a particular issue, or who aren’t comfortable with digital, or who have very specific queries that require a proper conversation with a member of staff to resolve. So, all the easy tasks can be done by Alexa and chat bots, but where that human touch and more thinking is required, then that’s where human interaction with our colleagues is the best option.

I like to make sure I get out and about to meet our colleagues in person and ask them, “What more can we do to help you?” One piece of feedback we got was that colleagues wanted more time to help with passenger assistance – it might be a wheelchair user, or someone with other physical disabilities. Now, when a customer books their ticket through Alexa, they’ll also be able to book passenger assistance, so we’ll know in advance what train are they getting on, their carriage and their seat number.

All this info will be given to our cabin crew colleagues in advance, so they’ll know exactly when and where that customer will need help. It also tells them where that customer will get off, so we can have someone on the platform at exactly the right spot to assist them in whatever way they need.

Of course, Alexa is a great tool for customers with other disabilities, too. If you’re visually impaired, booking tickets via a website can be difficult, so voice-activated technology is a big help.

And Alexa frees us all up to multitask! While using voice-activated assistance to book tickets, you can carry on typing or doing other stuff on your computer. So not only is it going to reduce the time it takes to make a booking, you can do other stuff at the same time. Using your voice is the most natural thing to do!

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