Case Study: SBB Swiss Rail – Efficiency and Empathy

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Readers of my blogposts will know I’m a regular traveller to Switzerland. I’ve written before about the passenger experience on board Swiss trains, boats and buses. I’ve heaped praise on how well each mode of transport connects with the other, and the confidence that this inspires in their use (today’s trip involved two buses and two trains, where each time I was advised via onboard announcements of my slick onward connection and platform). It’s a functional treat of efficiency.

Yet, like the Swiss nationals themselves, I’ve become accustomed to such adeptness. I expect all Swiss transport to work now, and almost take its carefully planned design for granted. Such is the fate of so many great customer experiences – when they work this well and so consistently over a long period, they fade into the background for its regular customers at least, becoming culture rather than function.

However, today’s trip contained a surprise. Half of my train carriage had been designated a kids ‘mini park’, and had been totally refitted. It came complete with slides and boats and trees. It had animal murals and primary colours. And of course, it had children playing – having fun and making a little noise in the process. (Watch the short video for a taste)

After 30 minutes of travel, a few things became clear:

1. This was a journey that the kids genuinely enjoyed

2. No electronic games were in sight, and seemed totally out of mind

3. Kids played with each other, and supervising mums (no males in sight!) were happy to watch

4. The park had no instructions for use. No rules. No warnings. They weren’t missed.

Most of all, the park carriage told a story. It illustrated that SBB understood parents and kids. They knew how boring it is to sit still when you’re a child, and what the irritable consequences are for the parents. The carriage design showed empathy in its design. This meant that the parents appreciated that it had been placed there, as well as the functionality of what it physically offered.

On returning to the UK later in the day, I travelled home on a UK train. It was busy, and noisy, even though no-one spoke a word (why do UK trains produce so much clackety-clack?). It was hard to store my luggage, and the seats were strewn with litter. And it was 7 mins late.

Now I’m not advocating that every train gets a play zone – the realities of overcrowded commuter carriages would not sit well with kids jumping around and shrieking with delight. It’s more the mindset of Swiss travel design that I miss. They approach travel from this dual standpoint of efficiency and empathy. They care about whether the bus will join up with the train, because they know that’s what the passenger cares about. Its not just the connection itself but how the connection is made, both physically and emotionally. My local Swiss rail station at Kussnacht recently redesigned the station layout so that onward buses could meet the arriving train passengers more easily, and travellers would no longer get wet during transit from one to the other in bad weather. The layout was efficient, the roof was empathetic.

The kids mini park didn’t change whether the train left or arrived on time. But it did mean that both children and parents enjoyed the ride that much more. Such smart design may not be quite such ‘child’s play’ here in England. But the mindset must surely be in reach, for those that care to stretch for it?

Takeout: Imagine if the Post Office used efficiency and empathy in equal measure. Or your telephone company? Or your bank? How would their environments work and their employees behave? How would their Exec Boards lead them? And how would success be measured? My guess is that they would feel different as much as look different, both for customers and employees alike. And their brand reputation may change for the better as a result. But only if they try.

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PS: The kids had so much fun, they were reluctant to get off the train on arrival. But they needn’t have worried. There was another mini park at the airport.

Airport play