Why would you recommend Virgin Trains? Why NPS should not be the default question to measure all customer experiences


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Virgin Trains - why would you recommend them to anyone when there is no other option?

Virgin Trains – why would you recommend them to anyone when there is no other option?

I am very fortunate to work with and alongside some exceptional Customer Experience Professionals. As a specialist in the profession myself, the ability to continually learn from my peers enables my own development. Whilst I love writing about all things to do with Customer Experience (as I hope you know), some of my colleagues are not as keen as I am to rant on a regular basis. That being said, I often try to ‘twist the arm’ of the experts I know others will be keen to learn from.

I am absolutely delighted that my friend and fellow Customer Experience Professional, Maria McCann has finally caved in and written about an experience of her own. If you do not know Maria, you should. Maria is one of the most accomplished leaders I know in the Customer Experience field, having held senior roles at Red Letter Days, ASOS, Spotify and Aurora Fashions. Her story (which I am hoping you have guessed involves Virgin Trains) is one that I am sure we can all relate to – I know you will enjoy reading it:

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We’ve all been on the receiving end of a train delay. It’s often a no-win situation for the train company focused on getting everyone to their destination safely, while passengers are left feeling impotent and frustrated.  I feel protective of the customer facing teams dealing with confused, sometimes angry customers and the social teams whose twitter handles get put under immense pressure to respond with lightening speed.

However a first time trip using Virgin Trains left me with more steam coming out of my ears than one of their Super Voyagers! Let me set the scene. My train was cancelled. The next one was delayed. Updates from the concourse and on twitter citing reasons outside of the train Operators control. A blameless situation and a communicative company.  All ok so far. Expect in the middle of my chaos, I received a survey asking me how my recent travel experience was and how likely I was to recommend Virgin Trains to a family or friend. The good old NPS question.

When I told them there was zero chance of me recommending them, I was asked why.  This is what I told them.

  1. Why would I need to recommend the only operator that runs this route?
  2. My train is delayed. I wouldn’t recommend anyone right now

I’m going to pivot here for a moment and talk about Net Promoter Score; the methodology that Virgin Trains, and countless other businesses use to measure their customer experience.

I was an early UK adopter of NPS, first implementing it at Red Letter Days in 2007. The reason I used it was a purists’ one. I wanted something we could use to measure organic growth. As a company coming out of Administration, it was crucial we had a sustainable customer growth underpinning our strategy and NPS was a great way to measure this.

Since then I have seen the use of NPS evolve into a benchmark measure for customer satisfaction or experience reaching out beyond commercial markets into sectors with consumer monopolies such as train travel, and even NHS Direct in health.I’m all for having a measure that provides insight which organisations can act upon. However, I would challenge NPS as the default question to measure customer experience in all cases. It was certainly the wrong question to ask about my train experience.

Anyway, back to my frustrated self, standing on the platform. NPS question asked and answered. Check. Algorithm picked up key word, prompting more detail from me. Check. Detail given in form of mini-rant. Check.

‘We’re sorry you experienced a delay’ was the answer to my response ‘If you have been delayed by more than 30 minutes, please click here to download a form to claim for compensation.

WOW! I thought; this business is so sorry that I have to do all the work to pick up the pieces.

My train finally arrived and it was elbows at dusk as two trains worth of passengers attempted what looked like a line of rugby scrums as they boarded. Deciding that standard class was going to be more like cattle class, I decided to seek out a member of staff to see if I could upgrade to 1st, (which took up a third of the train and was practically empty). ‘Upgrades are only available at weekends’ was the flat response.  I had no idea what this meant and was losing my calm. And so I turned to Twitter to see if I could get what I wanted. #Epicfail

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I got no response from Virgin Trains after my final tweet and I spent the rest of my journey calming myself over a gin and reflecting on what I could learn from my experience.

Data gives us opportunities to see further ahead than the customer. So why do we often act out of kilter with our customers’ reality?

When I headed up Customer Service at ASOS, I obsessed over being one step ahead of our customers. Especially on delayed deliveries. Then we developed the capability to predict delays, communicate the failure and refund the delivery charge. All in one smooth service experience. This presented a culture problem. If we refunded 100% of failures, we might refund some customers who didn’t deserve it and we would definitely spend more in refunds.

However we decided to put the right experience over our fears and became one of the first retailers to tell customers of a problem before they felt the pain of experiencing it.  Customers who had previously complained fell, rapidly.  Refunds ballooned but we were able to reinvest the resources we had saved from reduced customer contact, into finding the root of these delays and fixing them for good.

Virgin Trains could have mashed up mine and the train’s data. They could have emailed me to tell me of the delay. They could have reassured me I didn’t have to do anything because they were sorting the compensation. And they could have avoided sending me a survey at the worst possible moment in my experience.

 We love training our teams to be empowered. So why don’t we support them to be autonomous?

I know some of you will be thinking empowerment and autonomy are the same and I’ve lost the plot.  Admittedly my mind can sometimes make quantum leaps of logic so let me try to explain what’s going on in my head…

Empowerment is a set of pre-defined powers handed from manager to employee, usually to manage a set of processes. Autonomy starts from the other end. It is an individual using their purpose, self-reliance and judgment to handle any situation, with their leaders supporting their needs. Talk to me about autonomy and I get inspired.

My experience could have gone differently in a completely autonomous environment. 1st class seats could have been sold without referring to process limitations to those interested in paying. If a totally customer obsessed train manager had been in charge, free WiFi and coffee might have been given to the flagging passengers! Although it was clear the team were empowered to manage the overall situation of the delay, I felt like I’d been shoved through a linear process.

To be fair to Virgin Trains, my overall experience is no better or worse than most consumer face everyday. Most brands are just not brave enough to push the boundaries in how we can use data and support our teams to act autonomously.

So I’ll leave you with this thought …  if we did use data to manage and measure the hygiene parts of our customers experience and leave the awesome parts to our autonomous colleagues, I believe most brands would have a better relationship with their customers as a result.


I am sure you will join me in thanking Maria for taking the time to write this excellent post. You can connect with her on Twitter @mariamccann or LinkedIn

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ian Golding, CCXP
A highly influential freelance CX consultant, Ian advises leading companies on CX strategy, measurement, improvement and employee advocacy techniques and solutions. Ian has worked globally across multiple industries including retail, financial services, logistics, manufacturing, telecoms and pharmaceuticals deploying CX tools and methodologies. An internationally renowned speaker and blogger on the subject of CX, Ian was also the first to become a CCXP (Certified Customer Experience Professional) Authorised Resource & Training Provider.


  1. This is a very instructive post, and it is yet another lesson of why measures like NPS, CES, delight, loyalty indices, and CSat have significant analytical and granular decision-making insight challenges: http://customerthink.com/is-there-a-single-most-actionable-contemporary-and-real-world-metric-for-managing-optimizing-and-leveraging-customer-experience-and-behavior/

    One of the key, customer-centric practices you cite is the value of being proactive, especially when delivery problems are anticipated. Empowering employees to be ambassadors is rarely done. This is outside the box enterprise thinking which customers appreciate, and they will reward any company taking this kind of initiative with greater loyalty.

  2. Thanks for writing this great post about your experience, Maria! Hopefully Virgin Trains will read this – they could certainly improve a thing or two about their customer experience!

    I initially clicked on the post because I’m a promoter of the Net Promoter System and, after reading the post, I still think that NPS would be appropriate in this situation. It was just poorly implemented.

    Now I definitely get the idea that the wording can seem weird when there was no other option (they have no competition) and the train was delayed (you haven’t received the service yet).

    But if transactional NPS was being implemented well, it would demonstrate that they want their customers to be raving fans (promoters) of the train even if there is no competition on this route.

    Also, if they were listening to feedback and having a real person reach out to all detractors immediately (I’m guessing you were a detractor), they had an additional opportunity to make things right with you and try to turn you into a promoter. But instead they tried to automate the response and put the burden on you, which is totally missing the point of a great feedback system like NPS.

    Anyway, I see the NPS question sent to your in the midst of your extremely frustrating experience as a completely missed opportunity to turn a detractor into a promoter. They had the chance to get valuable feedback from a bad part of their customer experience and turn it around (maybe even by upgrading you and offering that free wi-fi and coffee). And I think the question at that moment is a valuable one – no , you would not recommend Virgin Trains.

    Any business should want their customers to recommend them regardless of whether there was direct competition or not. It’s just a good business practice to want as many raving fans as possible. It just makes sense.

    I agree that NPS shouldn’t necessarily be the default question for all customer experiences. It also really irks me when the question is used but the system is not implemented. For example, in your case, instead of forwarding your feedback to the Train Manager and having them follow up with your directly, they tried to have technology fix your issue and put more work on you.

    And if NPS is implemented well, it isn’t just about the survey. All the employees should be concerned about creating as many promoters as possible, and this clearly is not the case as demonstrated by the staff who weren’t very helpful when you wanted to pay them more money for an upgrade.

    Maybe NPS wasn’t the best question in this case. It seems like if they really aren’t going to listen to feedback and try to provide a great experience, that no question is almost better.

    What do you think would have been the better question to measure your customer experience?

  3. Marybeth – thanks so much for your NPS insight – I love it! Just picking up on your thread…

    Using the Raving Fans logic, the NPS system essentially becomes the vehicle that links the emotional commitment from a customer to brand performance. The extremes being the RavingFan who brings more customers to the brand or the detractor who turns them off.

    I can buy the model that the more ‘RavingFans’ an organisation has, the more chance they have of success. But…I would like Organisations to really think more about the emotional commitment they are seeking from their customers that will most align to their brand goals and performance. It isn’t always the commitment to recommend.

    Ideally I’d like to see brands linking more customer behaviour in and out of their brand to their goals and performance. But thats a whole other post!

    You make a great point around Organisations who fail to execute the NPS system and don’t follow up the right opportunities. In my experience, the ones that consistently fail to do this are usually trying to link their brand to one set of customer commitments, but asking about something different.

    In the case of Virgin Trains, the starting place of a RavingFan is not ‘I’ll use Virgin Trains’ and then figure out their destination – its the other way around. So what emotional commitment do they actually want to see from their customers?
    Whatever that commitment is; thats the question I’d like to see.

  4. Brands, obviously, do have loyalty exposure (and, as your post points out, challenges as well) when reactive and passive service meets annoyed customer contact initiation. This is the kind of granularity where recommendation, loyalty index, satisfaction, and effort scores will provide minimal guidance for enterprises in how to make strategic customer value and process improvements. Service is critical to the branded customer experience; and, as a suggestion, Virgin Trains might be better served in identifying how their performance has eroded emotional trust, and level of advocacy and brand bonding: http://www.marketingexecutives.biz/experience-based-informal-word-mouth-and-brand-bonding-puts-consumers-marketing-drivers-seat


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