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Reimagining customer service

March 2020

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A monitor in NS’ Goode Building in Atlanta displays live feeds of customer case metrics in an office now empty as customer service representatives work remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Editor’s note: This article was reported before customer service reps began working remotely in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Our customer response times have remained impressive, a testament to the agility and resiliency of our customer service employees and leadership.  

Through metrics and teamwork, NS makes strides in customer response

The U.S. had its “Dream Team” at the 1992 Olympics. Now, Norfolk Southern’s customer service group is developing our very own team of all stars within the railroad’s reimagined Customer Operations Department.

While last fall’s reorganization and realignment of customer service laid the foundation to prosper, department leaders recognized the opportunity to use real-time customer data to generate continued improvement and results in how we respond to customer issues.

After benchmarking customer service centers at other companies, NS is taking a reinvigorated approach to ensuring our customers receive a quality transportation product and a customer experience that is low-effort for them.

“We have moved a long way in a short time,” said John Scheib, EVP and chief strategy officer. “The team has done an excellent job building a data backbone that we are now leveraging to target efforts and drive further improvements in customer service.”

Friendly competition

One of the department’s new customer service goals is to respond to customers within two hours of initial contact. Another is to continue follow-up with any outstanding customer cases every 24 hours until resolution.

To keep customer care front and center, Ashley King and JP McNeil, both directors of customer service, now display live feeds of these customer case metrics to their industrial products employees via television monitors.

“It gives people a visual of where they stand each day as well as in our case queue,” says King. “Now, they have a starting point.”

McNeil says they are experiencing success using a new playbook. In February, the team leaders launched the first game in a friendly competition focused on achieving or exceeding the goal of speedier response times. Each week, for six weeks, the customer service teams from the markets under King and McNeil’s purview – agriculture, forest, metals and construction, and chemicals – are receiving points and are ranked based on performance. After the competition period, points will be tallied, and the top team wins a pizza party.

“Once we gave our specialists something to attack and a method to work through cases that were connected to our goals, we saw improvement,” states McNeil. Just a month ago, numbers for two-hour response times hovered in the 50% range; now, they are in the mid 70% range.

Metrics aren’t the only pieces of information displayed on the monitors. The team also uses comments from Voice of the Customer, a program NS launched in January that captures immediate customer feedback about their service experience. Kudos from customers citing the service specialists and managers they worked with rotate on the screens for the entire department to see.

Coupled with existing customer case data in ConnectNS, the department’s shared digital repository, King, McNeil, and their teams are using the VOC feedback to help develop people while improving our service.

Employee Engagement

The display of live case response times taps into the teams’ competitive nature and draws regular attention and questions from participants. However, this is not the only way Customer Operations is cultivating a more engaged workforce ready to provide best-in-class service.

Cross-sectional teams of specialists and managers in customer service are working together to identify and triage trends and potential systemic issues – like waybilling, local service, and overload – instances when the car weight exceeds the car’s capacity. This collaborative effort helps cultivate team building and development, explains McNeil. King says these teams, in combination with plans to notify customers through AccessNS and Trax mobile, should help to eliminate the need for duplicative customer queries.

To further engage employees, the customer service team members get the chance to vote one of their colleagues as the Employee of the Month, which rotates monthly between a manager and a specialist. Peers are the ultimate decision-makers behind who receives the accolades and a special prize – use of the parking space belonging to Scheib, who oversees Customer Operations.

August Fuller, group manager of service and support, was the first selected. “It was an honor to be recognized by my managers, and it was fulfilling to know that my work and dedication to my job was noticed and appreciated,” she said.

February and March winners were Maggie Cole, specialist for metals and construction and chemicals, and Nelson Kinsey, assistant manager for agriculture and forest, respectively.

King and McNeil readily communicate updates, changes, and expectations at least twice a day during “pod briefs” with each of the customer service teams. They also request suggestions on how they can enable teams to perform their jobs more efficiently. “Taking their feedback and not just hearing it, but also acting on it” has proven to be effective, says King.

Cole, an NS employee for 16 years, has experienced this. “What stands out most is management and specialists working hand in hand toward a common goal,” she said. “The changes engage specialists and managers to push to meet our daily personal goals as well as our daily team goals.”

Fuller reaffirms that communication is key to progress. “I really enjoy the dynamic I see across our floor,” she says. “The instructions, guidance, and overall communication we receive from leadership are clear and understood across the board.” 

Keeping the momentum

One of the newest data-tracking views in ConnectNS is “work lists,” a specific view that tracks cases that have not hit a failure point of follow-up, but are quickly approaching it, explains McNeil. As the department advances its use of data-driven performance, more insight will drive additional improvements, he adds.

Another point of encouragement is the uptick in customer feedback. In addition to completing Voice of Customer surveys, they are using AccessNS to provide overall customer experience suggestions. “They're using this channel to say ‘we wish NS did this,’ or ‘we wish that AccessNS did this,’ so we're making sure that we get that feedback to the correct groups,” says King.

Between the friendly competitions, feedback, and noted improvements, the department’s leadership recognizes the need to keep adapting and adjusting as we move forward. “The catch is how do we continuously reinvent ourselves so we don't lose any momentum,” McNeil says.

In Fuller’s view, this NS dream team is equipped with the right attitude, skills, and energy to continue delivering top notch customer service to those who keep the steel wheels rolling.

“I am very proud of what our customer service team has accomplished within the last six months,” says Fuller. “Our specialists, managers, and directors work together daily to ensure that we are providing timely and quality service to our customers.”

As the age-old saying goes, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” In customer service, it appears our NS teammates are finding their rhythm and showing no signs of slowing down.