Putting customers first
Richard Bowen explains how a new and improved relationship between the highways sector and its customers can benefit all
As Highways England builds on strong foundations as a construction-led organisation, focusing on the needs and satisfaction of its customers, their supply chain partners are also being asked to make customers a priority in all the design and build work they undertake. It's clear that a customer revolution is underway at Highways England.
Its Customer imperative has come to the fore and improving customer satisfaction is a priority. Broadly defining customers as road users and communities located close to the Strategic Road Network, Highways England has committed to firm customer principles. Their ambition is to improve customer satisfaction across a range of areas, including improving journey time reliability, displaying better road signage and addressing customer frustrations caused by roadworks.
Each year Highways England reviews their customers' priorities to ensure they are addressing common frustrations. The expectation is that supply chain partners will align themselves by developing and implementing design and build solutions to actively target the sources of customer complaints.
It's a tough ask of a supply chain that is deeply rooted in an engineering culture guided by practical design standards and building regulations. Highways England is asking searching questions of supply chain applicants, such as how they will adapt their cultures so that customer requirements are part of everything they do. It's turned things upside down and forced their supply chain to look both outwards and inwards at activities that haven't changed or been questioned in a generation.
As suppliers to Highways England, Mott MacDonald has had to consider how we have worked previously and how we can transform our culture successfully to provide highways solutions and services that are not just buildable and provide value for money, but also contribute directly towards improved customer satisfaction. It is also about helping to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by embedding them into our activities, such as supporting economic growth and improved competitiveness across all regions (goal 8) and delivering resilient infrastructure and innovative solutions to maximise value from public investment (goal 9).
We started by considering how we engage effectively with Highways England customers to gain a breadth of insight that is representative of road users and communities. Always more difficult to engage effectively with road users, a notoriously itinerant and time-constrained customer group, targeted communications channels and messages are needed to be successful! Rarely a one size fits all methodology, each campaign requires creative thinking to be employed.
A recent Mott MacDonald campaign made use of Highways England's Twitter feed and eye-catching graphics to capture the attention of drivers in Kent. When we analysed the feedback, we were pleased to see that 80% of the responses were received online, largely from customers that identified themselves primarily as road users. We were provided with insights that are very different from the viewpoints often heard at local community events.
While it's incredibly helpful to gain customer insights that represent a broader range of interests, we need to ensure that those viewpoints are validated by more influential stakeholder groups. By discussing insights with the likes of local authorities, local politicians and community groups, we can establish understanding and develop effective relationships through which a highways scheme can be more easily progressed.
This is the point at which we need to look at the other side of the coin. To ensure validated customer insights can be incorporated into scheme designs and builds, as a supply chain we need to focus inwards. Nobody's suggesting there's a reason to rip up the existing rulebooks, but we can design and build better roads by embedding validated customer insights into design and construction. Positive design interventions involving safety are long established within our industry and we need to think the same way about customers during planning and delivery stages.
How we manage roadworks is a good example. Consistently cited by customers as a main source of frustration, we can improve customers' experiences of roadworks through joined-up thinking and innovation. If insights tell us that a traffic management solution will be unpopular with customers, we aim to work together to provide a more acceptable alternative. Where options are limited, we can work smarter to explain the need for roadworks to customers, to provide clear information, and to highlight the benefits that will be realised for road users and communities once the works are completed.
Customers are the lifeblood of the highways sector. Yet too often they have remained hidden in plain sight. By adopting opportunities, including technology advances that provide us with abilities to develop customer centric solutions, we have a catalyst to develop and mature an industry-wide customer culture that impacts positively on customer satisfaction. Highways England is leading the way, their supply chain must follow.
Richard Bowen is the Highways Stakeholder and Public Liaison Manager at Mott MacDonald