Copper director, Martin McCrink, reflects on engaging the customer following Transport Focus’ Strategic Roads User Survey launch at Highways UK.

Customers buy products and services. They exchange money, they shop again if they are happy, they expect retailers to manage issues professionally and they shop around for the best deal. It is the same in high street fashion stores as it is on street stalls.

Retailers look for the niche in the market and plan how to sell a product by testing the market. In 1995, Tesco introduced the Clubcard. Tesco pitched it as a loyalty card to win rewards, but it gave the retailer data on their customers, insight into their habits, their marketing preferences and what they liked and disliked – all 38 million of them. The customer is defined because they walked through a shop door or completed an online order.

It’s similar for Government. Customers, or voters, shop around for the best deal and buy, or vote for, what meets their needs based on what is in the shop window at the time. If they do not like what is for sale, they vote differently.

The concept of the customer for some infrastructure projects is relatively new. While energy companies can tap into smart meters and billing information, it can be more subtle across the rest of the industry. So who is the customer when the transaction is more intangible?

Transport developers and owners tend not to issue loyalty cards and customer engagement can be transactional. Added to this, infrastructure customers do not always consider themselves customers in the traditional sense. In infrastructure, both retailer and shopper are still getting to know one another.

Transport Focus, which represents the interests of those who use motorways and major roads in England, published its Strategic Road User Survey this month. It goes a long way to help us understand who customers are and what they want from journeys.

But there are six more steps we can take to respond to the infrastructure customer:

  1. Define the customer – do not guess or make assumptions. Know the audience and be clear about objectives.
  2. Articulate what customers are buying – they want to know why their money is being spent on a project and what they will get from it. They are likely to be less interested in how their product was assembled.
  3. Customers are complex – acknowledge multiple, competing and contradictory aspirations – one customer can use infrastructure as an employee, a parent, a grandchild, a business owner and a holidaymaker – possibly all at the same time. Understanding their requirements requires emotional intelligence.
  4. Show good service – TfL and London Underground show ‘Good Service’ at all tube stations to explain the status of each tube line. Communicating success can be more important than explaining disruption.
  5. Bring the customer in – infrastructure cannot truly demonstrate satisfaction on its own. Its needs customers to tell that story, but they cannot from a distance and customers do not supply positive feedback on demand. Credible, reliable and empathetic information builds trust.
  6. Keep technology options open – disruptive technology will always move faster than infrastructure projects, but infrastructure developers can be flexible and tactical in how they communicate with potential customers; waiting for the perfect technology will mean missing out.

For clients to engage customers, a base level of data is essential to understand behaviour before developing a strategy to meet objectives.