When considering customer needs, those of us developing transport infrastructure tend to ask ourselves: What delights the user? What makes for safe and easy operation? What generates the greatest economic or financial return?
But this outdated definition ignores the impact of infrastructure on things that go beyond transport delivery, things such as property and land values, amenity, environment, opportunity, and even the way we live and work. If you experience one of these impacts you are a customer. And when we do recognise these other customer groups we tend to limit our thinking to environmental mitigation or improvements connected to the labour market. This is a mistake. We need to widen our thinking of the customer to include anyone (or anything) that touches or is touched by the infrastructure and the services we deliver. An example? We need to go beyond making sure works don’t interrupt schooling, we need to make sure our projects are brought to life in schools to inspire the designers and creatives who come after us.
We need to go further than creating something safe, efficient and desirable for travellers. Equally, we need to be more than just a good neighbour during construction and operation. Sure, these are critical considerations, but they must be matched by far wider considerations. We must create a climate of opportunity, we must create social value.
Transport as a Force for Opportunity
The challenge, especially for those of us working at the earliest stages of a project, is how to create this climate of opportunity when the role we play is so early and seemingly remote from the ‘customer’. One solution could be to embed a programme-wide set of aims and behaviours from Day One that span the supply chain and endure for the lifetime of the infrastructure.
Opportunities to maximise social value need writing into a project’s DNA. By the time infrastructure is consented, customer goodwill can be in short supply and with this comes a diminished opportunity to create a firm foundation for maximising social value. If social value is put on an even footing with economic value and thought of holistically the entirety of the supply chain can create value on top of traditional economic performance. This can be done by customer focus.
A Four Point Manifesto for the Customer
Those of us engaged at the earliest stages of transport projects need to recast the way we think. We need to:
- Identify all our customers at the outset of the project, take our understanding beyond the obvious and shine a light on the difficult to reach, those without a voice and those who will feel the impact the most;
- Embed all customers in our daily processes in the same way we do with safety. Everything should start with the question “what are we going to do for the customer today?”
- Seek ways to work with others across the supply chain to create enduring social value propositions, making foundations others can build on; and
- Understand and engage with the local the customer ‘environment’. Seek out those forces for good in an area and find ways of working with them to ensure value creation through everything we do.