by Stephen Pottle

Better meeting needs

The industry realises that engaging with customers to understand their needs and concerns at an early stage of scheme development can produce better outcomes for everyone. This also results in fewer objections and challenges to schemes during planning, as well as fewer issues during the work, making them quicker and more cost-effective to build.

There are, of course, many different customer groups, each with differing needs. A lorry driver will have different needs from a disabled motorist, for example. And not all customers are road users – local communities may be affected by a scheme, for example if traffic is diverted, and need to be considered too. It is a complex picture for those designing, building, operating and maintaining roads. Where do they start?

The key thing to focus on is that we are all customers. The chances are that you will use the roads today – whether you walk, cycle, drive or travel on a bus. Those of us working in the industry need to apply our own experience as customers. If a scheme we are designing affects people’s journeys, for example, we need to ask: “How would I feel if that were my journey?” Or: “How would I feel if I lived near to those works?”

Putting customers first

So how do you encourage people in the roads industry to put customers first? This can be a challenge, particularly when you consider that road designers spend most of their workdays at a desk, far removed from customers. Ultimately, leaders need to ensure that everyone involved – no matter what their job – feels they are at the heart of providing an excellent customer experience.

It reminds me of the famous story of the NASA janitor. When President Kennedy visited NASA and asked a janitor, who was cleaning the floor, what he did, the janitor replied: “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The janitor felt as involved in the ultimate goal as those in mission control. The road industry’s version of this is its journey to become customer centric.

Customer care plans

At WSP we are developing a customer strategy to set out how we can deliver excellent customer experience across all our business areas, including highways. We are also developing a specific plan for Highways England, which will enable our leaders to communicate through the organisation the sort of behaviours and actions that are required to put customers first.

Highways England is already putting customers first in its guidance for areas such as roadworks, which frequently receive low satisfaction scores. It has a 20-point checklist of things to consider when designing and implementing roadworks, and audits works to ensure that customer experience is prioritised. Examples include raising the speed limit through roadworks to 60mph, where it is safe to do so, and providing better information and signage.

While such processes and the behaviours that support them are vital, technological innovation can also improve customer experience. WSP is drawing on our experience in the buildings sector to pioneer productisation in highways, which sees standardised elements manufactured offsite and used across different schemes, as well as the automation of design. Together with Laing O’Rourke we are developing certified bridge products that will speed up design and construction and will ultimately benefit customers.

By embracing new behaviours, processes and technologies in this way, the roads industry can continue to do more to put customers first.

Stephen Pottle is WSP’s highways sector lead for civil, bridge and ground engineering. He is part of our team working with Highways England on customer interaction and improving customer satisfaction.