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Destination perfection: what we can learn from the Swiss railways

Published 6 February 2023 in Innovation • 6 min read

While other companies have slipped off track when it comes to dealing with customers, the heart-warming reaction from Swiss train staff when a problem arose shows what can be achieved with more ambition, writes John Sills in a second extract from his new book, The Human Experience. 

Back in early 2020, days before the world was put into lockdown, I found myself on a train flying through the Swiss countryside.  

I was with a group of 30 septuagenarians who were on two-week rail holiday, doing some research into what made their experience great and what could be better. One of my colleagues is from Geneva and, when she found out I was going, repeated what we’re all told about the Swiss railway system: wonderfully efficient, best in the world, incredibly reliable. So, within seconds of the emergency brakes bringing the train to a shuddering halt, I was mentally preparing my sarcastic messages to my Swiss friend and my angry messages to the Swiss Federal Railways Twitter team: train broken down, we’re going to miss the connection, no one has any idea what’s going on … typical Swiss inefficiency. But before I had the chance to hit send, something unexpected happened – or at least, unexpected to those of us who frequently travel on UK trains. 

The train manager, fresh from giving an update over the intercom, appeared in our carriage and made a beeline for our tour manager. He sat with us and, without hesitation, apologized. Not one of those shallow “sorry for the inconvenience” apologies, but a proper, hand-on-heart, human apology for letting us down and for the problems this was going to cause for a large group of tourists hoping to enjoy a stress-free holiday. 

I thought that was pretty impressive, but I didn’t realize that he was just getting started. He laid out exactly what would happen next. Our revised time into Zurich. The next train that we could get to replace our missed connection. The platform it would leave from and the quickest way to get to it. Then he disappeared to the next carriage to speak to more passengers.  

As the group were chatting among themselves about how good the train manager was, the tour manager’s phone rang. He looked serious, then surprised, and finally delighted:  

“I’ve got an update, everybody.” 

We all listened intently. “That was one of the Swiss Rail Operations Managers,” he said. “He’s reserved us a whole carriage on the next train so we don’t have to worry about finding seats together.” 

Before too long we were in Zurich, clear and confident about which train and which platform we were heading to. Not that we needed to be, of course. As the train doors opened, a station manager was there to greet us. She escorted us to the new train, leading us to the exact carriage that was reserved for our group.  

Once we were all on board, the new train manager came along to check we were settled and, given the problems we’d had, gave us all free drinks vouchers for use on the trains at any point during the rest of the holiday. 

When the train broke down, it was 14.30. When we got on the new train, it was 15.45. If I’m honest, I kind of wanted it to go on a bit longer to see what else would happen. Free money? A train each? The Freedom of the city of Zurich?  

Compare that experience to my usual commute into London, where I’m happy if I get to sit on the bin! 

Towards the end of 2022, I arrived at my local station to find that my usual once-every-half-hour train – the 07.46 – had been cancelled. In a panic, I arranged an Uber to take me and three other passengers to the next closest station where we could pick up our connection. I wrote to my train company to ask for a refund for the £20 taxi fare (£5 per passenger), and was told in no uncertain terms that this would not be happening: 

“Upon checking I can see that the 7.46 train was cancelled. However, there were trains running after this, such as the 8.16 and the 8.46, which were both just delayed for a few minutes.” 

For the Swiss Federal Railways, being a few minutes late was unacceptable. For my local train company, being an hour late was just fine.  

Sadly, the Swiss Federal Railways story is interesting (I think!) purely because it’s currently so rare. As I mentioned in the previous article, over the past 20 years, organizations have focused on perfecting the functional experience at the expense of the human, emotional experience. We can do more things in more ways and in more places than ever before, a world of information available to us at the tips of our fingers. Yet as this convenience has taken hold, the humanity has ebbed away, with strict processes and a reliance on technology meaning that organizations are increasingly full of humans that aren’t allowed to act in a human way.  

For my new book – The Human Experience – I wanted to find out what it was that defined the companies that have managed to create a commercially human experience and organization. As I interviewed executives of each company, it become clear that they all had traits in common, creating a similar culture with the same five enablers that underpinned their ways of working.  

The first of these enablers is what separates my Swiss Federal Railways experience from that I experience every day with my local railway: ambition. Ambition to truly trailblaze on behalf of customers, to make things better for the people they serve every day, to help customers achieve their outcomes. 

At every point in my experience, their ambition to get us to our destination and create a good experience was clear. The apology, the communication, the ownership, the resolution. There was no shrugging of shoulders, no “well, they’ll be another train along soon”, no “you can get a refund if you’re not happy”. They’d promised to get us to a destination, and that’s what they were going to do. Anything less was unacceptable.  

The reply I got from my local train company showed the opposite: an acceptance of mediocrity. For them, having a customer (or two hundred customers if you take everybody due to be on that train) be an hour late into work was just fine, completely acceptable. Their reply to my complaint – that another train was on the way, and you can refund your ticket if you’re not happy – also shows a focus on the functional, following the complaint process as it’s written, rather than taking a more human, more common-sense approach to the situation. 

Of course, these five cultural traits only matter if they translate into behaviors that customers can see and feel, of which the companies I studied all shared the same seven. In the case of my Swiss adventure, some of those behaviors were clear to see, with real proactivity and responsibility, taking ownership of the situation and making sure that the customers achieved the outcome they were trying to achieve.  

I’d suggest the directors of my train company pay a visit some time. But I suspect they’d end up being late.  

The Human Experience is out now in the UK  


John Sills

John Sills

Managing Partner at The Foundation

John Sills is Managing Partner at the customer-led growth company, The Foundation. 25 years ago, he started his career on a market stall in Essex, and since then has worked in and with companies around the world to make things better for customers. He’s been in front-line teams delivering the experience, innovation teams designing the propositions, and global HQ teams creating the strategy. He’s been a bank manager during the financial crisis (not fun), launched a mobile app to millions of people (very fun), and regularly visits strangers’ houses to ask very personal questions (incredible fun).


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