When the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) set out on a different kind of journey in 2001, new methods of hauling coal didn't come to mind. In an industry known for turtle-pace innovation, BNSF's journey focused on advancing the traditional company into a customer-centric enterprise.
For the $18 billion American freight railroad, achieving such a transformation was an impressive feat. The company, which employees 40,000, restricted its business between 2001 and 2006, centralizing its sales and marketing organization streamlining its customer touchpoints, creating an analytics practice, improving workflow, and tracking loyalty and other KPIs. With the new processes in place, the natural next phase was to start facilitating and acting on customer feedback.
Last year, the company established Customer Listening, an area that Carol Ishii, enterprise vice president of customer relationship marketing at BNSF, says differentiates the company. "We believe in being approachable and maintaining open lines of communications," she says. "Together that really creates an environment where we recognize the customers' utmost importance."
Ishii says BNSF proactively engages customers through various surveys generated online. They include an annual corporate survey of customers, customer support transactional surveys generated after calls, and diagnostic surveys to fix system problems. In 2008 BNSF sent 14,662 corporate surveys, 6,836 customer support transactional surveys, and 26,936 diagnostic surveys. In addition to the surveys, BNSF uses a variety of methods to interact with customers-face-to-face meetings, symposiums, customer forums, and events. A CRM system captures the feedback and the four-member Customer Listening team analyzes the data and generates reports. Ishii says the team is critical to turning feedback into action. "Our customer listening group is responsible for translating what we are hearing in targeted reports so this whole notion of taking action becomes everybody's business in the company," she says. "Their job is one of making sure the powerful things that are bubbling up will make a difference to people who have to take action."
Turning feedback into action at BNSF involves a multifaceted approach. The team produces a series of six-month trending reports targeted at different business units and identifies sets of issues. As a result, the team then conducts diagnostic surveys to take a deeper dive into a particular area flagged in the corporate feedback. The diagnostic survey is sent to targeted customers who originally flagged the problem to get a greater level of detail about how to fix the issue. "It turns out to be a powerful tool because it's almost like an ongoing follow-up with user sets," Ishii says.
Some of the bubbled-up issues, says Ishii, included matching the definition of "departure" and "arrival" more closely to how customers defined them, providing transit time reliability, and making customers' histories available online. In response, BNSF created a self-service Web tool that provides customers' transit time over the past year and offers data to help them better track and plan their movements.
BNSF is also seeing the impact of customer listening in overall customer satisfaction levels and performance. The company created a relationship index, which is based on answers to three questions in the corporate survey: overall transportation performance, ease of doing business, and trust indicates the success of Customer Listening, as well as the tools and processes spawn from that. Since 2006, the relationship index numbers have increased 22 percent among top customers, and in 2008, the numbers improved 5 percent.
Ishii says the process not only has improved customers' perception, but it's helped to focus BNSF on the task at hand. "We started on this path of customer listening and what we've found is we're able to empower different levels of the organization," she says. "It's not just from a customer-facing perspective, but we've gone pretty deep into the process."