Sam Sherwood-Hale met up with Matthew Shears and Ruth Weatherall, co-founders of UP3 to talk about the company’s collaboration with Virgin Trains and what it can offer the rail industry…

UP3 is focused on finding digital solutions to analogue problems by utilising the ServiceNow platform. I sat down for a chat with co-founders, Matthew Shears and Ruth Weatherall to discuss the company’s move into the rail sector. Fresh off their work with Virgin Trains on their Disruption Management application, Matt and Ruth were keen to discuss the innovations their team could offer and stressed the importance of a forward-thinking mentality when addressing the legacy issues that impact rail.

Matthew Shears: Ruth and I run UP3, we work with a platform called ServiceNow which is the underlying technology to everything we do. We’ve been working together for ten years and established this company in 2016, over the last three years various relationships have led to us working in rail and automating customer facing processes.

We think there is a huge opportunity in the UK rail sector, and beyond, and that’s where our focus is now. We’ve done a lot of work with Virgin Trains and work with others such as HS2, and Hitachi Rail and we’re talking to roughly 75 per cent of the rail industry about the solutions we’ve built and are now taking to market.  Alongside that work we’re also talking to regulators.

Ruth Weatherall: I cover the operational side of the business including the delivery of the projects; the work we do with ServiceNow to redefine business processes and deliver automation through our applications. What we’ve discovered is that, in rail, there are problems that have not previously been addressed so instead of trying to replace what’s currently there, we’re coming up with new solutions to solve real industry problems.

How did the relationship with Virgin Trains come about?

Ruth: Virgin Trains implemented the ServiceNow platform in order to address some of their IT issues, that’s typically where it starts because IT has a best practice framework for delivering good service. So, you can take ServiceNow and start to deliver that service – once you’ve established confidence in terms of what the platform is capable of you can then take it in to other areas of the business. Virgin Trains had the drive to take the service out into customer-facing areas and have shown other TOCs what is possible.

Matt: ServiceNow is a process automation platform.  So if you have a customer asking you for something, whether they are an internal customer in a large enterprise or an external customer, you can fulfil that request with ServiceNow. In a big operation like Virgin Trains, IT is typically a starting point. You might have users of IT that are requesting a service of some sort or telling you that something is broken, if you look at every process that starts with  an end user, the request is very similar, even if the domain is different, for example HR or procurement. We’ve taken the core of the market-leading ServiceNow platform and applied it to customer-facing areas of train companies. >>>

Ruth: The Virgin Trains relationship is where most of these products have come to life. Being a disruptive TOC, they are confronting problems the rest of the industry isn’t touching because they are deemed to be too difficult. By helping them tackle these problems we’re creating applications that are first-in-class and which we can see the industry taking notice of now that Virgin Trains has broken the ground by showing these problems can be solved. Disruption is one, delay repay compensation fraud is another. TOCs have always known that fraud is happening but there has been no way of quantifying it.

You mentioned that some other TOCs aren’t quite as up on this, why do you think that is?

Ruth: It’s a mixture of things, the technology hasn’t been there for one. In the example of fraud, there hasn’t been any way to join the pieces of data together in order to be able to identify that fraud is happening. Typically, if you’re running some of the legacy systems, you just don’t have the capability to do trend analysis over time to look for relationships between disparate bits of data. ServiceNow is built to do this, so as soon as Virgin Trains had that capability, they started gathering that data and joining information together. They could see, for example, that a customer might have claimed compensation on several services and that they couldn’t possibly have been on all the trains they had claimed to be on.

No other system has been able to do that and so it is by taking the data that exists that you can then start to join it together. That’s what we’ve done with fraud. There are some amazing statistics about the amount of fraudulent compensation claims that are being made in the industry. For many TOCs, even if they can track some of the fraud, the process of appealing a decision or recovering compensation, is very difficult. We can stop the fraudulent claim being processed in the first place. Apparently, nobody has done that before.

Matt: VT has witnessed a 25 per cent increase in the number of customer cases this year. That’s a combination of customer enquiries, complaints and a large percentage are claims for compensation. For some other TOCs the numbers are even higher and without the technology it is difficult for them to process these cases, detect fraud in compensation and provide an improved customer experience at the same time.

How did your work with Virgin Trains lead to this, do they identify problems and take them to you or the other way around? 

Ruth: It’s very much a joint approach, we don’t just work on a set of defined requirements, we send our team in to work with the customer to define the problem. For the issue of rail disruption, one of our first solutions was to set up the control log in ServiceNow so that rather than recording information statically in word documents that somebody has to trawl through, we put it into ServiceNow so that the information could be accessed quickly. That was the start of addressing the massive problem of service disruption, proving that it works and delivering value, that’s how we’ve always approached things. Start with something small and manageable and then move on to the bigger challenges.

Matt: For these operators their data is very much siloed, so it’s difficult for them to see the necessary information holistically – whereas we can do that on this platform. What we now bring is the domain expertise which we’ve developed around the rail business from everything we’ve learned over the last three years. It’s astonishing what our team knows about the rail sector, Virgin Trains sees them as another member of the team because of that knowledge. There’s the example of the CIF file (Crystallographic Information File), our team has looked at the data contained in these files, things like tracking every point along the line that the train has passed, Virgin Trains now has this data in one place alongside other critical service and customer data and can join it together. Simple but very effective.

Through the series of projects we delivered with Virgin Trains, another action we took was to take their customer complaints system off the industry standard and replace it with ServiceNow. So every single customer complaint or inquiry was automated on ServiceNow and because of the power of the platform the data could be related together.

Virgin Trains can now resolve customer cases more efficiently and provide a great customer experience in the process. They have just been voted the best British Train franchise in the National Rail Passenger Survey.

Ruth: As mentioned, Delay Repay fraud is a big issue that they’re trying to address because of the burden it places on the customer service team.  If you’re a customer service agent faced with thousands of customer cases each day you can’t spend your time trying to link these cases together to flag up something that seems a bit suspicious; you need the system to flag it up to you. If you’re a season ticket holder you may not have gone to work that day but the train you would have taken was delayed and there are companies out there that will encourage you to make compensation claims and that’s grown up over the last ten years so it’s there to be exploited.

Matt: And that’s going to increase with delay repay moving from 30 minutes to 15 minutes.

Ruth: Exactly, new franchisees are now committing to Delay Repay compensation for delays over 15 minutes, Southeastern believe this could add 50 per cent more compensation claims to their workload. Virgin Trains were the first TOC to offer automatic Delay Repay – they saw it as the right thing to do – if your customer has booked a ticket via your website, you know who they are, you know that your train was delayed so you should automatically provide compensation. It’s great customer service and it drives customer loyalty.  We now need to make this process easier for journeys that weren’t booked directly with the TOC, that’s where the complexity lies.

Matt: What we’re finding with the other TOCs that we’re talking to is that this great customer service message is really resonating; stop thinking about it as compensating customers, think of it as a way to improve the customer experience. Make the process as simple for them as possible and they will be more likely to come back.

You mentioned HS2 which is obviously a very innovative and forward-thinking project. Are you working on the same applications with them?

Matt: They started with IT and they’re moving into other business functions, once ServiceNow is in the business we know it will gain traction and credibility so they can start looking at replacing some external systems or manual processes. Safety would be an obvious one, certifications and regulatory compliance is another. Where we want to be is interacting with their external customers. That is where the innovation is being driven, it’s more exciting and the funding is there to make things happen.

What was the inspiration behind starting UP3? 

Matt: We just saw a massive opportunity; it was an epiphany moment. We were sat with a mentor of ours, a serial entrepreneur, and we were talking about the technology and how it could really make a difference to the way organisations worked. ’You’re going to have to go and start on your own’ were his wise words and we never looked back after that.

Ruth: When we started the company we always knew we wanted to get out from behind the back office operation and do more customer-centric work, we found it personally more interesting but as Matt said that’s where the funding is and you’re able to interact with the end customer and have more of an impact.

When Virgin Trains started doing this ground-breaking work, they were looking for a partner who could take it on and that’s what we were able to.

Presumably when you first started working together, this technology didn’t exist as it does today. What new things have you seen become possible along the way?

Ruth: It was always envisioned to be a development platform, what we do which is different to most partners is that we take these business problems that are too complex to tackle and we tell our customer ‘as long as you can define the issue we can come up with ways of fixing the problem’.  The greatest example of that is what Virgin Trains has done with disruption, an incredibly complex problem.When disruption happens a large part of the job is to restore services as quickly possible and communicate effectively. That’s workflow and that’s what we do. We’re about to go to market with a dedicated disruption application that streamlines and automates the process of pulling together a response plan in the event of disruption and brings the communications together in one place making them quickly available to frontline staff to be able to communicate effectively with customers.

Where do you hope this move into the rail sector will lead?

Matt: We were talking to some really exciting industry players and we’re hoping to have the opportunity to work with them to improve what they do today and drive innovation with their support. That’s exciting for the future, for us as well as the industry.