Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How crucial is timing for service launches?

The CEO of the Finnish national railways VR, Mikael Aro, was being interviewed on radio - and TV - for the various problems the company has been facing - and causing - lately. It was discussed how VR has become a joke among its customers using trains for daily transportation.

VR´s problems do not seem to disappear. The past two winters, with record amount of snow, caused a multitude of delays. Problems in manning the trains has been another cause for delays or even cancellations. The problems in the new ticketing logic and system is yet another episode nobody really wanted to face. According to Mikael Aro, customers cannot be blamed for unsatisfaction. Who would like to have an unpredictable service on a daily basis, especially when you depend on the train schedules for getting to work or school. And do you really want to face a problem when trying to purchase a simple thing - ticket.

VR being a service organization made me think of two things: what the right moment is for introducing new services, and if there are any differences in introducing services in a monopoly vs operating in a competitive environment.

Timing. It goes without saying that you need to fix the existing problems. But when and how do you take things forward with new service launches? In order to develop and provide a better service experience, companies need to test alternatives in widening and improving the portfolio. But would you not introduce new services gradually to maintain the core experience, supporting your brand. I heard VR had tested the new ticketing system for 6 months. Maybe it was still not enough. Maybe they did not test different customer groups. Different technical alternatives. Who knows. However, the core problem for VR has been availability of the service ie trains not moving when they should. Would it not make sense to fix the availability problem, improve schedules to the promised service level, have one "good" winter and only then go for a next level of changes ie the new ticketing service? Launching a service concept when the customer base is already unsatisfied must be the most challenging timing.

Monopoly. I don´t see any differences how a service introduction would differ for a monopoly. In case of VR, it may rule the national railways but it does not rule transportation. On TV there was a comparison of a flight vs train ticket from Helsinki to Oulu. A flight ticket was comparably much better choice. If you fail, even a monopoly has to face consequences: increased costs, impact to personnel, customers looking for alternatives or even stopping use of the service.

My question is, could VR learn something from another state owned company, Alko? Alko has successfully provided new service concepts to its customers and has most likely one of the best service experiences in the country. Is there a logic that Alko is using when introducing new service concepts and how do they test them among their customers to ensure success of implementation? It is of course different selling wine than moving people 1200km to another location in a heavy snowstorm. But both companies share something in common: a few million Finnish customers who need them and have few alternatives. And don´t we want both companies to do a good job.