by Clint Boulton

At Amtrak, business-IT co-creation engineers CX success

Oct 14, 2019
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

Close collaboration between IT and marketing is helping Amtrak provide a more seamless omnichannel experience for passengers.

Delivering a superior customer experience (CX) requires close partnerships between IT leaders and their business peers. That’s been the ticket for Amtrak, where IT and marketing are co-creating digital services to inspire brand loyalty among the 30 million passengers it serves a year.

These efforts, marshalled by Amtrak CTO Sovan Shatpathy and Kerry McKelvey, vice president of marketing, include assigned seat selection, as well as regular upgrades to the Amtrak mobile application, which enables consumers to purchase tickets and access other information.

“It starts with the business needs,” McKelvey says, adding that marketing conceives of digital products, services or features it wants and pitches them to IT. “Then we work with IT to provide customers with a best-in-class product.”

On the wrong track

Research suggests that building a superior CX requires a close relationship between CIOs and CMOs. But the reality is that such fruitful collaborations are scarce, according to Forrester Research, which found that only 16 percent of 885 marketing decision-makers surveyed see CMOs and CIOs as strategic partners in developing technology solutions.

Communication gaps between CIOs and CMOs are de rigueur because the executives hail from different parts of the business, says Forrester analyst Thomas Husson. Agile may mean quick and nimble to a CMO, but it is also a model CIOs use to rapidly build software. Compounding the issue, CIOs focus on optimizing cost and ignore CX metrics while CMOs focus on how customers perceive the brand experience and deploy tech without constraints.

At Amtrak, Shatpathy and McKelvey are executing a digital strategy together under CEO Richard Anderson, formerly CEO of Northwest Airlines and Delta Airlines. Not surprisingly, it is from the airline industry that Amtrak’s assigned seating service takes its inspiration. Rolled out in 2018 for passengers in first-class Acela and Northeast Regional business-class trains, the service allows customers to pick their seat in advance from the Amtrak mobile app.

This system makes assigned seats available to passengers without reservations and releases the seats for resale if a customer doesn’t show for their assigned seat after two hours.

But seat selection poses logistical headaches. Amtrak is working through “seat fragmentation,” an issue that arises when passengers get off at an intermediate stop, ostensibly blocking that seat from advance booking for the remainder of the journey. Shatpathy says that Amtrak’s pricing and inventory systems employ algorithms that display seats where the possibility of fragmentation is minimized.

“We have been working continuously to mitigate the impact of seat fragmentation in the background even as we start to roll out seat assignment as a core feature more broadly,” Shatpathy says.

Another critical CX experience is “ticket lift,” or the ability for conductors to examine and scan or punch a passenger’s ticket, via Amtrak’s mobile app. The company in September issued version 4.0 of this app, which makes it easier for customers to book tickets and monitor travel on the go. For example, passengers can now add up to three payment cards to an Amtrak Guest Rewards profile and redeem reward points. Through the app, travelers may also purchase parking from the ticket confirmation screen and book an “auto train” from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Florida.

Since 4.0’s launch only weeks ago, Amtrak’s IT team has already launched versions 4.0.1 and 4.0.2 with bug fixes and performance improvements, a sign of Amtrak’s emphasis on boosting CX via mobile devices. Many of Shatpathy’s 500 IT workers worked in agile sprints with McKelvey’s staff to quickly create and tweak this and other software.  

Agile fuels Amtrak’s omnichannel strategy, which empowers consumers with the ability to easily complete purchases, access information and engage in other transactions across multiple channels. When a customer begins a transaction in one channel, such as via the website, they complete that transaction later in, for example, the Amtrak mobile app. Previously, when customers began interacting in one digital channel they were locked in that silo, McKelvey says.

The new approach is another benefit of the partnership between IT and marketing — and it appears to be paying off. Amtrak currently books more than 85 percent of its ticket revenue through digital channels, including its website, mobile app and ticket kiosks.

Innovation station

Amtrak is also working with Amazon Web Services, one of its strategic cloud vendors, to build an Alexa skill that will enable customers to query the virtual voice assistant for information about train status and, perhaps later, purchase tickets.

Such fluidity requires a digital identity for each customer, which Amtrak enabled through Microsoft’s Active Directory single sign-on software, with digital marketing software from Adobe helping the company flesh out rider profiles.

Shatpathy also constructed an “API highway” — a floating abstraction layer that relays in near real-time data stored in ERPs, CRMs and other systems of record to the website, mobile devices and ticket kiosks that customers and agents use to interface with the company. Amtrak currently has over 190 APIs in production, with more on the way. This architecture, enabled by MuleSoft’s API platform, helps Amtrak quickly build software and connect it to its existing or third-party services.