CIO Interview: John Sullivan, Avanti West Coast

In this episode Pasi goes and meets John Sullivan, CIO and Project Director at Avanti West Coast (former Virgin Trains). We talk about the importance of employee and customer experience to the business, how traditional KPIs do not matter, and how trust and transparency are the key to succeeding with service experience data.

In this episode Pasi goes and meets John Sullivan, CIO and Project Director at Avanti West Coast. We talk about the importance of employee and customer experience to the business, how traditional KPIs do not matter and how trust and transparency are the key to succeeding with service experience data.

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Read the article: At Avanti West Coast, Happiness is All That Matters


Pasi Nikkanen: Welcome to Happy Today Podcast. This is a podcast for those who want to improve service experience of internal services. If you use ServiceNow or other enterprise service management system then this is for you.

John Sullivan: In fact system availability it wasn't good. Our colleagues wouldn't be happy and our customers wouldn't be happy so it doesn't matter. So you don't worry about the standard KPIs, about uptime, downtime.

Pasi Nikkanen: Okay. Welcome to Happy Today Podcast. This is episode seven and a CIO interview with John Sullivan at Virgin Trains. We are here today at the Euston Station so hi John, maybe a short introduction first.

John Sullivan: Yeah, sure. So John Sullivan, I've got a massively fancy title, so I'm the CIO and project director for Virgin Trains, very proud of that. The day to day work isn't as fancy as the title alludes to but sometimes it is. My motivations are, to come in to work, is really enjoy working with people. So if that's my team or if that's my fellow executives or just running the company, engaging with them engaging with the partners, you know that we have ServiceNow, yourselves, that's the thing that really drives me and I think within that is making a change. So most of us get up in the morning, get excited about work if you think you can make a change for the better. Making change for the better for me is "Let's do that for our customers and our colleagues and if we can deliver change for both those sets that's fantastic." And we're highly motivated. I am, my team are, to make that change.

Pasi Nikkanen: And I've heard that the motivation has made probably some awards or some-

John Sullivan: Well, this is 100% due to the team. We have done well on awards but the two that I'm most proud of, we are current holders of the technology team of the year in the UK and we are also the digital team of the year in the UK. And I'm told it's the first time one company has got both of those awards at the same time.

Pasi Nikkanen: Wow, that's nice. All right. So what does employee or customer experience mean to you and Virgin Trains, like how important is it for the way you do your business?

John Sullivan: So I think for any business, but you know it's absolutely critical, I'm very proud of working for Virgin Trains because it's at our core. We believe in what Richard Branson and screw our average, create amazing means. Average isn't good enough, good isn't good enough but it's got to be great so the focus is what can we do for both sets, our customers and again we've fully energised in making things better. And sometimes we've had a short period in our franchise length because the UK rail has a franchise system, but we spend a lot of money if we think it's going to help for our customers, fully on the understanding that happy customers come back. Now we may not think we're going to get a financial payback but if we think it's going to make our customers' life happier, easier, entertain them when they're on board, they're more likely to come back so we'll do it. Even if we haven't got hard facts in terms of the finance about doing a change we will do that. And I'm really proud to be part of that ethic.

Pasi Nikkanen: Cool. What do you think, what drives your service management, then, for creating the services for your employees? Do you rather measure happiness or SLAs?

John Sullivan: So it's a really big thing and the other thing that really motivates me with is technology changes so much and the pace of it is so quickly and it's so good now, if you go back even 10 years ago or 15 years ago when I left college it wasn't so good but it's so much easier now. But what does that mean? If you've got great technology what does that mean to me and the business? I think we can deploy systems much quicker, we can understand what our customers are thinking about the change and our colleagues. So for me as part of that is actually, I don't like KPIs anymore. So we're only focused on the happiness signs. And if our customers are happy and our colleagues are happy, then that's good. And I've been challenged by CIOs in rail and outside rail about "That can't work, John, because if your system availability KPI is pretty poor then your service isn't good."

Right, so that's for me really easy to challenge back on that one, so if our system availability isn't good our colleagues wouldn't be happy and our customers wouldn't be happy, so it doesn't matter. So you don't worry about the standard KPIs about uptime, downtime, when you're going to take the system down or the number of faults and the number of issues. Ultimately it's just about keeping those sets of people happy.

Pasi Nikkanen: Yeah. That's a challenging topic also for us as a company whereas ours cloud based company and then we are working with big enterprises and some of them have in their outsourcing contracts that you have to have an SLA and all this and then we try to explain "Sorry but we don't have SLAs because if you guys are not happy and our service is down then you will not renew our license and we will go out business." So that is how important it is for us to have it. But still they are like "How can we be sure?" Well think about it.

John Sullivan: Yeah. And what I think is nice, it has to be also an element of trust in there too, but then we've got to find the right partners. So in companies like ServiceNow and we do a lot of work with Amazon. The trust is incredibly high. So we can have those conversations, we're just about happy. So if you're not happy we'll do something about it and you will do, but there's an element of trust.

Pasi Nikkanen: So are you sharing, then, also the happiness number and the trend of the graphs with your partners and are you engaging your partners to drive that as well?

John Sullivan: Absolutely. So our partner ServiceNow is probably the best example. We want them to know what our business challenges are and so therefore they have to have, obviously, customer numbers, where we've got challenges, how can they help us? It's got to be, you know, we've got to be all in it together I think is the best thing. It's one unit, one team, which has worked for different companies.

Pasi Nikkanen: Yeah. How do you internally communicate the happiness thing in IT? How do you follow it or does everyone walk to the IT department? How do they feel that they are contributing to that employee happiness-

John Sullivan: Because it's in our core. We circulate that, our happiness sign within the business. We've got interactive screens so any one of my fellow execs, you want to find out about what's going on in IT, that's cool, there's a screen there. You don't have to ask me, you don't have to wait for your monthly report or weekly report and spreadsheet, it's on the screen. Now we do follow it up at the end of each month about what the scores were, aggregated, summarised at the end of the month, but I'm really proud. It's interactive, too. It's there, it's real time, so we got the number, we got the key issues, we've got the number of issues that we've got outstanding, it's 100% open where we are. And again for me this is all kind of connected because it's the trust too.

So think, people said "He's open and honest, it's there." Because it's not always great. Every day cannot be great but it's there completely visible for everyone to see in the business.

Pasi Nikkanen: What do you think like if you wouldn't have that data, the experience data, what struggles would you achieve? Yeah, how would it be if you came to work and you wouldn't have that data? How would that work?

John Sullivan: If we didn't have the data we wouldn't know how we're doing. So the data tells us how we're doing and I think probably the most important thing for us as a team is when it isn't good, what should we do to improve it? So if we have an issue, for us it's really important to understand what the issues are. One, fix it, and two what do we need to do to make sure that happens again? So that quality ethic is really important and the happy signs is fundamental to that quality sign. It's that continuous improvement. We got an issue, we fixed it, we move on. But we also do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen ever again in the future.

Pasi Nikkanen: Yeah. And having this employee experience data and having the focus that this is where we need to put our efforts, has that changed the way you can discuss with the business side of Virgin Trains and maybe on the CFO side or financing side, does it help you justify IT budget in a way, or?

John Sullivan: I think it does. I've always got a view that one if you get your, the day to day support services we give the business, that's the platform for any technology team if we get that right. If you get that right then you can get into change management, so we can deliver projects. If you get your service right and your project right we can strategically influence the business but you've got to have those two right before you can do that. So the fundamentals of talking to the CFO about justifying maybe some of our service projects is "Here's the numbers that we've got from our customers about how happy they are." Maybe there's areas where it needs to be improved and we need to spend money to make that improvement but we can put hands on a house and using our minds that, here's the areas, we've got the data where we need to make improvements, absolutely.

Pasi Nikkanen: Perfect, perfect. And when you're having these projects, are the projects also measured through the happiness or would the projects-

John Sullivan: Absolutely, I know, it's... the happiness sign goes right through the business when we're making a change. What was the happiness before? We've made the change, what is the happiness afterwards? Was it expected? So if we got, I don't know, 5% increase, did that happen? If it did, great, but actually can we make it more? If it didn't, what can we do to make that happen? It allows you to have that discussion so therefore we can be very objective about the change and what we've made, has it met expectations.

Pasi Nikkanen: Perfect. And I heard that you're trying to drive innovation so are you more like you find something that you believe in then you try it and you see with the numbers does it work or what is your policy on getting new things like machine learning or these AI things or how do you see it?

John Sullivan: I really enjoy the debates and again, ServiceNow have been really very much part of this. We say, "We've got a business challenge, how are we going to fix it?" And that's where it starts. So the stats that we use is, generally, what's the most customer complaints that we've got? And we've got all this data, we've got ServiceNow in our call centre. What's the biggest issue that we're business have got? So we get our partners in, when we go back about a year now we say "We've got an issue with how we manage disruption. So how are we going to fix this business issue?"

Pasi Nikkanen: Yeah. That's really good approach because sometimes I say that the IT departments, they are just taking new things because they are new, but they don't really have a business reason for it. They are just for the sake of the new we just want to do it. But I think when you start thinking about it, when you really start measuring the employee and the customer experience then you can justify this release and why is it we have an AI thing and why should we take this new ServiceNow feature into use?

John Sullivan: Absolutely.

Pasi Nikkanen: Otherwise you're struggling to add business value.

John Sullivan: And that's it. It starts with the business challenge that we're trying to resolve. If the new tech helps resolve it then we use new tech. And of course we still get excited about using new tech, don't get me wrong, you know, but the fundamental is "This is the business issue we're trying to fix." And that helps my engagement with the business. So part of the role of modern CIO, we all strive to be that, is I'll have this business type conversation. How do we resolve disruption? Well, look at our projects. Probably 90% of our projects now are now tech.

Pasi Nikkanen: Yeah, true. All right, what about, what kind of plans do you have next? Like what would you still like to get more out of the experience data? What do you think is still a bit lacking that maybe you feel you would like to take it a bit further or any specific topics around that?

John Sullivan: I think probably the first thing that comes off to my mind is with the employee engagement I'd like that to be more real time and do more of a pulse, I think pulse is the right word. So we do it every few days or at the end of each week but I'd like that to be more frequent because I think that can be quite telling. But I think other than that, I think we're very good now when we do a change, monitoring the happy signs and what impact the change has had, but I think for me it's the frequency of the pulse for customers we do that more frequent. For our colleagues we should probably be doing that a little bit more.

Pasi Nikkanen: Okay. Maybe last, what was the biggest surprise when you took on HappySignals or you had your customer experience thing happy or unhappy surprise, but anything you can point out?

John Sullivan: I think my expectation were quite high because I believe in, there's a philosophy about just people being happy. To your point earlier, we're getting away from KPIs. You don't need those anymore. So my expectations were high but it has been delivered. Maybe there was an anxiety of "Will the business sign up for this?" But if you talk about it in passion and you talk about it clearly I think it just makes sense. And that's probably why I'm working for the right type of company because in Virgin we're 100% signed up for that.

Pasi Nikkanen: Yeah it does sound like because you are saying also it's in your career, it's maybe something that you have like special place in Virgin Trains to do all these things and justify it, so-

John Sullivan:  We are very fortunate and you can't forget Richard Branson saying that you keep the staff or our colleagues happy and they will keep customers happy and that's a lot of the ethos words. If you go onto our trains, there's a lot of passion from our staff to keep the customers happy. And if that means going over and above the call of duty then often you see that.

Pasi Nikkanen: Yeah. Any advice that you would like to give a fellow CIO if they're thinking "Yeah, we should get onto this." Like where to start or how to sell it into an LE or just that doing it, or?

John Sullivan: I think it's something we've got to do. It's part of modern technology and the pace of change. We've just got to crack on with it. I think fellow CIOs should be helping and supporting each other so if anyone wanted to talk to me about that and our journey, what worked, maybe what didn't work just initially then we should all be around to help each other. But it's absolutely fundamentally something that we should do and get into it, do enough planning for it, and deliver it. But it's got to be good for your customers and it's got to be good for our colleagues. It gives you such great insight and information. And often it de-cluttifies it. I mean in IT we can have 10 of the standard KPIs but, dude, does that matter if someone's happy or not?

So it's very simple, I'm 100% passionate about it.

Pasi Nikkanen: All right. Thanks so much for your time, John, it was really a pleasure and anybody wants to find more information I'll add some show notes to so yeah, stay happy.

John Sullivan: Yeah, absolutely, stay happy. Absolutely, will do. It's a good philosophy to have in life, too, right?

Pasi Nikkanen: That is too. Thanks, John.

John Sullivan: Thank you.


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