I sometimes wonder why businesses make it so hard for themselves to generate real growth in a recession. Take travel for instance. Trains compete with cars, which compete with planes and so on and so on.
Cars are unpredictable and costly, planes are stressful and do not land at my doorstep, so with an impending trip to Edinburgh to work with the fabulous Craigies Farm shop I decided I would take the train. Now that should be easy……
First there’s booking the ticket. So you go on-line and living in Battle in East Sussex I look for the best time and fare price to compare with the airlines. East Coast Main Line comes up but it’s hard to work out the cost of a sleeper compartment – in fact it’s impossible so I don’t bother and decide I shall travel by day. I find the times I want to travel, but how much will it be? When I select a return price option but it won’t let me go to the next screen to make a payment. I look at it for ten minutes thinking I must have missed something. A colleague checks…. no its not me.
I persist. I call them. The call routes to India where I wait for sometime before a pleasant enough staff member asks me my route. Well she can’t speak English and she can’t understand me. She had me going from Battersea to Edinburgh one way. Once we had worked out the route I asked if I could book it and pay. She told me she was going to put me through to the payment department – I am worried now – is this scam? Surely the staff member can take a payment. No apparently not and I go on hold…….yes you’ve guessed it for a long time…and I hang up.
I persist. I go back to the website and try again this time I work out that if I book two single fares I can get to the next page to pay – fantastic. I book it and as a bonus they have free internet. I can hopefully do some work on the way. Just over £100 and all that time to work! I am so clever.
So the journey begins. Battle to London Bridge and then across to Kings Cross. All sounds easy until you reach Kings Cross and have no idea if you need platforms 1-9 or 9-11. It’s not on the ticket and there are no staff around. The problem is platform 9-11 is a fifteen minute walk and the station is heaving. I have 25 minutes before the train leaves. I start to walk to platforms 9-11. Half way there something tells me I don’t have this right and I need the 1-9. Don’t tell me why but as I turn around I see a small sign on the wall stating trains up north this way. Fab, but lucky!
I arrive on the concourse. With ten minutes to go the station is heaving as no one knows which platform to go to…its unannounced. The man next to me needs a pee but he can only see the women’s toilet sign. He could either be a baby and use the baby changing unit or hang on. He asks me if I know. Sorry. Then the platform comes up and the scrum starts. OMG!
Battered, bruised, sweaty and flustered I finally find my seat. Well I think I do. My ticket states Coach F 49A but on the seats they just say F49. Do I settle in and face the risk of being moved? Or do I make no eye contact with anyone and pretend I really know what I am doing? I do the latter and find to my delight I am possibly in the right seat.
Right something to eat. The trolley man zooms past us at high speed (almost the same speed as the train) shouting “refreshments, refreshments” but he’s gone before you can say “Coffee”. The only good thing is the other three passengers on my table thought that was equally amusing and we all become friends. Which is lucky as due to the tightness of the space every time I scratch my backside my fellow passenger received the same experience.
After the initial giggles had calmed down I decide I really need to do some work. I do need a coffee but I don’t want to disturb my fellow aisle passenger who is nodding off so try to logon. I think they said it was free. Well it is for 15 minutes – I am going to have to work fast. You login for your free 15 minutes – well it took 35 minutes to enter my details and work out if the required password is in fact either the passcode or serial ID they had sent me. Why don’t they use the same terminology when giving out instructions? It’s a hurdle.
Over the first fifteen minutes I manage to load Google Cloud and start to see my emails. If only the internet was as fast as the trolley man. So I decide I shall purchase 24 hours worth of internet for £10.00. Good deal (despite me thinking it was free) as I can use 6 hours going up and the rest coming down. Well after 30 minutes I gave up….it was hopelessly slow. My fellow passenger told me it depends where you sit on the train as to the strength of the signal. Maybe the roof would be a better option, or better still the driver’s cabin. Or well I am not in an airport.
I’m getting hungry so having missed Billy the Kid on the trolley I climb over my colleague to the find the buffet car. I join a queue of three customers who watch three staff members in the kitchen having a good social while their poor colleague struggles being tossed around trying to serve coffee and explain that they can’t take credit cards for anything under a five pound value. I see the sandwich the lady in front of me orders and then realise on the board it’s supplied by the Sandwich Factory – OMG what an image…thousands of little sandwiches being made in a big factory. Fresh, tasty, handmade – don’t think so.
So it’s a fresh ham and cheese Panini and a hot chocolate for me. After 13 minutes of waiting, just as the staff social is finishing, I leave the food bar and take my seat ready to enjoy my purchases. The two passengers opposite me tuck into their M and S readymade salads and give each other sideward glance as I proudly produce my Panini. I bite into it and realise that it’s microwaved and like a volcano in my mouth. Rapidly removing it I am told “sorry I should have warned you!” Once cooled down it was like eating plastic ham surrounded by gladwrap cheese.
Anyway nearly there now and I admire the fantastic scenery from Newcastle to Edinburgh. That is the best bit – seeing the country.
I arrive at my destination in one piece and with three new friends – a PHD maths student, a charity worker and a BBC producer. They were great company.
In my hotel room that night I logon and try to send an email East Coast Main Line to ask for my internet expense to be refunded. Of course there is no way of emailing them, you have to make a phone call, but I don’t want to speak to India………..it’s all too hard.
For the return journey I decide I shall try and use my remaining internet minutes of the 24 hours. Oh silly me its 24 hours in real time, not in use like every other internet provider I use has in place. Oh well it will save me all and frustration and after all the women next to me has her music so loud I could be wearing her earphones. So I have entertainment.
My overarching concern, being slightly concerned about our planet, is exacerbated by the fact that it’s going to be the simple things that stop the public using our train system. Its good value but in this case, East Coast put hurdle after hurdle in front of the customer. The bruised customer is not going to jump them. It’s all too hard and yet so simple to put it right.
As for me, what will I do next time? Well three things:
1. I think first and foremost I enjoyed the main present – the trip. It was the wrapping of the present that was poor – not the present. So I will look at another provider who delivers a better parcel wrapped service even it does cost more money.
2. I shall use this story when I keynote at conferences. Telling real life story about service issues that affect you ensures you have great material. You should hear the fantastic Qantas story I have!
3. I shall try my hardest to get this blog in front of the East Coast Mainline CEO so he can make his team realise that all customers are in fact some form of mystery shopper and making judgements all of the time. They need to capture those judgements.
The four simple things East Coast Mainline could do today are:
1. Get the senior management walk the customer journey? Surely if they were any good they would remove these simple hurdles? They need to do it.
2. In a motivational manner ask the teams who run the trains to read, reflect and write down three things they would do to improve the experience for me, the customer
3. Seek more customer feedback on the train, so issues can be dealt with straight away. Training staff to read body language would be a good start. Then any staff member, the trolley operator or the ticket collector would read if someone is having difficulty. Now recognising a problem and offering help before the customer has opened there mouth – that’s great service. Six star hotel stuff. Could East Coast do it – of course they could!
4. Introduce a mystery shopping programme that rewarded staff “on the spot” with incentives when they deliverer a great experience. Instant recognition is the new wave of mystery shopping techniques and has profound, instant and motivational results.
If I were the CEO of East Coast Mainline and closed my eyes I would have a vision of a world that was full of fabulous blogs about my dedicated team’s fantastic service. Where problems don’t exist just opportunities. Where staff are catching opportunities to impress customers all of the time. Where complaints are a gift and finally, when the team do it well, they personally do really well. Getting pride back into a brand is the sentiment.
The cost of not getting it right during a recession does not bear thinking about.
I truly hope East Coast Mainline get it right so the customer has as beautiful experience inside the carriage as I did viewing the north east coastline.
Jonathan Winchester is the MD of Shopper Anonymous UK.