A few years ago I wrote a blog post about why you should never trust anyone who gives you the same answer to every question. The British rail system is a great example of why that is true.
Driven by ideology, a previous government decided that the private sector could do a better job running the railways than the incumbent public body, despite the impossibility of creating any real sense of market conditions to motivate improvements in performance. The result is that single companies have control of a uniquely valuable asset over long periods. Since there is no market — the previous government’s answer to every question — they have no real competition*.
As a result, the operators make little effort to deliver for their customers.
There are exceptions but my local operator, Northern Rail, is not one of them. When I commuted daily into the city centre few years ago, I recorded the delays I experienced for a week. From memory, nine out of ten journeys were delayed. I live just one stop from the centre of Manchester. It should take less than ten minutes to get into the city centre. Yet over the course of a week, I was delayed cumulatively by more than an hour.
This was bad, but my real complaint was with the company’s inability to share information. Time after time it would fail to inform passengers about delays in any way that would allow them to make proper decisions about re-routing their journeys. Largely inaudible manual announcements would contradict the immediately following automated ones. Screens would give completely wrong information. And the staff would have no access to information that allowed them to assist.
Every time there was a more serious delay, this turned a mini drama into an unnecessary crisis.
So three years ago, I wrote to the company, laying out my most recent experience of the problems in detail.
In response I received the usual platitudes and a promise to do better.
As you may have guessed from the tone of this post. Nothing changed. Yesterday I found myself delayed again, and baffled by the total lack of useful information to help me to decide how to respond. The digital signs still showed my train, on time and going to my stop. Automated announcements contradicted the one, barely-audible notification that something was wrong. Staff were clueless, suggesting I travel two stops beyond my destination with no guarantee I would be able to get back again.
I got a taxi, and from the back of it, took to Twitter to bemoan the uselessness of the service, as is the modern way.
Rant (almost) over, this is where we get to the point of this post. After the usual insincere apologies*, the customer service rep suggested I complain to their customer services team.
Now, having spent some time making a detailed complaint before, I took umbrage at this. Writing a detailed complaint takes time. And frankly, doing so is not that different to what I might be asked to do professionally when analysing the problems in a client’s business.
If a company were genuinely motivated to do better for its customers, then detailed complaints should be an enormously valuable resource. A customer’s eye view of what is wrong with the business. After all, look at what good businesses pay for mystery shoppers or user testing.
So my response to Northern Rail, and frankly to any other company that wants its customers to diagnose its failings is this: pay us. We are providing you with incredibly valuable feedback.
You never know: if our advice is costing you money, you may just act on it.
*Yes, there are other forms of transport but the direct and uncongested nature of railway tracks plus the format of the vehicles and the way they are powered means that buses and cars are not competitive from a speed or cost perspective if you live within a sensible radius of a station, as I do.
*I can only assume they don’t mean it when they apologise. If they really meant it, they would have made changes by now. I don’t level this criticism at the social media operators, who I am sure are nice people, but the company and its leaders.