How train companies could learn about customer service

Memo to train companies: I have had several recent dealings to put my children on the car insurance with Direct Line. While their ads may be irritating, their customer service is unparalleled. They will, for example, put someone on for a day or a week, just charging the pro-rata annual rate, and a modest £15 admin fee.  Similarly,if you need to take someone off the insurance, they will refund the whole amount, minus the same admin fee, a sum which can amount to hundreds of pounds for a young person

Now that is what I call customer service. Not for them ‘we can’t take credit card bookings here’ or ‘we cannot refund you because you have bought the wrong type of ticket’  Their service is user friendly, they answer the phone quickly, their staff are police and helpful – they’ve got it all.

Contrast this with train companies who once refused to refund tickets booked in advance for one of my children, because the event she was going to was cancelled, even though I was trying to do it a week before the tickets were to be used; or the myriad ways in which they try to extract maximum revenue from people, and yet never refund you if you have overpaid for a ticket out of ignorance of their amazingly complex rules.

I am not, generally, given to praising private companies but credit where credit is due. As I have said repeatedly, if we have genuine capitalism on the railways, then privatisation would have been  worthwhile. Instead, we have monopolies exploiting their position with no regard for their customers. Is it a surprise they get such bad PR?

So here’s a practical suggestion to operators. Go talk to Direct Line, learn how they do it and how come they can do things cheaply and effectively. And take the lessons on board.

  • Peter

    “As I have said repeatedly, if we have genuine capitalism on the railways, then privatisation would have been worthwhile.”

    This is an extremely important point.

    “Privatisation” as it stands has given us the worst of all possible worlds. Huge taxpayer subsidies flowing into the hands of private monopolies.

    In a word, it is obscene, and it is a damning indictment of the UK’s political class that nothing has been done about it.

  • Anonymous

    Here Here, but in all honesty the problem is that there are too many people at the top of the railway industry feeding tree with mates in the DfT all with a vested interest in keeping things exactly as they are. It is no coincidence that the few supporters of railway privatisation are the people who have made a mint out of it.

    Mirroring a point that Dan made a few weeks ago about BR not changing until the “old steam boys had retired” – the same is true here. Only once a new generation of managers and ministers has worked their way up to the top in this industry and can plainly see that the current arrangements are a farce will things change.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve just booked an inclusive rail-hotel deal with East Coast, which is really good value – £169pp for 1st Class return rail travel into King’s X from Dundee and two nights hotel accommodation in central London. The tickets are fully open too for one month (they are effectively Off-Peak (nee Saver) returns).

    Except they don’t come with reservations automatically – you need to go and do it manually by yourself once the tickets are sent through the post. One phones up the reservations hotline only (after two or three minutes of the “press 1 for x, press 2 for y malarkey…..) only to be finally told that because I bought the package deal from a high street travel agent shop this is the only place I can reserve a seat. Which is going to cost £5 per person….

    I am going to try tomorrow to use the old fashioned method and go to the station and see if I can book them for free like you normally do….watch this space!!

  • RapidAssistant

    Just booked for free…even managed to have half a conversation with the ticket clerk who was bemoaning the new reservation system that doesn’t allow you to allocate specific seats anymore – in 1st Class I like to have the two solo seats rather than the group of four….but whether you get them or not is up to the whims of the computer!!

    I mean, airlines have allowed you to choose your seat on both the online check-in AND on the kiosks in the airport for years now, why should it be such a big deal on the railways??

  • I think (but I’m not 100% positive) that all insurance companies are legally obliged to refund you the pro-rated difference if you ever change your insurance (eg by removing an additional named driver, buying a less-risky car, or moving to a less-risky area). I know that I’ve had to do this with a different insurance company before. I don’t know how the admin fee works – whether they legally can only charge a reasonable amount (like banks) or whether they can set whatever fee level they like.

    If I’m right about this – then it’s the regulations you should be praising rather than the private nature of the company.

    That said – there’s nothing that legally obliges them to be polite and helpful on the phone – so they deserve credit for that… 🙂

  • Turbostar

    “their staff are police” ??? Do they answer the phone “‘ello, ello, ello”?

  • Anonymous

    Having said all that Admiral are quite good as well in this regard – even when I had to break the news to them that I had written off a £15,000 motor 2 days before the policy was about to switch over to Direct Line (no joke, I promise you…) but that’s another story…….

  • Fandroid

    I agree with Christian that rail franchises seem to have no discernible reason for existing (except to maintain a veneer of ‘private enterprise’ in a Whitehall-controlled industry). However, why can we not have an automatic customer right to refunds (with no admin charge), for any oversold tickets, built in to all new franchise contracts? Excellent customer service should be a contract condition, not left to a toothless Passenger Focus to chase around ineffectively.

  • Marw67

    Actually the poor attitude is turning away business. I travel from the Birmingham area to a city in the County of Avon. The sunday travel arrangements, that are perfectly satisfactory when trains run, turn me away from the journey when the substitute arrangements are in place. Message to train companies: when part of a main route has its frequency reduced (trains diverted elsewhere), run extra small trains – when having substitute buses, have them at least or preferably greater frequency than the replaced trains. Hanging around is what slows the journey enormously. So bad, I avoid.

  • Percy

    Mirroring a point that Dan made a few weeks ago about BR not changing until the “old steam boys had retired”

    Dan. That was me actually. Slightly different though as it was the BR management talking about the staff, those legions of evil ASLEF wildcats, that the Sun & Daily Mail used to carp on about but which I never could find in my years on the on the footplate because I kept tripping over so many moderates desperate for change and a re negotiation of the 1965 manning agreement. In this case we are talking about the management and in particular the Chief Execs and their Corporations who seem to be stuck somewhere but definately not in the steam days as this was a time when Britains Railways were built entirely by private capital and the companies themselves led the way in developing customer service and innovative marketing of their products on a large scale as never seen before on this island.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry Percy – I stand corrected!

  • Anonymous

    A situation with a guy at work who has been seconded here from Brazil for a few weeks and took the advantage of going down to London this past weekend – first of all of course I have to get in the fact that a return from Dundee to KX was now bordering on £300 with no Advance tickets available; yet was able to get an easyJet flight from Edinburgh to Gatwick for a mere 50 quid return at short notice.

    But my experiences in trying to find the most efficient way to his hotel (which was in the City) from Gatwick – I know my way around the system, but interesting that it touts the hideously overpriced Gatwick Express as the prime option. When you go onto Southern’s website, it suggested Gatwick-Victoria then the Circle Line to Liverpool Street. Obviously that site didn’t mention the quickest route – get on the Bed-Pan service on FCC to London Bridge, change to the Northern and go two stops up to Moorgate to come out at roughly the same place. Which was the route he took on my advice.

    My point is how would a foreigner landing at Gatwick actually know this? Sure they could have gone to NRE or The Trainline and it would probably have given you that route, but most would be galled into thinking that the expensive express train that lands you nowhere near where you want to end up.

  • Really, Rapid, the Bed-Pan service! Showing your age. I’m heading up to Scotland on the sleeper on friday night to Aberdeen to give a talk at the Word festival on Engines of War. Will be interesting to see how Scotrail are doing.

  • Cliffy13

    Lucky you having a good experience with customer service at Direct Line mine has been an absolute nightmare,on the other hand customer service at Virgin Trains last year were brilliant

  • There is an element in the way management empowers their front line staff and stand by the decisions made by those staff. One Derbyshire bus operator does this and drivers happily accept the old souls who forget their bus passes (“Have this one on us”) but generally spot the persistent fraudster, through getting a good ‘feel’ for making the right decisions from the hot seat. This gets them a huge PR benefit as well treated passengers come back AND tell their friends about the good service. Contrast this with the notorious reputations of some of the South London ‘redcaps’ the TOC equivalent of MP’s treating every minor transgression as if the passenger was a squaddie going AWOL. Treat your passengers with such a disgraceful attitude, and they will respond accordingly. Putting posters up decrying staff assault is a bit hollow when said staff present such a confrontational position in enforcing many ‘rules’ so unreasonably that they positively invite an abusive response*.

    EMT staff are possibly ruefully regretting laying down a blunt company line with a certain rather famous pensioner who just happened to be filming for a Channel 4 documentary – at least they did do the right thing in offering him the option of proving his identity (I don’t belieeve it – he was not recognised!) and pay later, rather than deliver a humiliating ejection from the train. However I’ve seen some dreadful performances which have left passengers without cash in the centre of a strange and hostile town in the early hours, with even BT Police just dumping them without first finding out whether the passenger could get home safely. What was even worse was the 1 hour delay to the train from this performance eating in to a much needed possession, when the whole issue could have been resolved by accepting the documentation held by the passenger proving that he had purchased a ticket on-line and clearly seeing that the machine at the station had broken down. One passenger who will never travel with that train service again, and 15-20 others who like me will re-tell that story many times.

    A few years ago my niece was reduced to a quaking wreck, only saved by supportive fellow passengers when an MML TTI threatened her with police picking her off the train – for an error delivered at the ticket counter, and a difference in ticket price of a few pence. She happened to be returning from Nottingham to New Cross Gate, but the ticket clerk had issued a ticket for Newcastle. A reasonable reaction would have been to point out the error, and if a price difference did exist use the most appropriate way to sort out the problem, delivering a good impression of the operator and the individual employee. However I suspect that having taken the route of robust enforcement, the TTI had placed himself in a position from which he could not stand down without losing face, apologising for the initial outburst, and settling matters.

    I make that last point because I wonder if the current hiatus over Lymington’s stationmaster may have some element of this in the sequence of events – a manager has applied the rules and the one size fits all disciplinary action, and may not now be able to revoke the penalty for fear of precedent, leaving all parties greatly upset and embarassed by the outcome, when a better judgement – albeit this opinion formed at a distance from the full history of the case – might have been a strong disciplinary sanction, but not summary dismissal. We now have something which places black cloud over the relations between the operator and the local community which will linger for some time, and one which will not be easily resolved.

  • exile

    Your own excellent histories of the railways show this is hardly a new problem. And it’s not confined to railways – it seems any organisation concerned with moving goods or people around seems to have an issue with customer service. This also seems to extend to moving bits of data around – ISPs and mobile phone companies……

  • Customer services of train companies are not good at all.  They don’t know how to deal with customers, They ignore the customers call and don’t answer their problem properly. They don’t suggest them the solution of the problem. I think proper training should be given to the operators that how to deal with clients.

  • The worst thing a customer service department can become is robotic and impersonal. Being enthusiastic is a good help to be a good customer service.

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