Thursday 18 October 2007

Customers versus the public.

My train into work on Monday missed a station.

Now, these things can happen at this time of the year. For all the popular ridicule the rail services receive for the excuse of "leaves on the line", the fact is that it is a real excuse: the leaves rot, creating slime, making rails slippery. There used to be a very simple solution: cut down all the trees anywhere near a railway line. But people like trees, so we have a problem.

That being said, the train did stop, just a little too late, which goes to show that these modern trains have all sorts of clever technology in them and can cope with these things as long as they're driven properly. Had the driver been going more slowly or had braked sooner, the train would have stopped earlier — that's basic physics, that is. And given that, looking out of the windows of the train, I could see flurries of Autumn leaves descending all around, the whole leaves-on-the-track thing shouldn't really have caught the driver off guard. But hey. None of that, really, is the point.

The point is what happened next.

Firstly, the train sat there for a couple of minutes. Some people wanted to get off at the station (Helen's Bay, if you're interested), and told the conductor so. The train had only just overshot: the last couple of doors in the last carriage were actually at the platform, so it was possible for passengers to step through those doors on to the platform perfectly safely and normally — if, that is, the doors were open. But they weren't.

The conductor went to see the driver, then came back and explained that they were phoning headquarters to ask for permission to reverse the train. Waiting for that permission to be denied took about ten minutes. Apparently, it's far too dangerous to reverse a train all of twenty metres at a station with absolutely nothing behind it as far as the end of the line. Tsk. So then, ridiculously, they had to get permission to continue driving the train forwards to the next station. This took another few minutes.

All this time, the passengers who wanted to get off at Helen's Bay and who could see Helen's Bay Station tantalisingly just the other side of the doors were asking the conductor if they could please be allowed to get off the train. Could he not just open the very last door on the train? Absolutely not, he said; that would be far far too dangerous for some reason. (Of course, on the old carriages whose continued use politicians are always claiming is such a terrible indictment of our rail system, one could simply open the door, using a handle. Thank God we've upgraded.) The only "solution" he was willing to offer was that they get off at the next station and catch the next train back in the other direction. Amazingly, no-one was very happy with this generous offer to do nothing whatsoever.

And then there was his tone of voice. I've seen it time and again on these trains: whenever there's any sort of problem, the reaction of the on-train staff is to shout angrily at the passengers. They don't see delays, cancellations, or missing stations as serious problems; for them, the real problem is that some bloody jumped-up passenger has had the temerity to complain about it. So he shouted at them, clearly hoping that they'd shut up and go away. One of the passengers suggested that the driver had been going a bit too fast, which seemed to me like a pretty uncontroversial statement under the circumstances, and that really made the conductor angry. That some passenger might impugn the abilities of his driver was simply unacceptable, so he shouted more loudly. Considering his insistence that the wheel slippage was absolutely nothing to do with the way the train was driven and could simply affect any train at this time of the year, it seems a little odd that he thought that his suggestion that passengers catch another train to get back to their station was a good one.

One thing he kept shouting was "What more can I do?" and "There's nothing else I can do." So I piped up "You could offer them taxis." He was furious, and came and shouted at me for a while about how crap taxis are. Compared to trains, I assume he meant. He sarcastically shouted "You want taxis? I'll call taxis. I'll give you the money myself to get taxis. Would that make you happy, sir? Anything else you think I should do?"

The train went very slowly for the rest of the journey, but still missed another stop. The conductor triumphantly stomped through the train, saying "Try saying he was going too fast that time." It was good that he put our minds at rest on this point, because that's definitely what we'd all been worrying about.

I rang NIR's complaints line later to tell them that I had never worked for a company where I wouldn't get sacked for talking to customers the way their conductor did. They told me that they have a policy of not providing taxis for customers (which is nice). I said that I wanted to make it clear that I wasn't complaining about the delay or their policies — if the conductor had explained the policy of not providing taxis in the same tone of voice that they just had, I wouldn't have been on the phone complaining. They apologised and said they'd report the complaint, but the woman on the line actually did say to me "We are publicly funded." As if that makes the behaviour a little less bad.

But it does highlight the problem. Customer service is sometimes bad — sometimes bloody awful — but can always be fixed — some companies, in fact, have had near-miraculous turnarounds in the quality of their service. The reason it can be fixed is that at its heart is a recognition of where the revenue comes from: the customer. The very phrase "customer service" has it built in: serve your customer so that they will give you money. And there's rarely any doubt about who your customer is: it's the guy offering you money. But then there's public service. The trouble with public service is that the public are a bit of an anonymous blob. While the customer standing in front of you, wanting to give you money, might be a member of the public, he ain't the public. If you work in public service, your job is not to serve him.

As mentioned previously, I have to move seats at least once every journey to escape the people who see me reading a book and so sit down next to me to have loud conversations. Today, I had to move to get away from that same bloody conductor, who was shouting into his mobile phone while standing next to the sign which says to use your mobile phone with consideration for other passengers. Ironically enough, he was shouting about some jobsworthy union dispute. The problem was that one of his colleagues was going to arrive home a whopping ten minutes late due to the way the train timetables worked out — he wasn't being asked to do ten minutes overtime or anything; it was just that his company-provided free journey home was going to be slightly later than ideal. The conductor was of the opinion that such a delay to his colleague's plans for the evening is totally unacceptable and that his bosses should therefore provide a taxi.

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