Contempt for Customers – 1 Chiltern Railways

Running alongside my occasional series on Management Insults, I thought I’d add a set of entries entitled, “Contempt for Customers” that will highlight some of the ways in which companies, largely through their marketing materials or product packaging demonstrate their contempt for their customers. Funnilly enough I don’t think there will be any shortage of material for these blogs!

Back in the 1980s, more and more companies woke up to the importance of quality as a competitive strategy. What this really meant is that there were so many organisations offering rubbish that by selling something that actually worked, or did what it said on the box, you could either charge a premium or sell more items. The same applied to services. The word got around that it was clever to “listen to your customers” and firms started offering those not-so-wonderful** “freephone” (0800) or “lo-call” (0845) numbers to encourage their customers to let them know how they had done. Only the tiniest business would dream of offering other than 24hr answering on these phones.

When they analysed the types of call and the topics customers complained about, there were some surprises. For example, Texaco emblazoned their 0845 number on every petrol station forecourt expecting complaints about hygiene, lighting, slow-resetting of pumps, rude staff and so on. Instead, apparently 9/10 calls were to complain that the customer hadn’t been given enough stars on their Texaco points card! (These were the days when the points were STUCK on to a collecting card!)

Many firms found it quite hard to recruit people to work on these lines. After all, it isn’t exactly motivating to spend a shift just listening to whinging customers – some of whom have a serious stress issue, some are trying to rip you off [work out how much an extra Texaco Star was worth and you’ll see these were not exactly big time criminals!], and some have a genuine complaint. So we began to see smug firms changing the name of their COMPLAINTS department to CUSTOMER SERVICE or some similar platitude.

The ultimate Mickey take of this kind was the Carlsberg advertisement that featured a phone ringing in the distance, until a diligent member of staff tracked it down to a cobweb strewn room that hadn’t been opened in decades and was labelled “complaints” department – only to discover that it was a “wrong number”. The ad back-fired on Carlsberg because it implied that IF you DID have a genuine complaint, you could ring their number and it would take ages before it was answered.

So, you’d think that companies would have become a little more sophisticated in their handling of COMPLAINTS these days. After all there are Professors of Customer Service, PhDs on the topic, and even modules on MBA programmes dealing with it. And yet, Chiltern Railways have managed to bungle in just about every way possible today, demonstrated their credentials for the “Contempt for Customers” gold award.

When I arrived at the Bicester North station at 10:45 this morning, planning on catching the 11:04 to London having renewed my Network Railcard, I was disappointed to discover that the Ticket Office was closed. I stood looking at the screen for a moment in some amazement, but realised I would have to buy a full fare ticket instead and call back to renew my Railcard another time. Irritated, I turned to one of the ticket machines and let myself be led through the ticket buying process. Now, I would like to give credit where it is due… Whoever the techie was that designed these machines, they did a pretty good job. Frankly, you’d need to be fairly thick not to be able to work out how to use one. It even remembered what I had bought last time and offered me that as an option. Sadly I couldn’t take it as I no longer had the Railcard, so instead a little salt was rubbed into an open wound by making me doubly aware that instead of a £13 fare I was going to have to spend £20.

Now, although these machines are pretty much idiot proof, there was actually a very considerate person in the booking hall helping what I assumed were fellow passengers to use the machines. It seemed that they had been motivated to be a good Samaritan because the ticket office was unbelievably closed. (Bicester North gets quite a few foreigners because of the Bicester Village Retail Outlet and I guess these were foreigners who couldn’t work out how the machines worked!) Incidentally, the Samaritan was wearing blue slacks, a white Aran type pullover and a red padded waterproof jacket.

Armed with my tickets, I boarded the train and arrived at Marylebone. Now this is where the customer experience began to get worse. As I reached the concourse, I noticed that there were a couple of similarly dressed individuals standing there. In addition to the red jacket and blue slacks they had peaked caps and badges – indicating that they were employees of Chiltern Railways!

In other words, a regular customer had arrived in the booking hall in Bicester, stood in dismay at the closed ticket office, bought a higher priced ticket, and been made to queue later for a railcard, when all the time a member of Chiltern Railways’ staff was ignoring him and helping people use machines to buy tickets that any child could use without difficulty.

Now, being a conscientious follower of quality improvement, I figure that unless an organisation knows how it has fouled up it can’t do anything to put it right. So, this afternoon, when I got home, I decided to ring Chiltern Railways to tell them of my experience and suggest that they help the Ticket Office clerk with the Aran pullover (no Samaritan, after all) to reevaluate her priorities when she is meant to be serving behind the desk.

The Chiltern Railways website doesn’t have a button to push for their COMPLAINTS department. Instead, you have to follow a “contact us” link in tiny letters at the top of the screen. Once there you are given an 0845 number to ring for “Customer Services” but there are two provisos;

  • The phones are only manned “Mondays to Fridays 0830 to 1730”. Now, given that this is the time that the vast majority of their customers will be at work, doesn’t it seem a little avoidant of them to pick those hours? Perish the thought that they could man the phones when agrieved customers can actually ring in.
  • But obviously, quite a few customers DO manage to COMPLAIN because we are also told; “On average, our Customer Services team receives about 500 contacts every week. They aim to respond to all correspondence within 10 working days.”
  • Now, that brings me to the real contempt-for-customers issue. What they are saying is that, despite putting loads of obstacles in their way, FIVE HUNDRED (500) PEOPLE EVERY WEEK TAKE THE TROUBLE TO RING CHILTERN RAILWAYS TO COMPLAIN ABOUT THEIR SERVICE.

    I don’t think that is a track record I would be proud of. Would you?

    ** So why are 0800 and 0845 numbers not-so-wonderful any longer? Well, it’s simple really, for more than 15 years now, telephone service providers have been selling packages to householders whereby they can pay a fixed price and get all calls to REAL numbers free. But the 0800 and 0845 ones don’t count for those deals, so ironically, a company that provides such a number to ‘encourage’ its customers to ring is actually causing the customer to pay more than they would have to do if they were given a REAL number instead. Savvy firms (such as British Airways) have realised this and almost always cite both numbers for the customer to choose from, but obviously Chiltern Railways is not so savvy!

    Best wishes

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