A Treatise on Customer Service

An Open Letter to SouthEastern Trains

This letter has been sent to SouthEastern trains via the complaints form on the website.

Customer service on SouthEastern is a perennial issue for the Radicals who use the service from Blackheath daily. Individually the Radicals have contacted SouthEastern about poor customer service several times over the past four years and been promised improvement but seen no evidence. The Revolt accept that delays, especially due to infrastructure, are often outside of Southeastern control, but the issue at hand is the often woeful lack of information when there are problems.

SouthEastern shrug off the very poor customer satisfaction survey results of 2014 citing the large number of issues caused by the weather and as the Metro reported in February 2014 we are grumpy because we are being taken where we don’t want to go (work) so it is not their fault (http://metro.co.uk/2014/02/17/southeastern-why-are-we-worst-train-company-because-you-hate-going-to-the-office-4306846/). Other networks in the London area suffered similar problems but managed to score higher. This blog believes that satisfaction is partly affected by the level of customer service – when there are problems confusion reigns and tempers rise when there is a lack of useful information.

The Radicals have embraced modern technology but social media is not the only answer to the problem. The Twitter team are very responsive and the rest of the customer service team could learn from them but for a start, the number of tweets produced by SouthEastern on the service can make it easy to miss the important ones; second, not everyone uses twitter (SouthEastern has 34,000 followers but carries 600,000 passengers a week and in 2011-12 there were 2.8m entries and exits to Blackheath station (excludes Olympics)); and third, the phone signal at Blackheath is patchy to non-existent so passengers are more reliant on ‘traditional’ means of communication.

Blackheath has a manned ticket office and electronic displays but SouthEastern rely on automated messages that normally blandly state that there are delays and the cause. Whilst informative, this does not help passengers with info on how late they might be or whether to try an alternative route. From Blackheath into central London this requires a bus journey to Lewisham to pick up the DLR. It should be possible to provide more useful and timely information to customers. Delays often lead to crowded trains and more information relating to that would help customers. If the signs and automated messages simply state ‘delayed’ customers will try and squeeze on to the first train that comes. A more intelligent message that states first train is packed, but second is ten mins behind but much quieter, could help. But this requires a shift away from the reliance on automated messages. This Radical finds it particularly annoying not knowing whether SouthEastern tickets will be valid on TFL routes – as the Revolt understands it there is no set threshold for this as the decision is taken on an ad hoc basis. Otherwise the compensation for season ticket holders for delays does not cover the cost of a PAYG TfL journey from zone 2 to 1.  Once on a train there is absolutely no consistency on what information, if any, is received from the driver.  Many passengers, who pay substantial sums for the privilege of travelling on the route through Blackheath, deserve better.

If SouthEastern provide customer service training to staff there is clearly an issue with the quality of the training, monitoring, and implementation. There is no consistency to information provided by drivers, some are good but many stay silent, some apologise for five minute delays, some don’t.

The solutions are simple rather than radical:

At the station:

  • Provide information that is useful to customers – ‘minor’ and ‘severe’ are pretty meaningless when talking about delays. A time estimate is much more useful.
  • Use station staff to make announcements.
  • Provide early advice on use of alternative routes and validity of tickets.
  • Do not rely solely on social media to provide latest information.

On the train drivers should:

  • Be informed as early as possible of the delay and be given advice to pass on to passengers – passengers would rather hear the driver say there is a delay but there is no further information than hear nothing at all.
  • Apologise for all delays – a five minute delay is annoying and rarely gets a mention. Paying passengers should be treated with courtesy.

The current level of customer service is unacceptable and it is difficult to understand why. A few simple changes and an effort to ensure these are implemented will benefit customers and SouthEastern. It should not be hard and if the situation does not improve then passengers will be in little doubt that SouthEastern have a general disregard for paying customers.

The Revolt looks forward to seeing a response that sets out how SouthEastern plans to improve customer service; if any of the above are already part of company policy and what will be done to ensure that policy is monitored and implemented; if any of the above cannot be implemented with a reason why.

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