Taking the Train: Big Strain
Nothing spoils a holiday quite as much as a stressful and unpleasant journey. This year we decided to take the family to South West France for a couple of weeks. Big mistake. Getting there and back was so bad it took us a couple of weeks to remember that we had actually had quite a nice time in the middle. I knew I should complain (my MAC partners were breathing down my neck) but I could hardly bring myself to relive the whole ghastly experience. Still, I am glad I did. Whereas I have spent the last month telling anyone who would listen how bad our experience was, I have now become one of Eurostar’s biggest fans. What do we at MAC always say? Good complaint handling can turn the grumpiest complainant into the your biggest fan and here I am, unexpectedly singing the praises of Eurostar.
No Relief for Family of Refugees from Ryanair
After a series of nightmarish experiences with Ryanair we decided to go by train this year. What could be better? Comfortable, calm check-in just down the road at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International, two hours to hop across Paris on the Metro and maybe have a bite to eat and swishing down to the south of France on a highspeed train – tickets and seats all booked through Rail Europe100 days in advance as recommended by our friend the man in seat 61. And all with only the tiniest contribution to my global footprint. Or at least that is how it should have been.
Un Complète Cockup
Turning up at St Pancras an hour before departure, we discovered that the 6.25am we were booked onto did not exist and that the first train was leaving 25 minutes later. I went to collect the tickets from the machine but without success. In the ticket office the charming staff entered my booking reference and found our booking but soon discovered that the computer would not “release” the tickets. We would have to wait five minutes. While everyone else effortlessly collected their tickets I stood waiting, and waiting and waiting. Check-in opened. Check-in closed. An hour after our arrival at the station my anxious mob of six, ranging in age from one to forty four were getting fretful. The minutes ticked by and with check-in officially closed and the train leaving in fifteen minutes I tried to get someone to talk to me. They kept telling me it would be ok and that they would give us duplicate tickets if necessary. To cut a long and stressful story short, we were finally issued with a handwritten duplicate ticket less than ten minutes before departure and had to run through check-in and security only just reaching the train in time. At Paris, the change of train time having reduced our time to cross Paris by half an hour, I had to spend another twenty minutes waiting for them to laboriously print out the pack of cards that represented return tickets to Agen for seven people and for the nice French lady in the severe suit to find her post-it pad and write an immaculately transcribed note to the train guard in case we missed our connection. This left us with about forty minutes to cross Paris. Never had an underground system so many stairs (and so few escalators). We made it – but only just.
Our return journey ought to have been less stressful but it wasn’t. Our beautiful SNCF train – the symbol of how much better they do it in France – was held up for two hours owing to what the English call a “person on the line” but which the French appear to refer to more discreetly as “un incident”. As it gradually became apparent that we were not going to catch the last train from Paris to London I rang Eurostar only to be told that as our tickets were non-refundable and non-exchangeable they would not be honoured on a later train and we would have to buy new tickets at £200 a go. With our now expanded party of 9, that would have meant a cool £1800 on the credit card. I decided to wait. When I rang again an hour later I was told that our tickets would after all be honoured on the next available train.
Is this a record?
But here is the real point of my tale. A couple of weeks after my return I plucked up the energy to email my complaint to Eurostar asking for an explanation, an apology and some compensation. Within six hours I had received a full reply, a reply which for those familiar with the MAC mantra on complaint handling could almost be seen as a model of how to do it. Here are some edited highlights:
Apologies, empathy and explanation
I am sorry to learn of the difficulties that you all experienced in collecting you tickets and the advice you appear to have been given by telephone. I can fully understand the stress and inconvenience, as well as the disappointment that this caused you all. Having to rush through stations and on the underground is far from ideal and I realise that this was far from your expectations.
Having explained in detail what he found when he investigated the complaint and how the booking had somehow become corrupted, the writer goes on to say:
This is an extremely rare error to encounter, and has not been experienced by anyone at the ticket office or the helpdesk that I have spoken to. Therefore, this is being treated very seriously and will be investigated fully in order to determine the cause of the problem. I cannot say when this will be concluded but I can assure you that it will ensure this issue does not arise again in the future.
Further apology and offer of compensation
In light of the ticketing problems, I would like to offer you a gesture (of) my concern for your experience and of goodwill, which I hope will assure you of our intentions. Therefore, please accept my personal apologies and if you can supply your address, I would like to send you each a Eurostar journey voucher, which will entitle you each to a free single leg journey or a 50% discount on a return trip. They are fully transferable and valid for one year.
Happy customer – returning customer
So here I am with a prompt, detailed and polite response to my email, a sense that others will probably not have to suffer as we did, a recognition of our emotions and their validity and a very decent level of compensation. I copied my email to Rail Europe through whom we booked the tickets and they too have now admitted that they had made an errror somewhere along the way which had helped to confuse the Eurostar computer and they have offered me an additional £50 voucher. For a moment I had toyed with returning to Ryanair, but given they don’t even have a complaints department, I will be sticking with Eurostar (at least for as long as it takes us to use up all those vouchers).
Now, if Eurostar can do it why can’t the public sector? Why do the NHS, schools, local authorities and all those other public bodies find it so hard to empathise with their customers and handle their complaints properly so that complainants get what they want: to know they have been listened too, to know that someone cares about their bad experience, to know that something will be done and to know that maybe, as a result, the same bad things won’t happen to them again or to others?
Coming soon – what happens when you complain about your butter? Meanwhile, take a look at the MAC credo on complaint handling and how we can help on our website