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
10 posts since 30th September represents an all-time record as M-A-C engages with the issues and causes dear to our collective and individual hearts.
Our first ever post back in 2003 was about our central interest – user involvement. A theme echoed in this month’s output with Andrew’s post Engagement isn’t enough. Two posts later, we were taking a look at Ann Abraham’s approach to her then quite new job as Health Ombudsman. Complaints and the way they are managed and treated and what they mean for the organisations trying to deal with them are another abiding interest – see the piece on 24th looking at how common themes can emerge from different surveys of the complainant/ customer experience.
It is not all about the familiar themes – since 2003 we have broadened our interests to embrace two new areas – Policy Governance and parental involvement in schools. In the case of the model developed by John and Miriam Carver, Policy Governance® has taken a while to get off the ground in the UK. Most of the work and case histories reflected US practice and we have not had a good UK example of how this approach to corporate governance can help organisations here. Now the Southend University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust have led the way for others to follow. Val Moore reported on this on 27th October.
Finally, Caroline Millar reports on how the new models of participation – involvement, engagement – are impacting schools, parents and teachers. Her piece focuses on the consultation on complaint handling in schools and how parental problems are handled (or not).
We call ourselves a consultancy that specialises in the user interest. What keeps us interested and involved and in business, is how that interest can manifest itself in so many different contexts while the principles underlying best practice can be so similar. Different diagnoses, different solutions but underpinning them all are the common questions – what do users think of this? Has anyone asked them? Has anyone listened? Has anyone done anything with what they have heard? What happens when people have a problem? Easy really.
The final question that comes up when looking back over 5 years – has anything changed? Well Andrew inspired us all with a 2006 look at what the NHS will be like by 2015. We are almost halfway there and what has come true? Well the Department of Health seems to see things the Andrew Craig way. Allowing people to pay for their drugs was something Andrew took a look at in March this year when he pointed out that ‘topping up’ was something that Beveridge seemed to have explicitly anticipated when he wrote about the State leaving “room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual”. As far as the management ethos of the NHS as a whole is concerned, we will wait and see how PG will change all that.
In the meantime, it is still worth repeating a little Olympic-flavoured M-A-C joke from 28th November 2006 -
A parable of NHS reforms
(Elements are borrowed from several sources and sexed up a bit by us)
An NHS rowing team raced against a Japanese team. There were eight people in each team, of similar fitness, but the Japanese team won by a mile. How could this have happened asked John Reid? Top NHS management established a committee of analysts, which reported that the Japanese had seven rowers and one captain, whereas the NHS has seven captains and one rower. The experts called for restructuring of the NHS team. The new team comprised four captains, two service managers, and a director who also did the rowing. After a second lost race to the Japanese, the single rower was dismissed on the grounds of incompetence, and the management team received a bonus for strong leadership. A new NHS boat is currently being designed , but is reported to be running behind delivery schedule due to IT problems.
Let us see what has changed by the Olympic year of 2012 assuming we have not had to make a choice before then between funding bread and circuses or the NHS.