Service providers often find themselves at the sharp end in terms of dealing with the public – and in few areas is it more noticeable than on the UK’s railway network, where harassed commuters facing delays and cancellations have always been quick to vent their spleen.
The rise of social media has brought this relationship into sharp focus, with train operators facing very visible – and often very furious – customer feedback on channels such as Twitter.
Problems bring opportunities, of course, and as an obvious tool to flag up service disruption and travel updates, Twitter is now used routinely by rail firms to enhance their corporate reputations.
However, with responses notoriously hard to finesse in 140 characters, mollifying or informing customers is easier said than done. Responsiveness is crucial – pretty much whatever the time of day. ‘There is an expectation that you will answer tweets if you’re running a service,’ says Nick Wood, East Coast’s social media manager. ‘Customers are on Twitter, so they expect us to be on it.’
A complicating factor is that travel chaos is, in most cases, not the fault of train companies. ‘Four out of five delays are down to external factors,’ says Wood. ‘But rather than shifting the blame, even if it is another train firm’s fault, we would say something such as: "Apologies for the delay, it’s due to a broken-down train." We’d expect other train services not to land us in it with their followers. If there’s an issue with the track or overhead lines, we’d say: "Network Rail is working on it."’
Other operators agree that giving in to temptation and using Twitter as a stick with which to bash third parties’ reputations would be a bad idea. ‘It frankly doesn’t work to tell customers "it’s not us, it’s Network Rail",’ suggests Liam Ludlow, customer services manager of Southern.
The power of pictures
Last summer, a major landslip at Berwick-upon-Tweed, when heavy rain all but washed away the tracks, caused problems along the East Coast Main Line from Edinburgh to London. Thousands of people were severely delayed and some completely stranded.
‘We had photos of the scene from Network Rail,’ explains Nick Wood,
‘We also used photos of Newcastle station concourse with the ticket barriers flooded,’ adds Wood. ‘That did a lot to dampen people’s potential anger: the fact that they could visualise it. We retweeted other people’s photos too, including lightning striking the Tyne Bridge.’
Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West, certainly approved of East Coast’s efforts to get passengers – many of whom were her constituents – home by means other than trains, tweeting her appreciation.
Most performance-related issues will be a result of infrastructure problems, agrees Philippa Richardson, comms manager at Virgin Trains. ‘We’re all in this together as an industry and that includes Network Rail,’ she says. ‘When people are on a train, they don’t necessarily know who is responsible for a problem, but we want our customers to enjoy their journey and to help them if something gets in the way of that.’
‘Customers just want to get to their destination,’ says Emma Gascoigne, comms and social media manager at Chiltern Railways. ‘If their train is not on time, then they want us to take responsibility and answer their questions.’
Understanding why they are being
delayed is the main bugbear for passengers and Twitter pictures can be a smart way of preventing any bad blood from boiling over (see box).
‘During times of disruption, we may often tweet on @chilternrailway about things such as ticket acceptance with other operators, or retweet a picture from Network Rail showing engineers working on the line,’ explains Gascoigne.
When it comes to the mechanics, some train companies site their Twitter account firmly within the ambit of comms, while others let customer relations teams do the day-to-day heavy lifting. But however they choose to do it, all agree there has to be a fair bit of interplay between the functions.
‘The @VirginTrains feed is managed and responded to by the customer relations team,’ says Richardson. ‘It also looks after queries on Facebook. But we work closely with the team on campaigns and competitions, and so on. We also have a weekly conference call where we agree messages for the week coming, plus monthly content plans.’
Rail companies have been quick to see Twitter’s reputational possibilities. ‘We set up @SouthernRailUK and @GatwickExpress in 2011 largely for marketing purposes,’ says Ludlow. ‘But after a landslip at Croydon that year, we started to use it more for customer messages. As a result, it grew and we moved it to customer services in 2012 after we identified people who had the skills to do this effectively.
|"It helps that all Chiltern Railways’ tweeters are also commuters themselves"
- Emma Gascoigne, Comms and social media manager, Chiltern Railways
One appealing point of Twitter is the intimacy and immediacy it affords corporates with their audiences. ‘Twitter has allowed customers to become much better informed,’ says Richardson. ‘If the train manager makes an announcement, people are tweeting immediately.’
It is a double-edged sword, of course – complaints are public and instant – and in an age of trolling, there is another problem: savvy commuters have set up their own sites publicising delays and criticising train firms.
Southern, for example, has its own shadowy nemesis: a false account called @Southern_Trains. This is sometimes mistaken for the genuine article, despite the tagline on its profile: ‘Please don’t think we are a decent train company… We are a joke and proud of it!’
‘I think they would pass on any genuine issue from a customer to us,’ muses Ludlow.
It is a reminder that the question of tone has to be taken very seriously. ‘You want to have that Virgin irreverence and fun on social media,’ says Richardson. But this needs to be tempered with the know-ledge that the harassed soul on the 8.14 from Manchester to London wants to be treated with kid gloves. Making them feel that senior figures share their pain may also help, with initiatives such as Chiltern’s ‘Tweet the Manager’ perhaps pointing the way forward.
‘Each manager has their own hashtag and the dates are pre-advertised along with the session hashtag,’ explains Gascoigne. ‘It has been very popular and it’s evolving. We now change our avatar to be a picture of the manager during the hour and we are focusing sessions on a particular topic. We have also run "Tweet the Boss" for more than a year now, with our managing director Rob Brighouse. We are sure it won’t be long before it becomes the norm.’
‘It helps that all Chiltern’s tweeters are also commuters themselves,’ suggests Gascoigne. Wood agrees: ‘If you don’t understand the frustration that people have, then it’s very hard to give a good response. The key is just being empathetic. The majority of people understand that these things happen. The most common question is "how long?" and we just have to be honest.’