Leaves on the line but transparency online

It's time to stop castigating transport companies over delays and start praising their use of social media.

Transport companies often make me angry. They often make me angry because they often make me late. I bet that they have often made you angry and late too. Let’s agree to agree on that because the next 500 words are likely to be as popular as a surprise appearance by Jim Davidson on Woman’s Hour.

You see, over the past few months I have started to gain an unexpected respect for my local train operator, South West Trains. I find that odd because its trains are constantly breaking down, occasionally hitting bridges and are generally incapable of taking any more passengers by the time they have reached my stop. If I do get on, I will end up standing, squashed into another man’s armpit like a scene from a niche website.

So, in spite of all that, why am I patting the fat controller of South West Trains on his fat little back? Quite simply because the company’s digital comms strategy of being open, transparent and clear has made even the hairiest delay slightly more bearable.

For many smaller businesses, social media have created a level playing field where a fan base can now be built from scratch without the need for a multimillion-pound marketing campaign. But social media can terrorise and paralyse big companies – those with the big budgets and existing customer base. For the first time in history, the interface between you, your customers and every one of their friends is just the touch of a button away.

It’s a particularly tricky conundrum for transport companies, as their businesses operate across an infrastructure with so many points of dependency and potential failure. South West Trains, for example, is transporting hundreds of thousands of commuters every day across old tracks, stopping at old platforms that use old signals owned and controlled by a different organisation. 

It means the brand reputation of South West Trains, and its ability to influence customer satisfaction levels, is often significantly affected by the actions of another business. It is attempting to take at least some of that control back, however, through its use of social media.

Twitter has enabled the company to communicate about a problem, which it often does in a brutally open and honest way, then provide updates on significant developments. It doesn’t make the trains run on time, but it gives customers options, allowing digitally aware commuters to make time-critical decisions based on real-time information. It also allows the company to take the plaudits once normal service has resumed.

South West Trains has decided to use the digital platform at its disposal to serve up information from the platform itself. It has taken a strategic decision to use Twitter as a functional comms tool. It has realised that meaningful engagement is more likely to come from a no-nonsense informative approach, rather than from sharing cute videos of dancing cats.

In a world of transport chaos, those operators delivering clear, concise real-time comms are, against all odds, marking themselves out as the winners in a digital world.

Stuart Jackson is the former comms director of EE, and now runs the company’s CEO office

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