National Express miss the Cluetrain

May 14, 2009 11:38 · 530 words · 3 minute read cluetrain Nationalexpress NXEC rail ta tar trains travel

I’m a regular rail traveller on the East Coast Main Line, so when news of “innovative customer management technology” being deployed by operator National Express arrived in my inbox, I had to take a look.

According to the press-release-masquerading-as-a-news-article in Computing magazine,

“Maintaining passenger loyalty while reducing operational costs has become an urgent priority…

…Consequently National Express is introducing an innovative text message analysis service. the new system captures passenger feedback by SMS, providing executives with a realtime view of company performance and service requirements.”

The idea is that you send a text message to a shortcode number moaning about the overflowing toilets, and something happens. Somewhere. Maybe.

Or then again, it might not.

Cue wavy lines, as we’re transported back to 1995.

It’s easy to be snarky - National Express East Coast are facing real problems after they massively overbid for the privilege of running the service, and passenger numbers have gone through the floor as a result of the recession. So they definitely need to do something to improve their customer service, stem the losses, and avoid the humiliation of handing back what’s regarded as Britain’s premier rail route.

But this is such a classically “dumb management” idea it deserves to be called out - NXEC seem to have missed out on the last few years and the idea that THEY need to go where their customers are, and not the other way around.

One of the best things about NXEC’s service is their on-board wifi service - it’s got wrinkles, but being able to get online onboard is (still) a real value-add. Which should have perhaps given NXEC a clue as to where they needed to be concentrating their efforts.

When things go wrong, their customers are online. They’re blogging about their journey from hell, or Twittering, or updating their Facebook statuses. They’re having conversations - not with the company, but with their networks of friends and aquaintences. And they’re having those conversations outside of NXEC’s area of influence - not texting faceless automatic systems.

So it’s not about the technology, although that’s a dumb choice. It’s about the approach itself - NXEC seem to be stuck in a peculiarly 20th century mindset that hasn’t realised that their customers are everywhere that the company is not.

In the spirit of offering some criticism that’s at least trying to be constructive, here’s a few things that NXEC could be doing. They could be monitoring Twitter for mentions about their service, and tweeting back with information and updates. They could be active on Facebook, offering apologies and explanations when they find tales of woe. And they could offer something other than a faceless “email us” link on their website (and for that matter, they could offer a website that plays nicely with mobiles and loads quickly enough to be useful with 3G dongles.)

I’m going to hazard a guess that all of these would be cheaper - and far more effective in the long run - than the “investment” which has been thrown at SMS. After all, a copy of the Cluetrain manifesto runs to £5 on Amazon, so it’s not like these ideas are hard to come by.