My work at Augure implies a lot of train travel, which, frankly, I love. There’s no other mean of transport I can think of that is remotely as conducive to concentration, rêverie or conversation (or secretly watching the last episode of Desperate Housewives over your neighbour’s shoulder, without sound) than a TGV, France’s record breaking fast train. It’s simply addictive and I look forward to it every time in spite of traveling times at which no human should be made to wake up.
But sometimes, French rail just gets it wrong. Here’s a company that has the know-how to ship billions of people across France every year yet manages to blow the most benign incident into an infuriating experience out lack of communication empathy.
Here’s the scenario. It’s happened to me so many times I was able to foretell its outcome at the first symptoms, last Tuesday evening, and had finished writing this blog post in my mind well before the end.
As the train is being prepared for travelers to board, a malfunction is found in the head locomotive, which will need replacing and will induce delays. Now, for a team that prepares several thousand trains every month and has likely faced the exact same situation hundreds of time over the years, the duration of this intervention is probably a fairly well-known constant. And yet, here’s what communication looks like on the traveler’s side:
- 6 minutes before departure, the platform number is not known, several automated announcements have been explaining a difficulty in train preparation, yet the train is still described as on schedule by the hall monitors. Since trains never leave less than 15-20 minutes after the platform is announced, regulars like me already know that to be impossible.
- 3 minutes before departure, a 10 minute delay is announced. Which, again, is already impossible, because it’s already too late and the platform is still not known. Some grumpies are already fretting.
- 10 minutes later a new message appears, adding another 10 minutes to the official time of departure (that’s 20 altogether). Which, again, is more than unlikely. By this time, some people have been standing for more than 30 minutes and unhappy puffing is spreading.
- 10 minutes later, the 20 minute delay is still on the monitor, amounting to a theoretical departure time that is now some minutes in the past. Elderly people are now seriously cold and tired. Human courtesy being what it is, the 4 available benches (in a room with hundreds of people) are used up by teens playing with their iPads. No officials are there to explain anything or give advice. Only the automated public address speakers and monitors keep us informed of the next move.
- Finally, we get a call for the platform, just over 35 minutes late.
A possible alternative
Now, let’s give the situation some context: this is the Christmas period, the station is surrounded with caffes and shops and most travelers, myself included, would be very happy to sit it out with a cuppa or get ahead of Christmas shopping. A very early message explaining “something’s wrong please come back in 30 minutes” would be ample information. Luxury would be an SMS reading “Hey, sorry about the delay, your train will be ready to leave at 7:15 PM. Have a nice trip”. Everyone is aware that problems happen and 90% of my neighbours would have appreciated the human touch. Instead of which, a very minor incident was turned into anger and strong language.
Learning the small lessons
Benign crises such as this one happen all the time in all businesses. They are not threatening to the company or its stakeholders. But instead of being shrugged off as insignificant or ignored, they should be used as preparation and rehearsal for potential worse events in the future.
Here’s a team that has the ability to whisk 400 people across a country at 200mph in silence, comfort and security and that ends up looking bad because of the tiny details. Remember that in the age of social, there are no insignificant crises. Each episode is an opportunity to look better and more human or a risk of looking like you just don’t care.
Whatever the magnitude of the problem always ask yourself:
- Who does this affect?
- Will anyone know?
- Should I acknowledge the issue publicly ? It’s not always necessary to do so if only a small group of stakeholders is impacted and can be addressed more efficiently in another way.
Once a decision has been made, inform as early, frequently and accurately as possible. Don’t over promise, be reliable and useful.
If you have other examples of similarly mishandled day-to-day niggles (and suggestions on how to make them better), please leave me a comment. I’d love to hear about them.
Image courtesy of Dear SusanS