‘The whole nine yards…’

07 August 2014

An odd phrase, but often used in the retail world about the difficulty of delivering a consistent, good service to customers in all circumstances. Getting front-line staff on message and positive can be difficult. Managers rarely see these staff in action, rarely get feedback apart from the odd complaint and compliment. Yet, it is often in this retail ‘moment of truth’ that opinions about an organisation are formed or rescued if things have gone wrong.

This all makes cultural change in organisations difficult. When a rail franchise changes hands only a few people at the top move on. The bulk of the organisation remains essentially unchanged and unaffected. That is why most mergers, change programmes and re-organisations fail. Change is focused on process, technology and kit – the easy bits. Getting your staff to follow you and do the right thing when no-one is looking, measuring or reporting is really difficult. Big transport organisations that run essentially 24 hour operations cannot get everyone together. Staff might rarely have contact with a supervisor or manager.

If I come across a really good rail or bus industry staff member, which happens a lot, I always tell the managing director. These are the folk you want to keep, train, promote and get spreading the message about change. They are invaluable. All our research shows that passengers value the contact they have with staff but would like to see and hear from more of them.

That is why it is so frustrating when the absolute basics of customer care are not adhered to. I will relate two anecdotes from train companies I happen to use so you can draw no conclusions from this as it happens everywhere, just as good service does as well.

Morning peak trains often get held outside Victoria as platforms become free. The train grinds to a halt. Silence. The brakes tick. The temperature builds. Everyone is getting ready for the jump coming up. Everyone wants to get off and get to work or wherever. The minutes tick by. Nothing from the staff. No message of re-assurance or apology. It borders on cruelty to those hundreds of passengers who have paid you to do one thing really – get them to work on time. It just feels like no-one cares. You will be back. We have a monopoly. You won’t complain. Come on! Do the right thing and talk to your customers!

Going down to Sevenoaks the other day to see my dad. The toilet is making a very strange noise – sounds as though it will soon break if it has not already done so. When the guard comes round I tell him the toilet sounds odd. His reaction? Shrug of shoulders. Even after 15 years in this industry I was flabbergasted. If the toilet breaks many passengers will be, literally, inconvenienced. I have volunteered information that could save hundreds of pounds and even looked at selfishly could have saved this bloke and his colleagues hassle. Again, no sense of caring. It would have been so easy to say ‘”Thank you, I will report that now…”.

Getting the whole nine yards right is difficult. It is all about staff and their attitudes. Difficult to change but so, so important.

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