Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Virgin on the ridiculous...

I’m not a frequent train traveler, although I do visit London several times a year on business, via GNER (Great North Eastern Railways) from nearby Wakefield. These journeys are generally uneventful (apart from occasional delays & problems with the Buffet facilities) & I while away the journey reading.

Because I book my train tickets over the Internet (or via the Company travel team), there is normally a seat reservation made and a paper “reserved” ticket in place so that others don’t take my seat. Occasionally, delays mean that GNER struggle to turn the train around quickly & it strikes me as pragmatic to dispense with putting out the paper tickets if it means the train hits the tracks faster.

GNER are good at customer service, their “train captain” keeps the passengers informed over the tannoy & apologises on behalf of the Company for any shortfalls. He or she might not actually mean it deep down but at least they make the effort and are obviously trained to do so.

Enter Virgin trains stage left. I’ve flown Virgin Atlantic several times now to the extent that Karen & I are “frequent Virgins”. Their cabin crew customer service is very good although the planes do seem to have frequent problems with the on-board entertainment & information systems that often need resetting or fiddling with.

Saturday was my second experience with Virgin Trains and was rather an odd one. I traveled to Edinburgh (& back) entirely uneventfully about 18 months ago on Virgin & was impressed to see power sockets & headphone outlets next to the seats on their very smart fleet, even in steerage.

My journey down to Birmingham was fairly uneventful. The train was a little late & I’d had the forethought to pay the £10 supplement to travel First Class (Virgin call it Club Class in Coach A) & it was a good job I had as the regular coaches were heaving with football supporters & people sitting in the lobbies.

My first challenge was the on-board entertainment. Virgin run two types of trains, Voyagers and Pendolinos. This was a Voyager and it had a fairly simple system based on three buttons, namely volume up, volume down & channel change. A look in the rather confusing multi-system instructions in their in-flight magazine revealed that there were four channels to listen to, one of which was Radio Four. What it didn’t say was what order they were in! I spent some time trying to reconcile them with only partial success. I eventually realized there were two things conspiring against me. Firstly, the system occasionally randomly invented a fifth channel (that beeped quietly) to keep me on my toes. Secondly, despite the Magazine being April-June, the songs listed did not reconcile to the songs played…

I was entitled to a free coffee as a Club Class passenger so I wandered down to the Buffet in Coach D where I also bought a very tasty Cheeseburger that the label informed me was made from Aberdeen Angus beef. I noticed that the staff wore the same uniforms as the Virgin Atlantic crew, which is a nice touch.

Looking out of the window as we neared Birmingham, I was surprised to see another Virgin train being hauled by a Virgin Locomotive engine, amusingly called Thunderbirds FAB 1. I saw another couple like this so it would appear that Virgin do have reliability problems with some of their fleet.

After my meeting (held in the splendid Shakespeare Memorial Library Room) we retired to a nearby Pub where we indulged in some fine ale & sparkling conversation before the journey back. Three of us (Paul & Mervyn) walked back to New Street and two of us boarded the Virgin train, which was waiting at the far end of platform 9 (& the platforms are very long at Birmingham).

I suggested to Paul that I would come down & chat to him on the journey but he said not to worry about it as he had been traveling since 6:30am & would probably doze most of the way back. He lives in Halifax, which isn’t too far by road but via Public Transport would appear to be rather more problematic.

The first hitch was that there was someone in my allocated seat, indeed there were three blokes who were obviously together. I then noticed that the digital displays above the seats were showing a message informing passengers that the computer had failed & the reservations could not be shown. It would seem that Virgin don’t have a plan B! I was quite happy to sit elsewhere as the coach had plenty of room but didn’t relish the thought of others possibly claiming my seat & playing a game of musical chairs. When this happens on GNER they do announce the problem to avoid confusion but not on Virgin (or at least not on that day).

I plugged in my headphones but all I got was a loud white noise hiss on all the channels. We hadn’t actually set off yet and it could well have been that it had yet to be turned on so I didn’t worry too much and got my book out.

In the meantime, other passengers turned up, including a large woman who bore a passing resemblance to “Millie Tant” the radical feminist from Viz comic. I actually became slightly concerned for her health as she was pulling a wheeled case behind her and stood by her seat leaning on the backrest and panting for several minutes.

From where I was sitting I could actually see the driver’s cab window as the pass door was open & I found myself thinking back to various flights over the years where it was policy to keep the flight deck door open during take-off and landing, something that is a definite no-no these days. I was mildly curious as to whether they allowed small boys (or indeed big ones) to see the cab so decided to ask the policy when the staff came round. After the usual announcement about stops & catering a member of staff entered the coach to start ticket checks. As it was a lady & the announcer had been female I correctly surmised that she was in charge and asked if she was the train Captain. She informed me that she was the train service manager (or some such similar title), was the boss and definitely in charge of the whole train. On enquiring about visiting the cab I was told absolutely not due to health & safety, the driver had to concentrate on signals and no-one else was allowed in the cab whilst the train was moving. It wasn’t a terrorism issue, as it seems that drivers can let passengers have a quick look between stations at their discretion, which was probably the best bet for my Son on a future journey.

The train journeyed on, although progress was relatively patchy as there seemed to be delays ahead of us. Coach A was fairly quiet, although the sounds of distant revelry drifted in as the doors open with people passing through. I was quite happily engrossed in my current book read so was fairly oblivious to the comings and goings.

After a while, I decided to go and claim my free coffee and investigate the catering as I was getting hungry. On the journey to coach D, I was surprised to see Mervyn on the train and sat down to talk to him. It seems that he was misdirected to the wrong platform for the direct train and this was his second choice. We chatted for a while and then the ticket inspector (whom I will subsequently refer to as TSM) reached our seats. Mervyn put his pompous voice on and suggested that she and myself had probably already been introduced and he could vouch for me. She confirmed that she had already checked my ticket, saying that we had already spoken at great length!

After talking for a few more minutes, Mervyn started to nod off, possibly because he had a head start on imbibing, having been to the Pub before the meeting as well as afterwards (and had even set up a Tab there).

I took this as my cue to continue the journey to the Buffet, where I stocked up accordingly. I chose another Aberdeen Angus Cheeseburger as they didn’t obviously have anything else hot & I had enjoyed the earlier one. Whilst waiting for the microwave, the train pulled in to a station and I was surprised to find my ankles being licked. I looked down to find a large black Labrador making friends with me. It seemed to belong to a young girl & an older woman who looked somewhat bewildered but they appeared to be being shown the way by TSM. The train started up again and TSM dashed into the buffet to grab the phone & make an announcement. She had probably seen some behaviour she didn’t approve of as she admonished passengers not to put their feet on the seats in what I took to be rather a stern way. The Buffet server and I exchanged glances & he looked a little sheepish. I caught her eye as she swept past, gave her a big smile then looked back to the man and said “your boss can be quite bossy!” She had gone to look through the door window into the Coach, presumably to see if the miscreants had taken any notice. She replied to me that some people were ignorant and needed to be told. My private thoughts to this were yes, but probably not quite with that approach, as had Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer been on the train they would have clutched their handbags and went “ooooooOOOOoooooh!” after her last announcement.

I returned to my seat & started to prepare my coffee. I decided to check out the headphones again and they were still hissing. Looking around, I couldn’t see anyone else in the coach wearing any so didn’t know if the system was down. Just then, TSM passed through the coach so I asked her if there was a problem with the system. She suggested it might just be the radio station off the air but I assured her that changing channels didn’t make any difference. She asked if she could borrow the headset (which by coincidence was a Virgin Atlantic one, the first one I picked up at home) & fiddled about with the controls on the seat opposite. After a brief pause she confirmed that she could hear Robbie Williams or some such. As that appeared to be the problem resolved from her body language, I reflected that it was my seat unit at fault and enquired as to whether she would be making a note of the seat number for maintenance. At that point she became rather brusque, and said that despite being a woman, she was perfectly competent at her job. As she swept away I reflected on what she had said and begged to differ. She had made me feel uncomfortable and apparently judged me to be a sexist. The fact that she was a woman hadn’t even occurred to me as being even slightly relevant to the problem, which was that the headset didn’t work and she didn’t seem overly bothered by it.

I continued with my tea and started to eat the Burger. This one was even tastier than the one I had eaten at lunchtime and I looked inside it to see why. The answer was immediately obvious: this one had onions in & the other one had not. Come on Mr. Branson, consistency needed.

After I had finished eating and cleared up, I still felt uncomfortable about my encounter with TSM who had glared at me each time she passed through the Coach. Eventually, I decided to talk to her again, the outcome of which would either clear the air or result in a Customer complaint. I asked if I could have a word and when she stopped and looked at me (or glowered would be a more accurate description) I quietly said that I had felt patronized by the last thing she had said to me. Her reply was that she had felt the same way by my remarks. We discussed this for a few sentences but we were not getting anywhere & we were both starting to raise our voices. I told her about the Burger and her reply was along the lines of what did I expect her to do about it, she didn’t cook the food. Despite her having told me at the start of the journey that she was in charge, it seemed that she was unwilling to accept that any bucks stopped with her. Eventually I said there wasn’t any point in talking about this further as she wasn’t going to do anything about it but that I might decide to progress it as a complaint. She refused to tell me her name (her first name was on her badge) and then insisted that I gave her my name. I pointed out that it was in their computer (which was of course broken) but that I wasn’t prepared to give my name without knowing hers. We swapped names & wrote them down. I offered to give her a business card but found I didn’t have any

Shortly afterwards, I heard her on the phone to someone describing a fracas and asking for platform assistance. Something was obviously going down with the singing footballers and it seemed that I may have missed an incident of some kind whilst I was at the other end of the train. When we reached Sheffield the scuffers were there in force and they escorted a number of lads off the train. They took the names and addresses of people who wanted to make a complaint in our coach (& there were quite a few of them) and eventually we were on our way. We hadn’t gone far when we stopped again and after some delay we were advised that an ambulance had been called to the train in front of us and we wouldn’t be able to move until the incident was resolved. At this point everyone groaned and reached for their mobiles. I was conscious that Karen would be on the way to Wakefield with David and I wanted to let her know I’d be late and to put him to bed as I could always get a taxi. Unfortunately, however, I had put my phone on charge before I went out & left it there so I was mobileless.

I asked the Millie Tant lady if I could borrow her phone to ring my Wife offering a £1 coin towards the cost. She said that normally she would have done, but she felt that my behaviour had been so appalling that she chose not to. This surprised me somewhat, but I acknowleged that she was entitled to her opinion.

What had been so shocking? I hadn’t sworn at anyone, lost my temper, stamped my foot, hit anyone, shouted or even been abusive. I had, however, committed the cardinal sin of not putting up with being brushed off by surly staff. I had argued with a member of train staff as a customer about differing perceptions of what passed for service that I certainly would have found unacceptable if it had been one of my own staff talking that way to one of our internal Customers. Would Millie have cared quite so much if the TSM had been a man?

I went to find Paul who happily loaned me his mobile and waved away the offered money. He had seen Mervyn lurch off the train at the right station so that was sorted. I couldn’t get hold of Karen, though.

When we eventually got to Wakefield (perhaps 45 minutes late) Karen told me she had noticed a member of staff in an air hostess type uniform trying to sort out a dazed woman with a child and a black dog…

After the weekend, I decided that I wasn’t going to complain to Virgin about the TSM. She obviously had enough on her plate with other incidents happening on the journey and if she had important things to sort out rather than my minor grumbles she should have told me so in an assertive manner and I would have quite happily accepted that.

Dealing with the “great british public” is often frustrating. People can say and do stupid things, be argumentative, ignorant, rude, hostile, critical, obnoxious, misguided, bigoted, incoherent, judgmental, opinionated, arrogant and inept. They can also be charming, refreshing, pleasant, helpful and a pleasure to deal with. People in the front line have to develop defence mechanisms to all this, by being assertive, not taking the criticism personally, taking ownership, cutting through the symptoms to the root problem, calming down the complainant and resolving the issue. People who are good at this are a boon to any Company, because they leave the Customer feeling as though their problem mattered. Virgin didn’t make me feel as though my problem mattered, they made me feel as though I didn’t matter.

I wasn’t going to even blog on the subject, then it occurred to me that I might now be on the “do not fly” list equivalent for the rail network so I thought I should leave an audit trail. This morning, I had a conversation with a vendor that I don’t know particularly well who asked me if I had a good weekend. Yes, I replied, apart from a dreadful train journey. “Don’t tell me,” he said unprompted, “let me guess. It wasn’t Virgin Trains by any chance, was it?” Q.E.D.

No comments: