Basil Fawlty-like customer care by rail operator Northern is an insult: Daniel Kennedy

Rail operator Northern's approach to customer care has been likened to Basil Fawlty in the legendary TV comedy Fawlty Towers.
Rail operator Northern's approach to customer care has been likened to Basil Fawlty in the legendary TV comedy Fawlty Towers.
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MY train journey to work was more than 15 minutes late when I arrived in Leeds late last week. As a result, I hit Delay Repay on my Northern app and thought nothing of it. Within minutes of hitting ‘apply’ I had a response from a no-reply email address that, as far as I could tell, was accusing me of lying.

It said: “Our Delay Repay policy entitles customers to compensation if their journey with us is delayed in excess of 15 minutes. Because the circumstances of the disruption on this occasion were within the 15-minute timeline, we are unable to provide compensation as per our Delay Repay policy.”

Rail operator Northern continues to be criticised by commuters.

Rail operator Northern continues to be criticised by commuters.

Less than half of Northern trains now running on time

It went on to say: “Your planned route (scheduled times): Departing 08.19 from Steeton and Silsden to Leeds arriving 08.53. Route we think you took (actual times): Departed 08.22 from Steeton and Silsden to Leeds, arrived 08.56.”

The problem wording being, of course, “route we think you took”, which I interpreted as Northern accusing me of lying.

In contrast, I had reason to get in touch with Vistaprint recently due to an influx of unrequested emails from them. They came back quickly, explained the problem, apologised, underlined their commitment to customer service and satisfaction, and then topped it all off by advising of a credit being paid to my account.

Commuter Daniel Kennedy.

Commuter Daniel Kennedy.

From my position as a PR professional with well over 20 years’ experience, Northern’s response, akin to Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers fame, failed miserably like a lot of its services, whereas Vistaprint ticked all the boxes for keeping a customer onside.

We must keep up pressure on Northern to improve services: Yorkshire Post Letters

Customer service is the front line of any business. You can spend as much as you want on flashy TV adverts, wonderful websites and press statements pronouncing your award-winning greatness, but if you communicate
poorly with customers then you run the very real risk of ruining your reputation.

From customer-facing roles to those responsible for penning and issuing written communications, call centre staff to those writing social media responses, the daily pitfalls are plentiful, and sticking to an agreed tone in customer communications undoubtedly has to be the best means of avoiding them.

I’m not going to go down the route of suggesting pre-agreed responses for multiple scenarios – even though it could generate a whole new income stream for my business – as that approach could never possibly work due to there being so many unpredictable ways a customer interaction can unfold.

For example, a few years ago I worked in various call centre positions in Brisbane trying to sell everything from raffle tickets for the Australian Kidney Foundation to mobile phone contracts for a shady organisation on a commission-only basis.

The variety of abuse I got as a cold caller was phenomenal – my all-time favourite being a rant that began with the person I called shouting: “How dare you disturb me during a romantic dinner with my wife.”

Admittedly, I made the situation far worse by questioning why he answered the phone if he didn’t want to be disturbed, and then, to a backing track of authentic Aussie abuse, quickly suggesting he avoid further romantic disturbances by buying a mobile phone from me.

What I’m trying to get across is that the old saying, the customer is always right, is wrong. Customers can often be wrong (I have been). Customers can often be irrationally angry (me again). Customers can often go off on one for absolutely no apparent reason (guilty m’ Lord).

But in every situation, what would calm matters isn’t someone trotting out something they’ve read from a script (or telling them their washing machine hasn’t broken enough times to be replaced), but rather them being nice and polite.

Oh and don’t, whatever you do, go all Basil Fawlty on a customer who has had the temerity to get in touch with you.

In Northern’s case, this nice and
polite approach would have taken the form of not calling me a liar, but instead pointing out that there was an alternative service I could have used that would have got me into Leeds on time (albeit in a tiny train, with my face crushed against the window and my armpits smothering other unfortunate commuters due to overcrowding) and, as such, my claim wasn’t valid.

Daniel Kennedy is a director of Leeds-based Source Marketing.