I was so angry at the way South West Trains staff enforced a panalty fare for my recent journey I was compelled to write a letter. I wonder if anyone else has been treated in this way and if they would consider how they apply their policies in a customer centric way in the future. I hope you do not think my point of view is an unreasonable one.
To: CEO, Stagecoach South Western Trains Limited
15th September 2010
Dear Mr XXXXXX
Reference: Penalty Fare Receipt SW XXXXXXXX
Yesterday, 14th September 2010 I travelled from Richmond to Staines on the delayed 0848hrs South West Trains service.
I usually make most of my journeys from Richmond to London and always use my Oyster card to pay for my journeys as I find this form of payment to be the quickest and most convenient method. I rarely travel to work using the train but on Tuesday decided to try the train.
As I was running late and tapped in with my Oyster card only to discover that my train was delayed. No apology was made for the delay to the service at the station or onboard the train.
On arrival at Staines I tried to tap out at the ticket barriers and discovered that the barriers did not accept Oyster cards. A ticket person (collector number: XXXX) informed me that Oysters were not accepted at this station. I was extremely surprised at this and he corrected my understanding of the Oyster payment scheme as only extending to Feltham and not Staines. I asked if I could pay him the correct fare and he immediately informed me that I would be charged a penalty fare of £20.
I understand that I made an incorrect assumption of the stations covered by the Oyster payment scheme but watching the behaviour of your colleague it became extremely clear to me that you have not empowered your customer facing colleagues to treat customers as individuals. I am an honest professional, who clearly demonstrated my intention to pay the correct fare for my journey but ignorantly made an incorrect assumption about the methods of payment acceptable for my journey.
I clearly was not a fare evader who had deliberately set out on my journey with the intention of not paying. Indeed my company compensates me for my travel expenses and therefore what would motivate me not to pay my fare?
Reviewing my experience I can only assume that you have not provided the training nor the customer service support structure to enable your colleagues to assess each customer who has failed to present a valid train ticket for their journey and make a decision as to whether the customer’s reason for not doing so is genuine or not. If your company were to demonstrate an honest commitment to your customers, you would ensure that all customer facing colleagues are empowered to make a decisions by embedding a customer service tool called “flexibility within a framework”. This tool would allow colleagues to ascertain whether, in my example, a penalty fare is indeed appropriate and fair to issue, or if the customer lifetime value and potential repeat business would be jeopardised by enforcing a policy as documented.
Companies that are focused on customer service ensure that colleagues can explain policy in addition to explaining why they may be making exceptions on occasions. Flexibility in a framework is not a method of allowing colleagues to say “yes” because it is the easiest and least confrontational thing to do. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. The service tool is used to ensure you maximise the lifetime worth of a customer, maximising your company’s long-term profitability and as a public limited company, ensuring that you continue to drive and maximise shareholder wealth.
Your colleague who issued my penalty ticket informed me about how I could pay for my journey when I travel to Staines. I articulated to him that following this experience I would be reverting back to use my car. Through no fault of his own (as he was extremely polite throughout our conversation and following your company’s policy) he made me feel that you company does not care about me as an individual customer. If your company cared about me as an individual you would have seen that I did not set out to deceive your company and that you potentially have the opportunity to increase your share of my annual travel expenditure.
I am a potential new business season cardholder who, as a result of the service you provide, could be influenced to switch my mode of travel from car to your company. I am sure you have made mistakes in your lifetime but how many times when you have made a mistake have you been made to feel like a criminal? As a high standing individual and CEO of a large PLC, how would you feel if others interpreted a genuine mistake of yours as criminal intentions and therefore enforced the associated consequences? Would you choose to give more money to a service company that treated you in a way that made you feel unvalued and like a dishonest individual?
I am sure you therefore will understand why the behaviour of your colleague has shattered the trust and any affinity I had with the Stagecoach South Western Trains brand. Brands as I am sure you will well know are fragile entities as they are based on a person’s gut feel about a product, service and or company. As a result a company cannot control these feeling but can actively seek to influence it and drive customer resulting loyalty but as demonstrated yesterday, they can equally so easily destroy it.
I am a businessperson who works in a blue chip service organisation, so I am extremely aware of the challenges of delivering outstanding service to customers whilst maximising the profitability of the business. I therefore totally understand that I would have been asked to pay my single fare to Staines that day, which from memory would normally cost abound £6.
Understanding operational costs, I would also understand that I could be charged an additional service charge to pay for the fare collector at the ticket barriers who you would not need to employ if you all your customers paid the correct fare for their journey. I do not accept that the cost of employment of your colleague translates into justifiable service charge of approximately £14.
The combination of your colleague’s behaviour and penalty fare charges only serve to reinforce my current belief that you have defined the strategic direction of your company to focus on short-term profitability at the expense of customer loyalty and positioning the Stagecoach South Western Trains brand as a customer orientated brand. I personally believe that customer orientation is fundamental to setting the foundations for long-term profitability and ensuring you can differentiate your brand from your competitors.
I assume that a the monopoly service provider on this route, you may have chosen to ignore customer value in your strategy as you know that customers have no other choice to use your service on the routes you operate. I wonder if you had competition enabling customers to choose train provider, whether you would be comfortable with the current customer service proposition that your colleagues deliver on a daily basis.
I would ask if you would personally consider reviewing the enforcement of a penalty fare for my journey and whether you would consider refunding me the different between the correct single journey I should have paid and the £20 penalty fare. I also appeal to you to ask your management team to review the application of penalty fares to your customers and to consider empowering your colleagues to enable them to make “common sense” decisions by implementing a flexibility in a framework model.
I am very willing to come and speak to your management team about my experience if you feel that they would benefit from hearing directly from a customer and am willing to share my service knowledge and experience of driving customer centric through a very large service organisation.
Thank you for taking the time to read about my experience and I look forward to hearing from you.
cc. Independent Appeals Service