Class Wars: Service is Everything in the Fight for Customers

This week I changed the habit of a lifetime and travelled to London by train.

Opting to avoid the 5 hour pantomime of driving to the airport, parking the car, taking off half your clothes as part of an essential security mission, being felt up by someone you’ve never met before, putting your clothes all back on again, hanging about for an hour, flying down to London, navigating the Heathrow Express and then the tube to finally reach my destination.

This time I jumped on the train at Perth, had a quick breakfast in Edinburgh, and boarded their first class East Coast Train at 9.30am to arrive at the heart of London some four and a half hours later, having got quite a substantial amount of work done on the train.

It was, in many respects, a first class experience.

But the return journey was quite different. Same rail operator, same first class service.

They started off well – we all got breakfast. But somewhere between London and York it all went horribly wrong.

Not enough sandwiches arrived on the train at Darlington. As a result, staff were left to deal with an increasingly hungry bunch of first class passengers.

We were unabashedly offered a dry croissant (no jam or butter available) and a packet of crisps for our lunch. We were told we were lucky to be offered even that.

Passengers joined together in a first class mutinty to make suggestions to the service team:

– Couldn’t they go and get some sandwiches from the paid buffet car?
– Couldn’t they offer us vouchers so we could go and get those sandwiches all by ourselves?

Our suggestions were shot down in flames. No. You must take the “complimentary” offer. It was the other first class passengers further down the cabin who ate all the sandwiches. We were then told that the food offered up in First Class was not paid for as part of the ticket price (this was in response to the interjection of the American girl, who was sitting opposite us, who bemoaned “But we’re paying for it!”). It was a complimentary offer, not a commitment, in other words.

The rousing conversation that followed, involving people of several different nationalities, made me feel ashamed to be British. Expectations of first class service across the globe are consistent, it would seem. But the staff at East Coast Trains have obviously not grasped them.

Fast forward an hour or so and we’ve changed trains having managed to grab a sandwich at Waverley. Scotrail’s First Class experience is quite different: a free cup of coffee and a biscuit, combined with a marginally bigger seat.

Gabor, the first class attendant, who was forced to work in a compartment that was not air conditioned on an extremely hot day and packed to the gunnels, had us all cheered up instantly. So much so, that some of us were threatening to write to East Coast Trains and suggest they needed people of Gabor’s calibre on their service.

Because it is just a matter of service.

Gabor, unlike his colleagues on East Coast Trains, understood that apologising for the hot state of the train was undoubtedly the way to go. East Coast? Well, you can judge by their responses to our helpful suggestions that they clearly didn’t give a hoot.

It is worth noting that Gabor’s first language was also not English…. just in case you hadn’t made that deduction from his name. The staff on the East Coast Train service were all (and I mean all) British through and through, with accents spanning the full East Coast line.

And I found myself wondering: Is it a British thing to believe that serving people is beneath them?

Have we mistaken first “class” service to be some sort of socio-political divide?

How would their attitude shift if they knew that the majority of people I spoke to (on the way down and the way up) had “upgraded” to first class as a wee treat to themselves, and were all left bitterly disappointed. My travelling companions included tourists, students, police officers, housewives and nurses. Many of these people are employed by the same British government that owns and operates the nationalised East Coast Trains. With the exception of John Humphreys, I wasn’t aware of any of them who were celebrities, politicians and bankers……

It takes dignity and intelligence to serve people. Remember: although you serve them, you are not their servants.

In a class war, your standard of service is everything in the fight to gain and keep your customers.

Selling is Simple: Just Make it Easy for the Customer to Buy

Today’s blog is inspired by Seth Godin’s post yesterday on “The Overwhelming fear of Being Wrong” – which got me thinking: Selling is actually very simple. You just need to make it easy for the customer to buy.

But despite this so many companies, big and small, try to over-complicate the process. They befuddle the customer, overstate the benefits and lose the sale. Not because their product is inferior to a competitor’s, but because the customer is paralysed with fear that their purchasing decision may be irrevocably incorrect.

Technology marketers are the biggest culprits. Bedazzled by TLAs (three letter anachronyms) and complex technological features, their sales literature either requires a degree in technology to comprehend or you must first spend several hours googling the TLAs until you can vaguely understand what they are trying to communicate (God Bless Wikipedia).
Last week I needed to purchase a digital projector. Unable to understand the difference beween the multiplicity of connections on offer, I found myself caught like a rabbit in the headlights. Conversely, my purchasing problem was simple: all I needed to know was the price and whether the connection between the projector and the laptop was the right one. A simple picture of the connector would have sufficed. The rest of the sales guff was irrelevant to me. I take it for granted it can project pictures onto a wall. It is, after all, a projector.

So I took a risk and bought one on trust. Luckily when it arrived the connector was the right one, but the purchasing process could have been so much less stressful.
Telephone marketers are also guilty of missing the point too. Not the fancy mobile marketers (that’s another blog altogether) but the old fashioned, bog standard, plug into the wall telephone. The most remarkable feature of a telephone, correct me if I’m wrong, is it’s dulcet ring tone. Too shrill and it’ll have you jumping out of your skin every time it goes, too subtle and you’ll be missing calls. Moreover, if your telephone rings regularly (which mine does) you’ll want something that’s not going to drive you up the wall with irritation to the point that unplugging it altogether (defeating the purpose of having a phone in the first place) is your only option.
But try to find out what a telephone sounds like before you buy it and you’ll find yourself becoming quickly regarded with suspicion. Retailers will look at you perplexed when you request to hear the phone before you buy it. “Why on earth would you want to know what it sounds like?” “Well, you’re right Ms Fox, it doesn’t tell you on the box.” But….. isn’t that what I’m buying? I don’t need to know that it has a state of the art digital keypad (woo!), and it’s memory can hold up to 100 phone numbers (wow!) and it’s battery life is 8 hours (yay!). I want to know what it sounds like.

We recently met with a company who was about to embark on an overseas sales trip. They have a great service at a great price but were making the fatal mistake of leaving it up to the customer to decide how much of that service they wanted to buy. I suggested they “package” up their service into 3-4 simple price based options that are easy for the customer to buy. Their email to me following the return from their trip speaks volumes for the success of making it easy for the customer to buy:
“We got a lot of positive feedback on the new structure and 16 out of 18 companies we met are interested in what we are offering.”
16 out of 18 companies? That’s an 88% hit rate…… imagine what a difference that would make to your business.
So , if you do one thing this week, take a cold hard look at your sales literature and decide to make it easier for the customer to buy.