Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Standing in a queue: A parable on serving people

I live in a provincial city. Small enough to walk across in just over an hour or so, and its serviced with a branch line railway that makes transport a bit quicker. From time to time I get the train into the city centre because it's a 6 minute journey and that saves me 25 minutes walking time plus is a bit easier when I'm carrying stuff. Invariably I then walk home.

This morning I did that journey. I boarded the crowded train and was delivered to my destination. I'd not been sold a ticket on the train (and there isn't a ticket machine at my station) so I knew I'd have to queue. I found myself quickly the 20th person in a queue that soon stacked up behind me. With one person serving.

This post isn't really about railways.

And nothing I'm writing here is to complain about the station staff who are generally excellent and friendly.

I've worked in Customer Service and it's often a thankless task and gladly forgive occasional grumpiness. The shriek at someone up the line paying for their ticket with a £20 note was probably a bit unnecessary and not quite comic enough... legal tender is legal tender! But, I digress.

Around me in the queue obedient British people rocked from one foot to the other... a few grumbled to the air and I took out my smartphone and tweeted to the business who run the station. Unlike other train companies they really take social media seriously and have it staffed with friendly people who respond quickly and helpfully. This morning was Jess.

I politely pointed out that the company ought to remember that they are a customer serving business. Twenty five people who got held up, the back end of the queue by over 15 minutes, is not good for business. That's not the Top Box service I learned in retail banking. I amiably suggested to Jess on Twitter that this wasn't a staffing issue but a business leadership issue. Three tweets in reply:
"Hi Dave, sorry about this. We only have a certain number of staff available, so there can be a queue at peak times.
As its busy for a relatively short period of time, having staff would be a waste of resources for the rest of the day...
...I appreciate its frustrating having to queue like this though. Glad you think the staff there are great though."

Excellently and friendly and instant social media engagement. And its not Jess' place to do more than represent the company policy. But there's a problem isn't there? It's the company culture.
  • There's a brief peak time period so we consider it better to save our money than to save your time. Despite the fact that if all our customers left us we'd cease to exist we still think we are more important than you.
  • This peak time period is so insignificantly brief that we charge much higher fares for travel at this time of day but its not so we can serve you better then.
  • We'd rather have a queue for a few minutes at the busiest time of day than people think traveling by train is easy and efficient and the way forward. 
  • We'd rather people walk into their office grumbling about the trains again than commend us.

Obviously I can walk. I could drive. I could get the bus. Other options are available. But in a business each ought to want my business and know that their reputation stands and falls on each customer experience.

When I worked in retail banking you'd see the Branch Manager on the tills if it was particularly busy. We'd thank people for their patience, and we'd bend over backwards to keep the queue short. It can't always be done but when it can't something needs to be done. There are businesses that deliver consistently brilliant service. It can be done.

And, I don't really mind queuing. I'm British.

But, I'm also arrogant enough to think that most problems in life have solutions. This is a values thing. I once heard someone say "I'm speaking better than you're listening..." No, sir! Communicators have the responsibility to engage their listeners, they don't get to have the right to have a go at them. And if you want people to give you their business you should build your business around serving them, around something they need, even if you have to persuade them initially that you're really offering something that adds to life and is worth paying for.

I think of my work: serving but how eeasily I'm self serving. Or our church: do we say you can be here on our terms, when it suits us. Mercifully we're asking the kind of questions so hopefully we're moving in the right direction but its easy for me to forget that service works best when its serving the right person. 


  1. Problem is they know that, in terms of public transport (especially at peak times), the train is a better option than a bus. Taking a car into the city is bad and expensive on parking and walking is not always a great option for everybody. So it's what is called a virtual monopoly. There are options but not theirs is the best. So they don't care about much except making the most money when they can (and every business does need to make a profit). So, you're not a customer that should be entitled to good service you're a profit unit (just invented that I think).

    1. True enough but you'd hope people would want better... it's possible to make the money and deliver excellence.
      And I ponder the implications for the church... with its own sense of monopoly on truth do we bend over backwards to serve people or do we implicitly say, "you can't get Life elsewhere so you'd better put up with our quirks..."