I had a conversation recently with a close friend who'd been trying to get a resolution to a customer complaint with a major retailer for nearly two weeks. Phone calls and emails had all been ignored and the complaint was nowhere near resolution. Then they sent a tweet and the tweet said:
"[company]'s customer service equals that of Southern Rail"
Within five minutes there was a response via twitter. Before the end of the day a phone call was made by a senior member of the customer complaints team and the problem had been rectified. When asked why they'd responded so quickly when they'd ignored my friend for two weeks, the answer was surprising.
"We don't want to be associated with Southern Rail."
Nothing to do with the immediacy of twitter then and all to do with reputation.
At the edge of despair
Those who live within the Southern Rail network are at the edge of despair. People are losing their jobs, businesses are losing money or growth is being dampened. Roads are clogged even more than usual as people leave the railway network in droves, as even on non-strike days the service cannot be relied upon.
One has to question the business operating model where you rely on staff doing overtime to provide a basic service but even putting that to one side, how can a company with the remit for essential infrastructure go for nearly a year with industrial dispute after industrial dispute and still have the confidence of its shareholders and the government? It certainly hasn't got the confidence of its staff or its customers.
As one who has suffered from the growing tragedy of these disputes it's difficult to keep a non-biased head on my shoulders. I'm not going to declare for one side or the other however in this duopoly (or should it be a triumvirate as the government is closely involved). What I am going to point out is the blindness of all sides to the wider, long-term damage to the company, it's service offering and potential to regain its customer base.
The general public and businesses within the region now have little or no sympathy with the unions or management. They have a growing anger that no one is prepared to be reasonable and the government, in the interests of the country, will not step in. With the shadowy non-franchise/management arrangements, there would appear to be no financial urgency for the company to settle and rumours that it's really about unions v government abound.
Baldrick's 'cunning plan'
Some are asking whether, in the words of Blackadder's Baldrick, it's all "a cunning plan" to reduce the number of travellers because the network can't cope, and never will be able to cope with the growing passenger numbers.
If this truly was a sketch show it could be funny. But it isn't a sketch show, and it isn't funny.
As a sop, season ticket holders are to get a free month's travel equivalent. Financial compensation for travellers does not save jobs, does not boost the economy and, importantly, does not restore customers' faith in the service. I also heard this week that the other rail companies around the country are secretly disheartened with the dispute as it has a negative knock-on to their own business plans.
And now the magnitude of the issue is being writ large when national companies with no connection to the rail industry see Southern Rail as a pariah, something they do not wish to be associated with to any degree. With customer satisfaction rates through the floor, rumours aplenty, industrial relations at a nadir, peer group businesses' disquiet and well-known national names distancing themselves one has to ask, "Is this any way to run a business?"