Defence of the realm

Customer engagement can be an exercise in futility – for both sides.

Somewhere back in my long-ago, just before Christmas, we launched @MetroTravelNews.

While trying to sort out the out-of-hours rota one day, I pointed out that, even though we were closed on Boxing Day and that MetroLine would also be closed, there would be a limited bus service running.

“This is Twitter,” I argued, “people will tweet us when buses don’t turn up, or to ask where they can find timetable.”

And they did (I ‘volunteered’ to cover Twitter that day).

As soon as any organisation goes down the route of having a social media presence you are expected to be online, all the time. And you’re expected to know all the answers, all the time. And to fix things to the satisfaction of your correspondent, or else.

But there’s an unwritten contract to social media engagement, and it seems to be ignored more than is respected. The positions of organisations and customers are becoming more polarised. Where there was once dialogue and discourse, good humour and the occasional ‘thank you’ there are now tin hats and tin ears.

The problems @NorthernAssist is facing are a prime example.

Passengers waiting for trains complain constantly … so they get banned. If you’re going to have a Twitter account to engage with people, then ban them for swearing or threats of violence (and report them) – but persistent whingeing isn’t a reason for banning. You can only answer the questions you can answer, and engage with people who are listening to you.

But equally, passengers waiting for trains complain constantly … to the wrong people. You’re not engaging, you’re venting to people who didn’t change the timetables or approve fare rises or who aren’t on strike and who can’t change any of those things. You don’t believe the answer you’ve been given, even though it’s accurate. You’re taking it out on the wrong people.

Calling the people manning those accounts “work experience students” isn’t helpful either. I’ve seen far too many catty comments from fellow PR people, journalists and other so-called professionals.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think Northern’s communications efforts over the last couple of years have been poor, to put it mildly. The bunker mentality helps no-one, and their reputation is shot to ribbons. I also use trains quite a bit, and I commuted to Sheffield for best part of a year through rain, hail, sleet, snow, strikes and heatwaves. Not always on time, in comfort or even arriving at the intended destination (it broke down).

But I’ve also been the person at the end of the Twitter account, including out-of-hours and on Bank Holidays. I’ve had the dogs abuse, and sometimes felt the need to call people out and fight back1, which today’s better-trained people don’t do.

You can guess whose side I’m on.

  1. Him: “Has anyone every told you your “services” are fucking shit?”
    Me: “No. Has anyone ever told you you’ve got a potty mouth?”
    After which, the conversation went much better. []