We used to be an industry that struggled to say ‘sorry’ for failing customers, now it’s a word that is used so often that at times it has become noise, writes Alex Warner

 

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Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word by Blue featuring Elton John is my favourite song of all time – run a close second by Tiger Feet, the 1974 hit from Mud.

Blue’s hit was a classic of late 2002, around the time where I was a relatively senior manager on Britain’s railway and when it was less fashionable for the industry to say “sorry.” I was seen as some kind of customer champion just because I went out of my way to grovel to customers with regularity – frequently so because back then performance was at a particular low point and Railtrack was in meltdown, on the verge of going bust.

Posters, tannoy messages, letters to everyone, any opportunity to say “sorry” and I’d be looking for my moment in the sun. I recall galloping out of my first ever media relations training course when I was running the Stansted Express business to get down onto the platform below at Tottenham Hale station to apologise live on Sky News for our services not running on Bank Holiday Monday due to engineering works. The next day, whilst watching cricket at Grace Road, Leicester, I jostled my way into the commentary box during a County Championship game, pushing aside renowned pundits, to interrupt ball-by-ball coverage, grab the BBC 5 Live microphone and reiterate this apology. Those were the days.

Fast forward 13 years and last week’s fire at Vauxhall station reminded me just how much transport has changed in terms of saying “sorry”. I missed the chaos and only found out the next day on my commute to London on South West Trains. Sure as anything, though, South West Trains were doing everything to ensure that as soon as it had all cleared up, they couldn’t conveniently brush it under the carpet.

Arriving at Shepperton station to pick up my pre-booked ticket (the machine didn’t work AGAIN!), the first thing Mike behind the counter wanted to know was whether I’d travelled yesterday, because if I did, then he was offering me the equivalent of the return leg for free today, no questions asked. “Are you absolutely sure?”, the legend asked, when I said politely that I’d missed all the palaver the day before he then asked the same question of everyone in the queue and said “sorry” with some sincerity.

Before I’d even got on the train, the station announcement was chuntering on with an apology and then the guard added his condolences too, before we’d even got one stop up the line to Upper Halliford. Then, a look at South West Trains’ twitter account and the day of mourning was in full flow, and the corporate tweeters were unexhausted from saying “sorry”, with such relentless compassion and contriteness one day previously, were trying to surpass their achievements.

When we pulled into Waterloo, the guard begged our forgiveness once more and then there was an announcement doing likewise across the concourse, rabbiting about generous compensation, that Mike had mentioned, supported by a message on the visual indicator board.

Ten hours later and on my return, this same announcement was still in full flow and the only irritation was that on walking onto the concourse and hearing the words “due to a fire at Vauxhall”, you could see the life drain from the faces of commuters as they thought it was a case of groundhog day, rather than them talking about the night before.

The slight blip in the brand called ‘Sorry’ is often the gateline staff. Whilst the rest of SWT were in sensitivity mode, those manning the gates at Waterloo seemed incapable of raising a smile or any interaction. My ticket didn’t work the barriers (AGAIN) and I was let through with barely a grunt, when handling me with kid gloves would have been a good move – they weren’t to know that this little inconvenience might have tipped me over the edge.

Sometimes frontline staff hide behind signs, tweets and automated messages commissioned by management – last week, I waited over 30 minutes for a 341 bus near Farringdon – did the driver apologise when he arrived? – yeah right, you guessed it.

If this were a restaurant or another service industry, you’d imagine a duty manager briefing staff before they walk over the threshold to meet customers, saying something like – “go easy on them today, it was a stinker for them last night”. This level of rallying leadership would be an anathema concept for many areas of transport, apart from, say, the airline industry, where cabin crew meet up to discuss pre-match tactics in briefing rooms.

At the back-end of January, it was reported that SWT actually tweeted “sorry” 650 times in a week. That’s some feat, particularly as most of the time it probably wasn’t their fault. This is some progress from the days when Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word was bounding up the charts and at best any apology would be grudging and followed by letting customers know that it was really Network Rail/Railtrack who should be saying “sorry”.

Nonetheless, if you look around the transport landscape, uttering remorse and contrition is so embedded into the fabric of the environment, so much part of the fixtures and fittings, that it almost goes unnoticed. Passing from the tunnels outside Euston station a fortnight ago and down onto my Northern line train, I was subjected to six apologies without even actually being materially inconvenienced.

The first apology was on our Virgin train for a delayed arrival of just four minutes, then on the concourse I heard apologies for a slightly delayed boarding whilst a Liverpool-bound train was being prepared, followed by a sign saying sorry for building works and then an old fashioned poster at the top of the escalators to the tube with the local LU managers expressing remorse for a bad night before. By the time, I’d got through the concourse and heard an announcement about delays on some far flung Underground line miles from Euston, an automated voice said sorry as we waited barely 30 seconds on our tube, whilst the service was being regulated.

The poster on the Underground made me chuckle. This old hat practice of an apology poster signed off with a name reminds me of the first few weeks of my career 23 years ago when I was the sole customer complaints bod for the old Northern “misery” line. These were the days before the internet and social media when non-entities could create a name for themselves just by going viral and I persuaded my gaffer to invest in a “poster plotter” machine so that every time there was a delay we could print an apology. Every day I would wake up hoping for disruption and barely would it unfold and I’d be typing something up, printing posters out then sprinting down onto the station below and giving drivers the posters for them to drop off to staff at stations as they went up the line and display.

“Alexander Warner, Customer Relations Officer” would follow every apology and a handwritten signature on all – all my mates would see it, so would Wilben Short, the general manager, maybe Denis Tunnicliffe, London Underground’s MD and certainly, best of all, those good-looking ladies that I’d chat up in the pub of a Friday night – all of whom passed through the concourse at Charing Cross tube every morning. All well and good of course, until someone put “is a w***er” next to my name on several posters one day.

A cursory Google search shows that ‘apologise’, ‘sorry’ and ‘inconvenience’ are words that are inextricably linked with transport, more so than pretty well all other service sectors. These phrases are as entrenched in our vocabulary as technical jargon. It’s not that things go wrong more in transport than in other sectors – just that it’s more visible – after all, when the tills fail in your local Tesco, it’s easier to keep it under wraps. What’s more, as an industry, we just can’t help ourselves but express regret, a whole generation of transport managers have been brought up with manners, in a way that our predecessors from the old era, when passengers were seen as self-loading freight, lacked grace.

The problem is that apologies now are a bit ten-a-penny, a bit like when I keep saying “sorry” to “Er Indoors” for leaving my old copies of this magazine or football programmes lying round the house. “We regret any inconvenience caused” – that wretched, hollow, clunky phrase that is heard only across transport infrastructure and not in the real world, has just become “noise” – deconstruct or dissect it and it actually means bugger all.

What it needs is perhaps more of an effort made by managers and frontline staff, those capable of being the most high impact “customer touch-point” providing heartfelt contrition and showing empathetic, emotional intelligence, rather than relying on social media, posters and automated announcements. Just like Mike at Shepperton had done last week.

 

VERDICT

Transport is complex stuff and things will always continue to go wrong. Sorry isn’t and won’t be the hardest word in the future, but there needs to be more thought given as to when, why, how and to whom it is uttered.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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