GTR manager Mark Boon didn’t deserve the vilification he received for turfing Standard Class ticket holders out of First. He and others need help. Alex Warner offers his view

 

The tweet that exposed Mark Boon

 

Beleaguered boss Charles Horton has departed troubled franchise GTR, so now it seems that humble middle manager Mark Boon is the company’s new scapegoat. As the morning Metro eulogised over brave but ultimately unsuccessful England manager Gareth Southgate, the next saw a re-run of a story broken by Mail Online revealing how head of network operations Boon apparently booted out distressed customers from First Class and plonked himself into the comfort of two seats. The photo showing him looking imperious didn’t do him or GTR any favours either.

Taken at face value this is the kind of story that would normally enrage me – all my gripes about arrogant and aloof railway managers lacking self-awareness seem embodied in Boon’s behaviour. However, I’m a bit biased – I’ve come across him before and I think it would be a shame if this story becomes his legacy. Put it this way, Mark is one of the more enthusiastic, “heart on his sleeve”, customer-focused managers of his kind.

24 long years ago, I was a young whippersnapper London Underground employee, working in the British Transport Police Control Room at 55 Broadway. Boon was an equally wet-behind-the-ears chap, but he was proper Old Bill on their payroll rather than the Tubes. Like me, it was obvious he’d rather he wasn’t actually there and would have preferred to be doing a railway job, rather than serving as a plod. It was clear we were kindred spirits, more into the railway and its users, no surprise that it wasn’t long before we made the leap.

Back then, the BTP Control Room was a hostile place, they called it “banter”, but in truth it contained some behaviours that would be completely and utterly unacceptable in any workplace today. The BTP officers used to refer to LU employees as “pond life” and that was probably the tamest of comments in a macho and debilitating environment.

Mark and maybe a couple of others stood out as being the complete opposite of that – polite, customer-centric, respectful and in tune with the needs of employees on the Underground. I sensed he, like me, got a bit of stick for his resistance to the prevailing culture and because he too was a bit different to the norm.

Anyway, I digress, but as the years unfolded and Mark found his way into railway businesses, he was the only station manager or anyone in seniority you would ever visibly see at Waterloo – anticipating customer needs, going out of his way to engage with them and also raise the spirits of his staff. I saw snippets only, of course, but they were enough to confirm my feeling that he hadn’t changed.

To an extent, what Boon did was not remarkably different to what I used to do when I was a manager on Southern and indeed other train companies

To an extent, what Boon did was not remarkably different to what I used to do when I was a manager on Southern and indeed other train companies. Every single day was a battle to protect the rights of First Class customers. I used to stand outside the entrance to First on platforms as some kind of a welcome host, greeting and shaking the hands of First Class customers to draw attention to others that this was a privileged area of the train that required a special ticket. And then when the train pulled off and the mob from Standard soon tried to infiltrate, I made sure the conductor went there first or if I was on-board I’d stand by the entrance to prevent any unauthorised access. If I wrack my brains hard enough, I’m pretty sure I even sat in First occasionally as a deterrent for others and to help enforcement.

In Boon’s defence, GTR has revealed that his train was delayed by only a handful of minutes and there were available Standard Class seats further up the train.

So, to my mind, Mark was quite rightly motivated by a desire to protect the interests of First Class paying customers. From my personal experiences of travelling on Southern, the misuse of First is worse than on any other network and there is often a sense of approved anarchy. I see it travelling to watch Crystal Palace and when the fast trains stop everyone bails in, and I saw it this weekend travelling to Brighton when (and I’m sorry to stereotype here), First Class was full of Jeremy Kyle Show types and not your typical premium paying customers. There’s also a mindset out there of legitimising fraudulent travel from a conscience perspective along the lines of “well it’s the least they could do to let me travel here given that the service has been so consistently poor”.

There for the grace of God went I perhaps and lucky for me that when I was in a TOC environment, fewer folk had mobile phones, most didn’t have cameras on them and even if they did, they weren’t used casually as they are today. And Twitter didn’t exist back then nor the multitude of media outlets with space that needs filling, real-time as well. There’s no way the Mark Boon story would have been captured – the worst we had was British Rail manager Terry Worrall talking about the “wrong kind of snow”, a comment which was taken out of context and used to make a mug of a respected railway manager.

The real weakness for the industry is the lack of training and coaching it gives to all managers both in how they conduct themselves when on the network and also how to be resilient during adversity. I wouldn’t even wish to imagine how soul-sapping it must be to be a manager at GTR, after all they have been through. What advice, if any, are they giving their chiefs, at all levels, about how they need to watch every word, every tweet and also how to switch off when they finish their working day? With 24/7 emails, texts and conference calls, coupled with the mutterings of those at pubs and parties along the lines of “he works at that train company that has ruined our lives”, can they ever genuinely have an untroubled personal life?

There are psychologists in sport, perhaps they should be deployed to support and counsel beleaguered managers. Are you are telling me that Charles Horton would not have been mentally and emotionally unaffected by all he went through, let alone his frontline managers bearing the brunt of it each day from disaffected customers and morale-sapped staff?

Back to Boon and what we do know is that I wasn’t alone in my view that he is customer-focused. A follow-up article revealed that until five years ago he was running an award-winning fish and chip shop in Finchley where customers travelled far and wide to enjoy his food and customer service. He is reported to have handed out his business card to passengers. This could be viewed as a professional approach, possibly offering them the chance to discuss the situation further with him in a more controlled and dispassionate environment where he could explain the rationale of his stance. Or it could be seen as slightly officious and authoritarian – perhaps the policeman of old seeping through ever so slightly. Or maybe, like other managers, often the middle-ranking ones, he just dealt with it a little ham-fistedly.

I’ve observed transport managers on the patch and sometimes it makes me wince

I’ve observed transport managers on the patch and sometimes it makes me wince. Some put on oddly gushing, stage-managed, stilted patronising voices, trying to be all smarm and charm as if to prove they can “do customer service” and trying to draw other observers towards them in a kind of “aren’t I great?” way, before reverting to their normal conversational self with colleagues.

Then, of course, we have the one-dimensional managers who are literally willing you to make some so-called “offensive” (but in reality completely innocuous) comment such that they can say “I’m not here to take your personal abuse and will no longer be helping you” – thereby enabling them to conveniently abdicate any responsibility to deal with the situation and help the customer. Others managers come across as bossy, whilst many just hide.

I’ve also seen a tendency – and it’s worse in the bus sector – for managers to only want to travel on their network en masse. When you ask them if they travel on their services, they say things like: “Once a quarter as an exec team we go out and spend a day together on buses,” before with genuine innocence, as though they’ve just stumbled across some incredible phenomenon, they say, “it was amazing, the things we saw and learned, Alex”. There’s no real sense that they habitually or casually hop on and off their trains or buses.

Quite often, I’ve seen groups of senior managers travel to and from meetings and be so utterly engrossed in their own company, that their carriage could have been overtaken by nudists waving “travel by car instead” and they wouldn’t even notice a thing. There’s little sense of managers out on the network, with the sole intention of actively seeking out shortcomings in their proposition and having processes to rectify them, or just being on trains and buses determined to engage with customers and staff.

Mind you, it’s not as bad as one senior director in our industry who I spoke to a few months ago who said: “Look mate, I don’t really like travelling by public transport, I try to avoid it -not my thing really.”

Transport managers are walking a tightrope. Everyone is ready to pounce on them at the slightest opportunity and misrepresent their behaviour

So, what do we take from all this? The Mark Boon story is the tip of the iceberg really, also seen with Northern Rail’s regional director, Liam Sumpter, being exposed in the media for his caring too much tweets that descended into a very public spat with customers. Transport managers are walking a tightrope. Everyone is ready to pounce on them at the slightest opportunity and misrepresent their behaviour.

Media training isn’t enough, they need coaching and support in self-awareness skills, being on show to customers and emotional resilience. Most of all, I suspect that if you spoke privately to whole swathes of employees across each of the troubled transport organisations right now, many need professional help around their capacity to cope mentally. I’ve seen enough glimpses from all parts of the industry in the last few months of individuals that are not in a particularly good frame of mind or in control of their own feelings – and this needs urgently addressing.

 

VERDICT

Mark Boon’s one of the good guys – customer-focused to the core and a credit to his employer. It’s sad and wrong that he, of all people, is portrayed as the epitome of all the customer service ills of the rail industry during its recent travails. Boon and others need help right now and this is a priority that cannot be glossed over in the desire to focus on the basics of getting trains to run on time and profitably so.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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