Hardly a day goes by without someone coming up to me and saying: ‘John, I am one of your many, many followers on the various Social Networks you update daily, and I have to ask – why do you go on about Chiltern Railways so much?’. Ok, maybe not every day. Well it’s happened once. And that was my wife who isn’t even on Twitter. Anyway, I’m sure it would happen if I had more followers, or more people used Google+, and I mentioned Chiltern Railways more than I do.
Either way, here’s the confession – I love Chiltern Railways. Now if you’re reading this outside of the UK you might not understand why this is a big thing. You might say ‘surely all train companies are equally efficient, providing exceptional service with pin-point timing accuracy for a reasonable price?’ Not quite. In fact, over here the opposite is usually true – over-crowded, unclean trains, picking and choosing which services to run like a Yahoo employee deciding which Daytime TV Channel to watch, and patrolled by militant train guards with joy in their eyes as they hand you a £57 ticket for the privilege of standing on a patch of bare carpet between the First Class carriages, accompanied by the smell of an broken toilet and the constant question of ‘Are you in the queue?’
Or maybe that’s just First Great Western.
So let’s get the boring bits about Chiltern Railways out of the way first. Their trains run on time. The carriages are clean. It’s easy to get a seat. The prices are reasonable in comparison. Their Twitter feed is excellent. And London Marylebone station, where the trains arrive, has a Speciality Cheese shop (which can dangerous when you have 20 minutes to spare after a Christmas party…). All in all, they do what they need to do, and they do it well. They get the basics right.
That’s not why I love them though. The big difference with Chiltern to other train providers, and in fact to most other companies, comes down to one thing – personality. At Christmas, they filled Marylebone station with staff members dressed as Elves, giving out mince pies and offering to help people with luggage onto their trains, knowing that there would be travellers heading to family for the festivities. The year before, they enlisted Tony Robinson to reprise his role as Baldrick to voice over the train announcements, with frequent references to Turnips. Their regular meet-the-manager events, usually dull affairs with all involved being uncomfortable at having to wear a name-badge, are livened up by free drinks and food, and an honest exchange of views.
In fairness, all of the above examples could be out down to clever marketing. In fact, it’s fashionable to talk about Companies having to be ‘human’, engaging with their customers on their level and showing that they’re really quite nice. Most companies struggle with this though, focussing on gimmicks and shock tactics but never shaking that underlying feeling that they don’t really mean it.
So why isn’t this the case for Chiltern Railways? Quite simply, the personality they show in those larger events can be seen in a daily basis, suggesting that the culture within the company is one of genuinely caring about their customers, employing people who share their passion, and who don’t hide behind rules and regulations. The staff are always friendly, always polite, and seem to really care.
Their train drivers seem relaxed – one once announced when pulling in to Seer Green Station during a typical British day ‘if you run quick, you’ll miss the next monsoon’. Another, when confronted by the electronic on-board announcer going haywire, suggesting on the intercom that ‘our PA system has woken up on the wrong side of bed today – I’ll give it a kick’.
And my personal favourite was when I tweeted to say that: ‘Just been to the meet the managers event for @chilternrailways to tell them how good they are – worried that makes me a train geek’, they replied: ‘Thanks, but you’re right, that is rather worrying…’ None of these examples show a company whose staff are afraid to be themselves, or who are following strict policies and procedures for ‘being nice to customers’.
For any company to be truly customer-centric, the culture has to be right – a real belief that the customer comes first throughout the organisation, allowing people to bring their personality to work and the company trusting that they’ll do the right thing. This isn’t easy to achieve – it’s not a project or a business case – but something that builds up over time, with strong leadership and intolerance for average. Culture is the way things are done, at every level of an organisation – and is the most powerful asset any company can possess.
I nearly forget to mention the best thing about Chiltern Railways – they don’t have to do it. I, like most other rail passengers in the UK, have no choice. There is only one trainline I can take to get in to work, so if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be able to just switch to a competitor or hand back my ticket. I’d have to put up with it – they don’t really have to try. But given that I spend roughly 400 hours a year on their trains, I’m really grateful that they do…
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