Friday 12 February 2010

Will Eurostar communicate better in future?

As one of those who was affected by the Eurostar saga in December, albeit in a less extreme way than those trapped in trains or tunnels, I'm pleased to see today's recommendations from their independent review being accepted. The report itself is in places a jaw-dropping saga of incompetence and ineptitude that makes the reports at the time seem remarkably understated. In particular, take this charming description of what happened to one stranded train from Paris in the early hours of the morning of 19 December:

During this period, the toilet facilities quickly became unpleasant. There were only 10 toilets – six in the single shuttle and four on the lower deck of the double deck shuttle. Although Eurotunnel provided some additional toilet paper, they did not clean or empty the toilets, which were overflowing....This led to passengers designating one carriage as an open toilet area. Passengers have no recollection of any senior member of Eurostar or Eurotunnel staff, or other authorities, other than the three medically trained FLOR staff, walking though the shuttle to see how the 650+ passengers were, or to provide explanation or instructions.

It also strongly bears out my experiences with the lack of timely information. To say that better communications with customers and in the tunnel are clearly essential is an understatement. They need staff who know what they are doing. I blogged at the time about the utter uselessness of their website in providing practical information during the chaos - we were due to travel early on 22 December and chose to fly to Cologne from Stansted instead. It took some weeks before they explained clearly the compensation they would provide to passengers like me who had booked alternative flights and accommodation with no guarantee of reimbursement. I am pleased to report that I have now received refunds and good communications by email about the refund process.

But today's report sets out the scale of communications inadequacy - all of it entirely avoidable with today's media:

Passengers were often instructed to call the customer line or visit the website for more information but then found these to be totally inadequate.The call centre hours were slightly extended in the evening..Beyond this there was no ‘out of hours’ provision. The staffing levels were not able to cope with demand....For passengers calling from abroad using mobile phones this was unacceptable and many feared incurring large phone bills. The website was updated with basic information regarding the disruption, but customers felt that updates were slow and insufficient. Whilst the advice not to travel was communicated clearly, there was no information or advice on alternative transport or accommodation. Customers have also complained that information was not sufficiently prominent on the homepage (making it especially difficult for those using handheld devices to access updates). Indeed, the homepage layout was not amended until midday on Monday 21st , when content other than the disruption message and booking engine was removed. Some email communications were sent to customers, but not until the Monday. There was no facility for providing text updates to passengers. Overall, the information about alternative methods of transport was poor. No real facility was established for sharing contact numbers and timetables for ferries, trains or airlines. There was also a lack of clarity regarding validity of Eurostar tickets on trains and ferries. In fact, this had not been officially arranged and although some train companies did honour Eurostar tickets, many other passengers were forced to buy new tickets. Over the initial period of disruption, on the Saturday in particular, there was uncertainty over compensation and what costs would be reimbursed (e.g. for hotels, transport and other expenses such as meals).

I hope that it is not just Eurostar that learns the lessons from this saga, but on communicating with passengers, it is vital that they are learned by airports and airlines, and other rail and sea operators too. We booked Eurostar in December, ironically, to avoid the chaos we experienced at Heathrow two years before. In both cases, it was not the disruption that was the biggest problem, but it was the lack of proper information about what was happening and how to access alternatives. Communication is key.

1 comment:

Andrew Thomas, publisher of Communicate magazine said...

Interestingly, from a communication perspective, one of the recommendations in the review is that Eurostar “should also consider new forms of communication, such as Twitter and Facebook, to keep passengers updated”. What the review doesn't say is that they were using these forms of communication (and others such as youtube). Unfortunately they were being used by the marketing department rather than by anyone with a corporate or crisis communications remit and therefore the responses were wholly inadequate. We documented the saga in Communicate magazine, and the remarkable thing is that, for a relatively young company, they were wholly unprepared for the speed and ferocity that comes with the newer forms of media.