Train operators worked out early on just how useful social media could be as a tool for communicating with passengers.

Only recently, I lost my wallet on a train. It’s a familiar nightmare scenario which this modern communication channel is helping to resolve. Social media provides an extra point of contact for passengers. We can now check to see if it has been found and ask the operator directly where it might be.

YouTube turned 10 in February. Twitter will celebrate its first decade in business next year as well and Facebook has only recently passed the same milestone. It shows just how quickly social media has grown.

Social media is used as a commercial tool to promote ticket sales and offers, but its value lies in carrying real-time information about delays and cancellations. Social media and improved compatibility with mobile devices has made it much easier for operators to get information to passengers wherever they might be.

Twitter in particular has allowed operators to begin a direct dialogue with passengers and respond instantly to queries and complaints. The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has been monitoring this. The regulator believes social media could be a factor in the overall downward trend in complaints. Social media allows operators to explain to passengers why their train is late and can satisfy a frustrated passenger who may have otherwise written a formal letter of complaint to the company.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The problem for the ORR is that traditional ways of measuring complaints don’t really work with social media. That is why the ORR is meeting with TOCs to try and identify a way they can reliably capture and analyse the thousands of messages being posted online every day.

Another important role of social media for the ORR is how it allows TOCs to provide passengers with vital information when there is disruption on the network. There is one downside though. ‘Not everybody is on social media, not everyone is using a smart phone,’ said Ankeeta Munsi, corporate communications and digital engagement manager at the ORR. Although the trend is moving toward the use of social media, the difficulty lies in predicting how technology may change in the next five to 10 years.

In a paper published last year, the ORR highlighted some social media successes. One example came from South West Trains which had responded to a tweet about a broken passenger information screen at a station by first fixing the screen and then telling the passenger who sent the original tweet to ‘look up’. But a good social media presence is becoming the standard practice not the exception. Passengers presume that operators have manned Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Ankeeta believes that good social media engagement is now just part of everyday life for operators. ‘Passengers expect real-time information and transparency, because technology now allows it in other aspects of daily life.’

However, there is one big problem social media poses for train operators. When trains are late or cancelled, disgruntled passengers often take to Twitter or Facebook to vent. Public dissatisfaction has never been so public and if not properly handled, what may have been a well thought out communications strategy can quickly turn into a PR disaster.

Sophie Denton, a social media manager at Virgin Trains, believes social media is becoming a central part of Virgin’s customer service strategy. ‘We’ve established the biggest Twitter following in the rail industry in a pretty short space of time, which is a great achievement,’ says Sophie.

‘It’s completely transformed what we do and how we interact with a lot of our customers. A few years ago, the main points of contact could be getting your ticket checked, going through the station or to the onboard shop. Now we can answer questions in a few minutes when the train manager might be two carriages away.’

She added, ‘The great thing about the job is that every day is different and you never quite know what you’re going to come to work to find. On a daily basis, I deal with everything from delays and complaints to advice on journeys, and banter with our customers who just want to have a bit of a chat during the day. ‘We’ve seen some amazing examples of what can be done on Twitter, including the infamous ‘Poogate’ saga where we helped one customer who was stuck in a toilet without loo roll. But there’s so much that goes on every day under the radar that this just touches the surface. I think it’s made a big difference to our ability to improve customers’ journeys and we’re proud to do this in a very Virgin way.’

Analysis

The increasingly important role Twitter plays for train operators was highlighted in a report commissioned by Commute London, a team of rail industry researchers who analyse passenger tweets real time to identify issues on the network. Using a clever sentiment analysis algorithm the team were able to identify the main issues that are leading to passengers directing their tweets at train operators. Unsurprisingly the three main reasons were cancellations, overcrowding and delays.

Commute London suggested that operators should use social media channels to create more of a dialogue with customers and crucially to use the data gathered to inform the whole business. Some operators are already doing this. Northern has said that it analyses its social media interactions daily.

The report didn’t just focus on what operators need to do better, however. Its final recommendation was to passengers, urging them to use sites like Twitter and Facebook to provide constructive feedback to train operators and not just for a moan.

In the end, my wallet was retrieved through a more traditional method, thanks to a helpful ticket barrier guard who rang the next station down and asked if they would scour the carriages for it. But social media played its part. A few minutes after messaging the operator, London Midland, I was given a list of phone numbers for all the stations where it could have made its way to. Social media may not be a substitute for actually having a member of staff in front of you but it gives passengers confidence that there is always someone available to listen and help.

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