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I have just spoken about service recovery at Henley Business School, using proven operational insights from the hospitality sector, including the Walt Disney Company. One of my central messages was that great service recovery only happens when organisations are highly intentional about enabling and empowering their staff to see a person as a human being, and not just resolve an issue.

Treating customers with respect begins with creating clear boundaries

Treating customers with respect, and in a way that is more important than the issue itself, begins with implementing an overarching internal framework. A framework is the best way to connect everybody, irrespective of seniority or job title, with the needs of customers. It is the best way to establish consistent behavioural boundaries, at the same time as empowering everybody to be flexible, spontaneous, and personalised. An overarching framework that everybody uses enables the maximum delegation of authority, which is key to effective service recovery.

My daughter recently arrived home incensed by the way Virgin Trains East Coast mistreated a fellow passenger, so over to her to describe the experience:

 A ticket inspector had not been empowered to be flexible, spontaneous and personalised

As a Durham graduate, the Virgin Trains’ East Coast line is a well-worn route for me. Three hours when normally I can engross myself in a novel, but during my latest journey to London the peace was interrupted by a noisy argument a few rows in front of me.

 An elderly man, probably in his mid-eighties, had accidentally stumbled onto the wrong train. Misreading his ticket he boarded a train at Newcastle station that was half an hour earlier than the time printed on his ticket. Realising his mistake too late, a sympathetic member of the station staff, rather than take him off the train, had accompanied him to an unreserved seat.

 The ticket inspector was trying to charge the elderly man for his mistake, which sparked an argument with two other passengers who also boarded at Newcastle and had stood up to defend the vulnerable person. They had witnessed the whole event and even tried to help the man off at Durham but being old, the train doors had shut too soon. The elderly man was also confused, as neither could he remember being escorted onto the train, nor could he read the credit card machine screen, so I wonder whether he even knew how much he was being forced to pay.

 Soon, several people began shouting at the ticket inspector, telling him how unfair it was to treat a customer this way, particularly a vulnerable one. The ticket inspector coldly replied that he was just following Virgin Trains procedure, adding that if the elderly man had a complaint he could contact Customer Services after the journey, a futile comment considering the man’s bewildered and forgetful state. My fellow passengers and I were justifiably appalled at how unapologetic the ticket inspector was, and how he unashamedly manipulated and exploited a vulnerable person. How he unnecessarily and inflexibly prioritised impersonal company rules over humanity and common sense.

 The customer had already paid for his ticket, he wasn’t trying his luck for a free journey, so Virgin Trains’ pitiful financial gain from his honest mistake will be surely outweighed by the bad feeling and negative word of mouth of a carriage of angry passengers.

“When things don’t go according to plan we put them right quickly” promises a Virgin Trains East Coast Customer Commitment. My next article will report how we tried to speak to the Customer Solutions, the Journey Care and finally the Media Centre teams, and how Virgin Trains responded to this service failure.