Customer Service in a Septic Isle: Part Two

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article was published in the Sunday Island on October 23, 2022.

A man waiting in a bus queue is anxious about an aggressive, unleashed dog who is continually barking at him and intimidating him. He says to the man next to him in the queue, “Does your dog bite?” “Naah,” says the man. At this point, the dog bites the first man savagely on the calf. “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” “Not my dog, mate.”

The Land of the Shifting Buck

In Part One I described how our silver anniversary excursion was marred by having to stand for the whole of our train journey and then being locked out of our apartment in Bath.

It was only after we had boarded the train at Paddington that we discovered that the train had been reduced from nine coaches to five and that all seat reservations had been cancelled. We had to stand in a crowded corridor for the entire journey of two and a half hours with unmasked people breathing in our faces. If we had been told before boarding that the train was being truncated we could have made the informed decision to wait for the next train as we were only committed to the 14.02 because of our seat reservations which were now void.  There are normally 52 trains per day travelling from London Paddington to Bath Spa.

Not My Dog, Mate

The “train manager” (in my far-off youth, they were called “conductors”) was apologising for the inconvenience throughout the entire agonising journey and advising passengers to seek a refund from GWR (Great Western Railways). I claimed a refund but was not surprised when GWR said compensation was not their responsibility. “We’re unable to process a refund for a ticket that wasn’t bought from GWR. If you bought your tickets via another retailer, you will need to contact them directly. I can see from the tickets you attached, that it was purchased via Trainline, so you would have to submit a refund via the Trainline website for unused tickets by following the link below.”

My situation exemplified the great Ponzi Scheme that is privatisation, the fragmentation of public services and the evasion of responsibilities to the public that comes with outsourcing. Trainline (which, I believe started as a Branson company) said: “Sorry, this booking cannot be cancelled or refunded. This could be because of fare type, validity period or expiry.” There seems to be no way of contacting Trainline to get a clarification of this gnomic utterance. It does not seem possible to discuss the specifics of the situation with an individual human being. Entities morph into each other and span the globe in impregnable hidey-holes.

Private Eye (21 October 2022 issue) reports that a traveller who had been buying tickets monthly from Trainline for 20 years wished to end the arrangement after being issued and billed for three tickets instead of one. Trainline refused to refund. They confirmed receiving his special delivery package which had gone to its “refunds department”. Then, they claimed he had not posted his “physical tickets” and refused to accept photos of the tickets they had lost. They were, they averred, bound by rail-industry policies “beyond our control”. As former Nazis used to say, “I was only obeying orders.”

Complete and Utter

After our trip, I started receiving letters from a company called Complete Savings. I ignored them at first because I had never heard of them and thought it must be scam. The letters said that they had tried contacting my email address without success. I had no record of this. I check my junk mail frequently. When I saw that they had taken £15 from my account I decided I needed to contact them. This is the reply I got:  “We confirm receipt of your request. We are currently receiving a high volume of queries and it may take us up to 7 working days to respond to your email. We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and can assure you we are doing our best to get back to you as soon as possible.”

I waited well over seven days without getting a reply, so I wrote again. This was the reply: “Our records show that you or someone with access to your credit/debit card completed an online transaction with Trainline. After your transaction, you were offered the opportunity to join the Complete Savings programme with a £16.87 cash back voucher and a 30 day free trial. Immediately next to the offer, the offer and Billing Details were displayed. By entering your name, postal code, selecting the relevant postal address from the drop down list, inserting your credit or debit card details and then clicking on the ‘yes’ button to accept the offer, you authorised us to charge the monthly membership fee of £15 to the credit card or debit card that was provided after your free trial period ended.”

I did indeed buy tickets from Trainline but have no recollection of agreeing to anything else. I got my £15 back. There is a popular programme on TV called “Rip-Off Britain” which features mostly elderly victims complaining about the spivs who have been cheating them. The spivs go on to be ministers.

Never Explain, Never Apologise

Common sense suggests that GWR should bear the responsibility. It was GWR, not Trainline, that cut the train from nine coaches to five. Trainline is just an intermediary that brokered the ticket sale. GWR has operational responsibility for physically running the material entities that we know in common parlance as “trains”. It was GWR that failed to keep us informed of the situation which led to the truncation of the train. This all shows an appalling, but not surprising, contempt for the paying customer.

Rail workers are currently striking to counter the effect of inflation on their wages as they struggle to meet their energy and housing costs. John Major did to the railways of Britain what he did to Edwina Curry.

Government ministers have the Galle Face to blame the rail unions for the fragmentation of rail services and maintenance that was solely caused by government policy of privatisation and outsourcing. The GWR “train manager” gave industrial action as the reason for shortening the train. This is what will come to be categorised as a “Liz Truss apology” or a “Priti Patel apology”. The sub-text is that we should be grateful that GWR had gone to so much trouble not to disappoint us by cancelling the train altogether. The railways used to be run for the benefit of the travelling public. They are now run for the profit of dividend holders. Mick Lynch of the rail union is the one with the rational arguments.

Railway Company Condemns Trafficking

When I applied for a refund, I received a communication from GWR which said at the bottom “My pronouns are she, her and hers.”  There is also some virtue-signalling guff about “working together to end domestic abuse”. GWR is part of an international conglomerate known as FirstGroup plc. In FirstGroup’s mission statement it says: “At FirstGroup we are committed to conducting our relationships to the highest ethical and moral standards and acting with integrity and professionalism in all our activities. This is in line with our corporate values and the expectations of our colleagues, customers and other stakeholders. It includes the prevention of modern slavery and human trafficking in all its forms and extends to all business dealings and transactions in which we are involved, regardless of location or sector.” Blahderdash. Bluuuurgh!

I am proud to be politically correct or “woke” if that means sensitivity to others. Widespread use of the term politically correct began as a pejorative term suggesting the Stalinist orthodoxy of left wingers. The red-faced, ranting right claimed sole ownership of Common Sense. All else was mere ideology. The term Political Correctness, used by the right, means “excessive deference to particular sensibilities at the expense of other considerations”. The term “politically incorrect” came into use as implicit self-praise by the Gammon class, indicating that the user was not afraid to speak plainly. Some might say they were just rude and insensitive.

I am against sin. Domestic violence is a bad thing and should be prevented or punished. Slavery and human trafficking are to be abhorred. The human trafficking in which a railway company should be interested is that which involves getting me and other paying customers from A to B, or in this particular instance, from London Paddington to Bath Spa, on time, in reasonable comfort and at a fair price. GWR failed to do that for me and their stance on domestic violence, modern slavery and pronouns is of no relevance to my situation.

“Rail experts say that the government has serially ignored FirstGroup’s failures, and carried on handing it fees and favours it simply doesn’t deserve. ” John Harris in the Guardian.“The recent history of Britain’s trains is much the same as that of the country itself: a hare-brained plunge into privatisation and crony capitalism, followed by endless underinvestment, chronic short-termism and that achingly familiar approach to industrial relations that regards partnership and consensus as suited only to wimps. Worse still, as with so many of the constituent parts of everyday British life, the pandemic delivered a shock from which the system shows no signs of any convincing recovery. The World Economic Forum now places the UK 29th in its global rankings for the quality of its railways, in between Kazakhstan and India. Compared with the rest of western Europe, what we now have to put up with is not just unacceptable. It is not normal.”

I used to enjoy travelling by train. Privatisation has made it a nightmare. Stuart Maconie writes in his book, The Nanny State Made Me: “Arriving at the station, I was dismayed though not surprised to see my train cancelled ‘due to staff shortages’. ‘Oh, it’s not really shortages,’ said an employee who I shall not name or describe. ‘It never runs. It’s cancelled every week for the same reason, as if it’s an unforeseen problem.’”

Like GWR, Avanti comes under the FirstGroup umbrella. Passengers who have no choice but to use Avanti have suffered greatly. “There were pregnant ladies lying on the floor in the corridors to try and be near the breeze because they were overheating. ​​You couldn’t get into the toilets. Some men were having to urinate in empty Pringles pots.” Jas Taylor, 23 said, “People think it’s acceptable to sit on my wheelchair, or lean against me, finding any space between the wheels or pressing against my back to slide in or store their cases,” they say. “It’s a consistent experience for me when I travel now. It has made me very scared and upset to take the train.”

A direct 190-mile, three-hour journey from the capital turned into an 11-hour epic requiring three Avanti trains. Problems with the power lines left 450 other passengers trapped inside for four hours, without food, water or air conditioning, just past Milton Keynes. Avanti West Coast, which is in line to receive a seven-figure performance bonus despite abandoning proportionately more journeys than any other operator.

Rail cancellations have reached their highest level on record with more than 314,000 trains fully or partly cancelled across Great Britain in a year

The Customer Is the Enemy

I used to write monthly columns on customer service for two Sri Lankan business magazines and a Gripe Corner for a Sunday newspaper. A common theme of the cases I dealt with was corporate hogwash, systems designed to deter the complainant and a tendency to blame the customer. “The customer is always right” used to be the motto. These days it is “nobody else has had a problem. It must be something about you.”

A new weapon in the spivs’ armoury is the smart phone. In the past, organisations as big as Amazon would be quite blasé about believing the aggrieved customer and refunding large amounts of money, but today one is asked to provide screen shots and photos over complaints relating to footling amounts. Jeff Bezos has enough money to fly into space in his own vehicle why would he be bothered about refunding the cost of a bottle broken in transit? We live in a world dominated by apps and it is difficult for appless, hapless people who are not tech-savvy to negotiate it. The strategy is to debilitate by delay until the customer gives up – or dies.

Something that I found amusing – I have a warped sense of humour. The group of which my rental company was a member asked me to provide a review of the accommodation. I provided a balanced and fair assessment, listing the many positive aspects of our stay. I felt duty bound to mention the problems we encountered, mainly the fairly big thing of our joining the homeless of Bath (I have commissioned a statue of myself) because we were locked out of the apartment that we had paid good money for, but some other mundane issues also. My review was posted on the website with the negative aspects omitted.

I wrote to the rail Ombudsman complaining about GWR, but, to date, have not received even an acknowledgement. The UK’s new prime minister is calling for more growth and proposes further deregulation. It was not too much regulation that got the country into its present parlous state. Customers are likely to get even less protection in the future. I wrote to my excellent Labour MP, Steve Reed, and he got me an apology from the Managing Director of GWR and a full refund. I look forward to the day when Steve becomes Minister of Justice. There is a shortage of justice in Britain today.

“Have you got a photo or a screenshot to prove what you allege? Otherwise you must be a liar.” No admittance of fault. Deniability. Circle the wagons. Repel all boarders. How do we blindside the customer?