XFactor Heralds Month of Nonsense

Sat here on the train on the way back from antoher Friday drinks session with Anna, Chris, Helen and Anthony and the easy thing to blog about would be our conversatios about the Norwich accent and the general ephemera of life around Norfolk’s country town. But I’ll dare to be different. This time I’ll get cerebral. The prose might not be the best I’ve ever produced but the benefits of a few pints and a bit of iTunes shuffle should mean there’s some coherence to my rthoughts.

Laura mentioned today at work that the new series of Xfactor starts on Saturday night. Worryingly I had no awareness. I prided myself on the fact that I’d avoided Big Brother this year. Don’t get me wrong, having watched four seasons of it, I was b ound to pick up an idea of what was going on and who the major players swere but I had no real understanding of each member of the house. I was amazed really at my own nonchalence. This was only ever challenged at the vweekends duering the eviction shows. Anyway, I watch Xfactor only for the voyeuristic enjoyment of watching peculiar Britons exposing there tragic lack of talent in a faceless conference room at a second-rate hotel. That’s what’s so appealing about Saturday’s show. Not the thought that we’ll stumble across some amazing vocal talent or the glitzy production and backstage gossip but the feeling that your watching someone hurl themselves at the pages of Closer/Heat/Now with everything they’ve got. You see the thing is these woeful wannabees used to be a sideshow as we romped towards the reveal of the final contestents. These days the tragicomic warblings of the socially outcast are the main attraction for the first few weeks. Surely we can expect literally minutes of ITV2 and GMTV footage to be devoted to the poorly costumed, vocally challenged and socially inept of society in the next few weeks.

These shows invariably now take a turn for the worse as we tumble inexorably toward the Christmas climax in a studio of Coke-addled pre-teens presided over by a perma-tanned Kate Thornton. You ended up pinning your colours to the mast of one act in the vain hope that it will say something about your musical taste and social class at the the coffee machine in the office on Monday. “I like Steve, he can hold anote and seems to be quite diverse in his output”. Bollocks. You can’t identify with the camp-as-christmas interior designer from Hitchin and the urban funk of Chantelle from Streatham seem to have passed you by, the middle class nu-soul of Steve is safe and at least you recognise some of his act.
By Sunday we’ll have an idea of where this show is headed. Is it destined to be the awkward second series or does the amount of dross.


one opportunity to shine ... missed

Another bit of dialogue between myself and one ...

Email to Customer Relations

Dear Sirs,

A quick enquiry as to your revenue protection strategy, otherwise known as fare enforcement.

For the past two weeks I’ve noticed a particularly irritating trend. Passengers boarding the train at Ipswich without tickets and then waiting for the conductor to ask them for a ticket before buying a single to Stowmarket … as the conductor takes time to do the rounds they are being asked to pay for their tickets just as the train arrives in Stowmarket. They then concoct a story about ‘are you sure that’s the price’ or similar and as this takes enough time they have to leave the train for their stop before a ticket can be issued. Even if they get their ticket, I can’t help but feel that should be charged a penalty fare.

I always understood that you need a ticket to travel, in fact, you should need at least a ticket-to-ride before stepping on to the platform (a so-called ‘compulsory ticket area’). On commuting lines in the south east and in many other areas there are revenue protection barriers – Colchester seems to be the last point on the one line where these are used. Surely improving your revenue protection will increase your income and enable you to invest in more station and service improvements? Why is it that idiots like those doing the shuttle-run to Stowmarket are so able to get away with cheating you out of revenue and (by implication) increasing the need to raise standard fares to compensate.

I know there is a cost implication for barriers – as a commuter on the South Eastern lines from Kent a few years ago, Connex produced a figure to show the cost per barrier and per member of staff to supervise these barriers. This cost I recall seemed more than manageable when taken into consideration with the fares being lost by customers evading them at unmanned stations or by duping the conductors such as is happening daily on one.

The occasional ‘show of force’ that one put in place every couple of months with inspections at Norwich and Ipswich stations does little to deter people. Again, the public know they could arrive at the station and just pay the fare with no penalty. If we all just ‘took a chance’ then we’d only ever have to pay 50% of the time and, even then, only to/from the nearest stations.

One is lagging far behind in modernising its practises. A new ‘virtual assistant’ on the website is going to do nothing to improve journeys on the line, more money in your coffers from dishonest travellers definitely would.

Please explain.

Yours sincerely,
John Gibbard

Email from Customer Relations
reference: 143988

Dear Mr Gibbard,

Thank you for your recent email.

Ticket inspection is carried out by Revenue Protection Inspectors (RPIs) on a 'spot check' basis - both at stations and on trains.

We do not aim to have an RPI on every train: indeed, it would not be cost effective to do so. However, the fact that we operate a Penalty Fare system and have automatic ticket gates at eight of our busiest stations is sufficient to deter a substantial amount of fraudulent travel. However I have passed you comments to the Revenue Protection Team based at Norwich who are responsible for this service.

Since 1992, the level of ticketless travel has been reduced from approximately 4% to about 1.2% - although this still represents a significant loss of revenue on an annual turnover of over £300m.

Although I am sure you will appreciate it is not possible to eliminate fraud altogether, all revenue protection data is analysed by computer so we can identify and target specific trains and stations where there is a higher risk of revenue loss. Also, we are always willing to follow up on specific reports from passengers who have believe that someone is travelling fraudulently. Such information is, of course, treated confidentially.

I hope these comments reassure you that we do make serious efforts to protect our revenue.

Yours sincerely,
xxxx, Customer Relations Advisor

Email to Customer Relations
Reference: 143988

xxxx, I'm afraid your response is rather disappointing. It appears you only read my email in a cursory manor and sent something like a stock response which read more like a corporate statement than an attempt to address specific concerns.

You, rather optimistically state: "the fact that we operate a Penalty Fare system and have automatic ticket gates at eight of our busiest stations is sufficient to deter a substantial amount of fraudulent travel" However my issue in the original mail was that the penalty fare was not being charged. When the conductor on the service discovers someone without a ticket they are invited to pay the standard open single fare and allowed to continue their journey. Whilst this is the most expensive fare it is, in the case of the travelers to Stowmarket I mentioned, just £3.20 and therefore hardly a deterrent. Likewise, there is little to stop me traveling to Norwich from Ipswich without a ticket and, on arrival at Norwich if presented with a spot-check, simply paying the price of a single from Diss. Granted I may be approached by a conductor on the train but it would pose no problem for me to ask for a ticket from the most recent station. The point I am trying to make is that every passenger should have a ticket before travel. If it is discovered they do not have one when already traveling they should be charged a penalty fare on top of the ticket price.

How much would it cost to install barriers at the mainline stops at Ipswich and Norwich? Ipswich has one major platform exit and that could easily be served by 6 barriers in the ticket hall. Norwich could have 4 or 5 per platform. As most people North of Colchester are traveling to these hub stations it makes perfect sense to install barriers here. Doing so would be a highly visible deterrent and make the opportunistic fraudulent traveler almost extinct. Granted, it would not solve the short-trip fraud I've witnessed in recent weeks between Ipswich and Stowmarket but it does send the signal that one are more serious about ticketless travel.
John Gibbard

Email from Customer Relations
Reference: 143988
Dear Mr Gibbard

Thank your for you email, although I am sorry if you were disappointed with my response.

Although my reply was certainly the company stance regarding Revenue Protection, I can assure you that we do take concerns such as those you raised very seriously. I also stated in my reply that I would send a copy of your e mail to the Revenue Protection Team at Norwich responsible for the route.

You are right when you state that to travel, a valid ticket should be held (with a few exceptions applicable ie unmanned stations). As a company it is certainly in ours and fare paying passengers interests to maintain a constant revue as to how effective our current methods of revenue collection are. Although any alteration in the scheme that we currently operate would have to be agreed by the Strategic Rail Authority.

Once again. I can confirm that your concerns have been forwarded to the relevant department and thank you for contacting me.

Kind regards

Email to Customer Relations
reference: 143988


Once again I appreciate you taking the time to write to me and once again I have to smile at your complete avoidance of the issue of penalty fares. My point is simply that your policy (which, if you are unfamiliar is available on your website at http://www.onerailway.com/contents/download/penalty-fares.pdf) states that you'll be charged a penalty fare "if you travel on a penalty fare train from a penalty fare station without a valid ticket for your entire rail journey, ‘Permit to Travel’ or other authorisation." I have since discovered from this that the section from Ipswich to Norwich is not a penalty fare route. This answers my question and would have been the simplest way to rebut my response. Of course, it does raise another question, "why is this route not a Penalty Fare route?" and I believe you may have answered this in a previous email with some reference to statistics on fare avoidance/evasion.

It might surprise you to know xxxx, that you can not know how many people are travelling without tickets on this section of the line as by virtue of the fact they are avoiding fares they avoid any opportunity for 'one' to collect statistics - no-one from 'one' is standing at Norwich or on the train saying "no ticket? Ok, thanks for letting us know, I'll note that down for our statistics".

So, to finish up, I re-assert that 'one' are incompetently missing a trick by not being diligent with revenue protection in the apparently 'lawless' wilds of North Suffolk and Norfolk. Combine this with my earlier correspondence surrounding a fire on the train in May, the broken air conditioning, regular delays and rolling stock from the 1970s and you've got an over-priced shambolic regional train operator that no-one in this region has any right to be proud of.

Don't worry xxxx, I'm not after a response as I think I've pretty much exhausted the talents of your customer liaison team and will revert to writing to other people to moan about why the burgers in McDonalds don't resemble the pictures and why my Blue Nun comes with a screw top and not a cork. I'm sure you'll understand how busy this keeps me.


Lance in the Bush

Well, technically, ‘Lance in the Bush Ranch’ but then that doesn’t make a good headline. What does make a good headline is “Rabid Rabbi Runs Amok” which was what a paper in Dunstable recently ran with after, surprisingly, a rabid Rabbi did indeed run amok. But I digress, whilst that headline may have written itself, this blog will not.

I opened my pocket (if it was a clown’s pocket) sized Times today to find a story about (multi Tour-winning) Lance Armstrong spending some time at the Bush family ranch in Texas. It’s hardly a revelation to me that a fellow Texan is being invited to share campfire stories and herd cattle but what is a revelation is the President’s apparent level of fitness. Having heard about his mountain biking accident at the G8 and various mishaps in the past I was shocked to discover he has a resting pulse of 47 and can run 3 miles in under 20 minutes. I used to be reasonably fit and strong and am hoping to regain that and more in the run-up to our wedding in 2007 but I’m fairly sure that reaching those levels of fitness could take some considerable work … and I’ve got 31 years on the President. Ok, so he might be a bit clueless at times but you can’t dispute those figures. He must ensure his security team have similar levels of stamina to keep up … unless he supplies them with horses. (aside: more about the Prairie Chapel Ranch)

Oddly, the article goes on to describe that Lance is actually a bit left of centre. How odd that we are even made aware of a sportsman’s feelings on abortion, the Iraq war and so on (more about Lance's political aspirations)… does this affect the ordinary man? It says more about the long hours spent in the saddle pondering the Big Questions than it does about the political aspirations of sporting champs. In the UK I can’t imagine asking Paula Radcliffe, David Beckham, Ellen McCarthur or Steve Redgrave where they stood on such issues. But it’s not unlikely that a tabloid paper could discover and discuss Tony Blair’s resting heart rate. I’d wager that our premier isn’t in quite as rude health as his Cowboy chum. Best he gets Paula round to Chequers post haste.


Cottage Industry Teaches 'Customer Experience'

I’ve had a bit of a mental drought in regards to what to write about. Which is peculiar really as there’s been plenty going on in my life and the wider world. There’s a desire of mine not to say much about my own career or mention much of those closest to me so I guess whilst I have felt personally busy, they’re not things I’d necessarily blog about.

To some extent there’s a desire of mine not to expose myself by commenting on wider political issues either. Whilst I’ll happily talk about the London bombings, I feel less informed and secure in commenting on the Israeli pull out from the Gaza Strip for example.

Which is all academic really as the blog should be about (web) usability and customer experience. I won’t embarrass myself by linking to the last time I wrote on one of these topics because it’s a bit too long ago so I’m resolved to start getting a bit more informed again. After all, putting articles on the blog about the ephemera of daily life is all well and good but doesn’t really serve a purpose other than to ‘brain dump’.

As a customer I’ve experienced a couple of new online things recently, selling stuff on Amazon and eBay. It dawned on us one Saturday morning that we had loads of unread and partly read academic books, some CDs that were redundant after being copied to iTunes and a couple of unopened presents from Christmas, I even had some old PC and consumer electrical products too. I knew you could shift stuff through Amazon so we set about listing items. This is a relatively straightforward process. You register your details and literally input ISBN or bar-code references into a search field and Amazon picks up the details, asks you how much you want to list the item for and then simply emails you to dispatch once it’s handled a transaction.

Where their system falls down is not identifying before you list the item what the prices that other people have listed their items for are. It does show you the lowest price, but that might be for a tatty old copy and yours could be ‘like new’. This is where Firefox’s tabbed browsing is a boon, open a new tab and search for the item in question and work out who’s got what prices for each quality. But how much simpler would it have been for Amazon to serve up a table saying ‘Like New’ = £x, ‘Good’ = £y and so on? eBay is worse though. There are so many boxes to complete when you go to sell an item, so many options and listings choices (many with associated costs) that frankly I can’t be bothered to list anything other than things that Amazon won’t.

This overly complicated option selection and form filling isn’t long forgotten before your items sell and you realise that eBay / Amazon have taken a big cut from your earnings. At the small end of the market where books and CDs are selling for a couple of pounds each, you almost pay more in admin than you get back. The postal charges levied on your behalf by Amazon are generous for small items – particularly if you post same day second class and thereby meet the delivery obligation for the minimum cost – but start posting larger books and you really need to be selling books at £10 or more. Everyone’s got the same idea, so popular items are listed several times and American services are offering them at discounted rates – you’re forced into listing at uneconomic prices or risk them never selling.

That said, it has been a revelation in terms of providing excellent customer service. As an embryonic cottage industry, I’m fastidious in making sure the item is in as good a condition as possible before dispatch, it’s packaged neatly but safely and simply (to avoid higher postal costs) and the item is sent with a compliments slip promising a full refund if the buyer is unhappy. Items are sent as soon as physically possible and I often email the buyer on dispatch to let them know it’s on its way. All of this is done with the intention of getting great feedback scores and yet, despite this, only two people have left feedback on Amazon for their purchase. This does make me wonder whether people:

.: Just expect this level of service – it’s nothing exceptional
.: Can’t find the Amazon feedback link
.: Can’t be bothered with leaving feedback
.: Are unaware of feedback and its importance to the seller.

In all seriousness it has affected my interpretation of the consumer experience. Just because I work in this field and, when I’m out and about fill in surveys to help other businesses improve, doesn’t mean others will. People, when pushed, say they care about the customer experience but do they really? If you’re buying through Amazon, even through the used ‘Marketplace’, you probably just want the item at the lowest price and service will only be an issue if it’s shocking. Ultimately, as a low volume seller, customers aren’t going to return to purchase more from me as I’m unlikely to be selling their next purchase with such a small stock and range.

However, my own sense of duty and ethics means I’m unlikely to revert to a simple stuff-n-post style of service, it might be a drop in the ocean but I’m learning so much more about the demands in customer experience from it.

That said, feel free to buy something from my Amazon Marketplace shop!