“I’m sorry – we’re fresh out of service”

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I had an interesting lesson today, delivered by Virgin East Coast, one of the UK’s rail franchises, operating the historic line connecting the two capitals, London and Edinburgh.

Sadly, it didn’t go well. Having trotted along to collect my ticket from one of the bank of seven dispensing machines, I found to my surprise that 4 of them were “out-of-service”. I say surprise, as only one of them (pictured above) actually declared this failing upfront. The remaining machines required the user to attempt a transaction, only to find the device either unresponsive, or have it crash on them part way through. Frustrating though this was, at least the hold-up in acquiring my ticket had been ‘joined-up’ in the overall passenger journey, because my 1529 departure was also put back – maybe delay is a Virgin brand value?

I related this problem to the Customer Services desk. This consisted of 3 Virgin-uniformed staff talking to each other behind a desk, even as I stood there expectantly in front of them. Eventually, one of them asked “Can I help at all?”. I replied by asking whether they were aware of the number of broken-down machines in the ticket hall, gesturing towards the large queue of passengers now forming at the ticket windows. “Yes,” she told me. “They are out-of-service, but an engineer has been called.” And with that, she turned back to her colleagues and her chat.

“And what’s the SLA for an engineer call-out?” I persevered. Her brows narrowed and she winced back at me blankly. “The service level agreement,” I added (helpfully, I thought). Still nothing. “How soon is the engineer supposed to turn up?” I translated. “Oh, I see” said the Customer Service agent, “as soon as one is available.”

There is a certain point in any customer service interaction where, as a customer, you realise that this is as good as it is going to get, short of escalating the issue to someone senior, which even with a Virgin Delay branded train I did not have time for.

My lasting impression though was how well the automated “out-of-service” message from the machine had been mirrored by the human touch of the staff member I had interacted with (and I suppose also the other two staff members who had continued to chat to each other during my exchange, and so perhaps could be seen to have stayed ‘on-brand’ with a kind of ‘staying-away-from-service’ offer).

Out-of-service is a curious turn of phrase really, and rather taken for granted by customers most of the time, I think. Mistakenly, I had always assumed it was a passive thing that just  sort of accidentally happened, in the way that one can run out of sugar when too many unexpected houseguests arrive. But today’s experience has taught me that out-of-service can actually be consciously delivered. Faced with a problem, employees have a choice, either to try and resolve or ameliorate the situation, or hang back disinterestedly, in the hope that someone or something else will do it for them. This latter course, I now realise, is the human equivalent of ‘out-of-service’.

If only, like the one featured machine pictured above, employees would have the courtesy of labelling themselves with an ‘I’m fresh out of service‘ badge, I would then know which ones not to approach…..

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