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Karen Martin and Beverley Ireland-Symonds promote the value of having effective communication skills for individuals, teams and organisations.
Monday, 6 December 2010

Communicating with customers in the 'Big Freeze"

Last week the news was dominated by the big freeze across the UK and the difficulties that some people had getting to their final destinations. In Kent there were people stuck on trains for 9hrs  r more feeling cold and hungry.  Listening to some of the passengers being interviewed on the news, there was a common complaint.  No one had told them what was going on. It’s hardly the first time that customers have expressed their anger at not being kept in the picture and it certainly won’t be the last.  Some of the train companies appear to rely on the fact that however badly they treat their customers many of them will continue to travel by train because they have no choice.

Contrast  the train companies attitude to customers to that of Thames Water. Water leaks are an ongoing problem for water companies, but they become worse in winter as drains get blocked, pipes freeze and crack and roads buckle.  Thames Water have always had a freephone number that the public can use and tell them about leaks but now they  asked the public to photograph water leaks and tweet them the pictures saying where they are.  There may be a few detractors grumbling that the public are being asked to do the companies work for them, but it’s a good policy.  It’s a simple way to be able to report a leak and as the company rightly points out, they can’t be expected to know where all the leaks are. As this policy has only just been announced, it will be interesting to see how quickly the company respond to the customers and if they have thought of how they will let customers know when they will be completed.

The train companies are obviously in a slightly different position, but they can learn a few things from Thames Water. With a train driver and presumably a guard on trains, it seems ludicrous that they were not frequent public announcements.  Perhaps the staff had been instructed to say nothing to avoid the customers getting angry, but why didn’t take to twitter and tweet what was going on?  Some of the customers would have been able to pick it up and pass it on to other people.  People cry out for information in these circumstances.  Companies should:

1.    Tell customers what’s happening
2.    Provide regular updates
3.    Inform customers about immediate necessities (food, drink, heat, toilets etc)
4.    Apologise

It’s not exactly revolutionary, but time and time again companies ignore these basic points. Effective communication is key to the success of any organisation.

In similar circumstances, how would you communicate with your customers?