Important Service Updates Now Departing, Stand Clear

I have a draft post sitting in my WordPress dashboard which talks about social media use and engagement, specifically by various Australian companies. I’ve been working on it for a month or two, adding to it from time to time, citing both great examples and poor examples of social media use by our most well-known and identifiable companies.

One example of poor use was Qantas, particularly throughout the fleet-wide grounding in October. Given this was sprung on the travelling public with next-to-no notice, many took to Twitter to seek information. In most cases, vague tweets simply directed them to the Qantas website (which, in itself, contained no real information) or to call the customer service number – which, obviously, would be near impossible. While it certainly would not have appeased many travellers, effective communication and replies to queries via Twitter probably would have helped in the long run, at least somewhat.

Two examples of great use of social media was Telstra and Metro Trains.

In the former case, Telstra have a dedicated social media team available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Rather than sit back and wait for questions to roll in, these guys actively scour social media sites to respond to queries and complaints, as well as dealing with concerns or questions raised on various forums (Whirlpool, for example). Several weeks ago, early one morning (around 1am!) I tweeted the team asking what colour socks they were wearing. Each responded individually, and even fielded other such nonsensical questions from other users, thus proving that you can have a bit of fun engaging with customers while still getting the job done.

In the case of Metro Trains, the Melbourne-based train operator isn’t known for actively engaging directly with customers via Twitter. What they do well, however, is provide excellent service updates in a timely and relevant fashion. All incidents are immediately tweeted out to followers, usually with just the necessary information – the lines or stations affected, the nature of the incident and the expected delay or resumption of service. From time to time other information would be provided, such as planned service changes or safety information. All in all, I considered it a fantastic effort and those behind it’s implementation deserve to be commended for it.

Interestingly, someone at Metro Trains started responding to passengers via Twitter recently. The replies were somewhat selective, ignoring negative ones and only focussing on questions that could be answered with thinly-veiled spin or comments of praise. Overly critical – yet valid – tweets went unanswered. While it’s reasonable to say that it’s probably impossible to address EVERY incoming message via Twitter, a better effort than selective replying is necessary.

A side note: Complaints and compliments to the transport operators are measured by the Government as part of benchmark standards, and there is a process in place to deal with such things. Responding to complaints via Twitter is outside of this process, and thus immeasurable. However, it wouldn’t hurt Metro Trains to direct such complaints to be made via the official channels so concerns could be resolved.

Yesterday saw somewhat of a mini drama unfold on Twitter, as it was spread that Metro Trains would no longer be using their Twitter account to advise of disruptions, instead, using it ostensibly as a marketing outlet and directing those seeking information to use the line health board (on the Metro website) or their free SMS service.

An article even appeared in The Age this morning:

Travellers train anger on tweets

A STORM of online abuse rained down on metropolitan train operator Metro yesterday over its decision to stop using Twitter to update passengers about minor train delays.

Scores of Metro’s 10,000 Twitter followers vented their anger at the change on the social network site yesterday. News about minor train delays – meaning delays of less than 20 minutes – is now solely published on Metro’s website.

But Metro said it was simply trying to give passengers the information they need.

‘We have 100,000 unique users a week on our website and mobile site, so our customers are overwhelmingly telling us that’s where they go for information,’ Metro spokesman Daniel Hoare said.

‘We’re still using Twitter for all major service announcements. But our feedback strongly suggests it needs to be more relevant for our 10,000-plus followers.’

..

So, it seems to be a case of “We will tell you what you want”, right?

Anyway, this new stance from Metro Trains presents a number of issues.

Metro Trains have built up a Twitter following of just under 10,500 followers as of the date of this post. Most, if not all, followed the account for the primary reason of receiving service updates as they happen. I doubt many of those 10,500 people care about the marketing and other non-important information that will now fill their streams.

Secondly, it’s true that the line health board works quite well. Providing an overall picture of problems on the network, it’s quick to show where delays are occurring. The information posted to Twitter was mostly a mirror of what’s provided on their website. However, removing the Twitter postings means crucial information may not be read by the masses in a timely fashion, essentially removing a method of dissemination. Let’s not forget that Twitter allows retweeting, meaning that service updates retweeted by followers to their followers (and so on) ensures information is passed around quickly. Then we have the issue of being required to check the Metro website – any reasonable person wouldn’t believe it necessary to check a website in EVERY instance before travelling to ensure a trouble-free journey.

Then we have the SMS update service. As a free service provided by Metro Trains, it’s not a bad option to use. However, it has a number of drawbacks: firstly, it only operates between certain hours (6am and 8pm, and only Monday to Friday); secondly, it’s a real bitch to set up, especially for passengers with irregular travel patterns; and thirdly, from experience it can be quiet unreliable in that SMS messages are received long after the fact. Given that the Twitter posts were made available from first to last train each day and are virtually instantaneous, Metro Trains are effectively saying that if you travel outside those hours, you’re not really worthy of being kept informed of what’s happening with a service you’re paying for.

I simply cannot fathom what possessed someone at Metro Trains to decide against using their Twitter account to provide service updates. Given the effort that has gone into it in the past, it makes no logical sense to suddenly stop. From what I can tell, they’ve even gone to great lengths to delete historial service disruptions content from their stream.

I’m the first to admit that I’m no fan of Metro Trains, nor do I approve of privatised public transport, but their social media foray was an excellent example of getting something right in every possible way. That good work has been reversed by a mindless decision, and won them no favours whatsoever.

Strangely enough, there does exist a parody Metro Trains account on Twitter, aptly named “Fake Metro Trains” (follow them here). A tweet posted to that account yesterday stated, and I paraphrase, “now that Metro Trains won’t tweet disruptions, we’re all you’ve got”.

Congratulations, Metro Trains. One carriage forward, and two carriages back.

6 thoughts on “Important Service Updates Now Departing, Stand Clear”

  1. Totally agree with this post! They were making some real progress towards interacting with customers on a more personal level and now they’ve gone and stuffed it up. Frustrating to see. I personally used the twitter feed and ONLY the twitter feed for disruptions – I’m on Twitter all the time so this was extremely convenient for me. Shame they had to go and change their processes just to make things easier from their point of view – making things more difficult for Barry Punter….

    1. From what I hear, Metro are bleeding cash on a daily basis, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they pack up and go back to Hong Kong soon anyway. Perhaps the next incarnation, if any, will have more sense.

  2. Good post Andy, I didn’t realise the SMS service didn’t work after 8pm or on weekends. Generally Monday to Friday you will find another service within at least 20 minutes. On weekends or late nights a cancelled train may mean 90 minutes of waiting. Not good enough at all really.

    1. I really cannot find any reason why the service is limited to those hours. Agree that it’s when the majority of travel takes place, and there’s probably less chance of an incident out of hours, but they still happen. The traveling public (who are obligated to pay for the service) deserve better. Make things consistent, or don’t bother at all.

  3. Interesting post. After reading Metro’s Twitter stream suggesting users check their website for delay info or get sms updates, I decided to check out the sms service. After 10 minutes fruitlessly searching the website for info, I phoned customer service, which directed me to the heading “Platform 1″ (?) on the home page. However, I was unable to get the “sign up now” link to work and learnt it doesn’t operate at weekends. Sorry, Metro Trains, but that’s another fail.

    1. The SMS service is a fantastic idea, but limited to certain hours of operation, as you’ve found. As I said in a reply to Anthony (above), things need to be consistent above the board.

      Tweeting has proved to be popular amongst passengers. If it didn’t work, fair enough, but 10,000 followers (and countless more following the hashtag most likely) shows that people are reading the updates, so mindlessly pulling it makes no sense.

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