It started simply enough. I decided to get a Eurostar back from Apple’s Expo in Paris; but because the ticket was for a different day, I’d have to go to a ticket desk at the Gare du Nord and get it changed. There’d be a small charge, I was told, but it should be simple enough.
I got to the ticket office, and there was a small queue – perhaps ten people, standing patiently. However even that queue was enough to take us up to and out of the automatic doors of the office. It’s a single queuing system: you wait for one of the long row of ticket counters (there’s least 12) to come free. The space is large, open-plan, though there are clearly rooms of some sort back behind the counters.
I was pretty cool. It was 4pm and the train wasn’t due to go until 5.10. No problem. Nice and simple. Though there didn’t seem to be many people on the tills – one, two, and some bloke tapping earnestly away on one machine but whose till was ferme´. Oh, a couple more further along, catering for business customers, of whom there didn’t seem to be many. But those were the, you know, business ones. They’re meant to be empty, right?
Hmm, so, two people to deal with a queue which wasn’t moving very fast. Correction – wasn’t moving at all. One of the people buying a ticket seemed to be planning a round-the-world trip, or perhaps the best way to visit all Eurostar stations without retracing her steps. Nothing happening there. And quite quickly, the queue began to build up, because a lot of people want to catch the early evening train out from Paris to London.
Tapping bloke continued, oblivious. The queue didn’t move. Ten minutes passed. From time to time a managerial-looking guy would stick his head out of some back office, gaze at our sullen faces, moue, and go back in. People would troop back and forth and gaze at the computer that wasn’t working, while serried ranks of checkin booths stood empty. Er, hello? Can anyone say peak time?
The queue now stretched outside and round the way. An exasperated British woman of slightly-older-than-a-certain-age came in and began counting how many booths were staffed, compared with how many people were dawdling about backstage. She had those wonderful mannerisms of the ageing British determined woman – the arms held down from the shoulder, abruptly going horizontal and waving around from the elbow. She verbally buttonholed a manager, asking when he would open another booth. He looked at her as though he’d never realised people on the other side of the counter had the power of speech, and that he must tell his wife.
At which point I finally cracked. “You need to stop him messing about with that computer that’s broken, and get him onto a booth which works so he can serve us,” I said, very loudly. (I can do loud when it’s required. I thought it was.)
Manager bloke looked at me as though I really was a big soft in the head. The British woman pointed out that there were only two booths serving the plebs, while four were serving the business people, who were taking an age, but that they seemed to have a cast of thousands wandering around in the back. (Meanwhile the woman booking the round-the-world trip now seemed to be trying to book the return leg.) The manager – the term was starting to seem rather loose – countered the British woman by counting the counters that were staffed.
This I found really exasperating, because the point wasn’t how many counters were open; it was how many were not open, and how many staff were wandering up and down behind them when they could have been doing something useful, like serving customers. A radical idea, I know, but isn’t that what organisations that rely on public custom need to focus on?
“You need to sit down there and do it yourself!” I said, quite a lot louder. Another pitying look from him, which didn’t do much to calm me down at all.
“If I was your boss,” I said, very bugged now, “you’d be out on the street! Stop this guy messing around with the computer that’s broken, put him on one that’s working, and get behind one yourself.” Someone in the queue got served, but the problem was now escalating because people were also coming in from the other two doors at the far sides of the ticket office. They weren’t dumb – why wait in a queue that wasn’t moving?
“Go and use the ticket machine,” said the not-manager equably from the safety of behind the ticket desk, in response to my outrage.
“I can’t!” I replied. “I need to change my ticket and that needs a human!” He seemed uninterested in this and vanished into an office. Perhaps he writes the Eurostar Ticket Office Blog, and writes wry comments on the impatient people who want to catch – of all the crazy things! – trains.
By now the not-working people had attracted two people, a young man and rather older woman, who were clearly fascinated by its not-workings. It was of course far more interesting than us duds, and required lots of walking back and forth to the back offices, and talking on mobiles. (The possibility that they could have just left it until the queue had been cleared obviously never occurred to them or their managers. Of course a sick computer needs human attention. What are you, mad? It might wither away!) At one stage another staffer walked towards them, and I worried for a moment that the sight of three people all finding a broken computer more interesting than the gathering queue (who weren’t in any sort of air conditioning, thanks, on quite a warm afternoon) was going to give me an aneurysm. But no, she walked past, into an office, perhaps to write the Eurostar Ticket Office Subordinates’ Blog, about how crap her manager is and how grumpy the customers are.
Was I so insane at that moment to wish that someone would have had the nous inside that organisation to think “Hmm, big queue – perhaps if we staffed more ticket counters until it goes away”? I don’t think so. It’s moments like those that you really wish for the big stick – a big budget you can withdraw, some sort of celebrity that you can use against them. But no, we were all just people. It’s also moments like that which pick out the good managers from the sociopaths. Unfortunately, the good managers get promoted.
And when I finally reached a counter – after 35 minutes of queueing, for 10 people – things still weren’t working. “I don’t have any record of that reservation,” said the woman. I gave her the reservation code. “Ah, yes,” she said. “But I’ll have to give you a manual boarding card. You see, I can’t print–”
“I really don’t care,” I said. “Just write it out for me, please.” And I really didn’t care what their problems were that afternoon. Because they clearly didn’t care about any of mine. Had the train been leaving any earlier, their incompetence would have meant I’d missed it, even though I’d arrived in plenty of time, at least in theory. That’s bad customer service, and that’s how you get people avoiding you and using low-cost airlines, which are a blight on the physical and business environment. I like trains as a means of transport. But I really don’t like the people managing Eurostar’s Gare du Nord ticket office.