DateTuesday 20 September 2005

Customer service? I’m sorry, Eurostar doesn’t go there

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.

Rubbish in Vogue; sudoku is dead; a page of parasites; Microsoft’s internal problems; and Windows Media Center sales are up, but what’s really going on?

  • Birds in Vogue spout rubbish. “Power animals”? “Shape inventors”?
    Erin Goodale is a Charity Consultant, who claims that her Diane von Furstenberg dress and Jimmy Choo shoes are “perfect for where I live. I can wear it during the day, then on to cocktails.” Presumably if she is playing touch rugby, or indulging in some apple scrumping, it’ll also protect her beautifully tanned body from any scratches and bruises. Another pouting lovely called Amaryllis Macintyre poses in a sultry fashion in another pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. Amaryllis claims to be a “writer”, but the only reference to her that can be found on the internet is here – oh! in another Vogue feature, where she now claims to be a citizen of Mayfair, and describes the eagle on the front of her t-shirt as “unique, as it is my power animal in the practice of meditation.”

    You have to read it to believe it. Nobody else has, apparently. Maybe this sort of stuff is what passes for lorem ipsum at Vogue. (Seen at do you come here often?)

  • The sudoku craze is officially dead: it’s on Sky.
    From Thursday (22 September), Sky digital customers in over 7.8 million homes will be able to join the craze and play the UK’s first interactive TV Sudoku puzzle – Puzzler Sudoku – via their remote control. Using content supplied by Puzzler Media, the creators of the UK’s best-selling Sudoku magazine, Sky’s interactive puzzle follows the same principles as the print version that has taken the UK by storm.

    Well, storms pass, and this is so clearly the sign that it’s all but gone.

  • You can’t escape what’s in you.
    Do NOT read this before a meal. Or soon after one. A page full of parasites. Eugh. Starts off horrible, then gets progressively worse.
  • Troubling Exits At Microsoft
    The pay disparity is exacerbated by Microsoft’s rating system. The company uses a bell curve to rate employees in each group, so the number of top performers is balanced by the same number of underachievers. But Microsoft has a long history of hiring top-notch computer science grads and high-quality talent from the industry. Under the rating system, if a group works hard together to release a product, someone in the group has to get a low score for every high score a manager dishes out. “It creates competition in the ranks, when people really want community,” says a former Microsoft vice-president. A company spokesman says managers don’t have to apply the curve with smaller groups, where it’s not statistically relevant.

    Microsoft’s problems explained in a paragraph. Hardly the way to inspire people already smarting at being paid at “market rates” and whose stock options are barely treading water.

  • Technology Pundits ~ Windows Media Center Takes on New Life
    But then suddenly in July 2005, WMCE shipments picked up dramatically, as recorded by both NPD and Current Analysis, accounting for more than 40% of all desktop shipments in retail. No random act, this. Gateway switched its consumer desktop line midsummer to 100% WMCE enabled. At BestBuy, a Gateway 831GM desktop goes for $699 with WMCE but no tuner. A dual-core-processor version starts at $1,049, also without tuner. The company is shipping one model with a tuner at $1,249. And Gateway is not alone. Dell and HP are offering, both through the direct channel and in retail, similar product mixes, with some XP Home units and some with WMCE, both with and without tuners. Although longer term pricing of the media center functionality in the Windows Vista timeframe may not be as beneficial as today’s, recent favorable terms have definitely helped jumpstart the market.

    Unanswered question: how many of these things are being used as Media Centers? I’d wager it’s not that many, actually, as so many don’t include a tuner – kinda important if you want to tape TV and stuff directly.