At one time there was great trouble throughout the land. The people were not getting their just desserts, but this had gone on for so long that they had ceased to complain and they had become stoic in their acceptance.
It came at first as a whisper, as the first stirring of a breeze breaks the calm when a hurricane is due and, like a hurricane the word was to sweep through the land uprooting the trees of resistance in its path. And the name of this hurricane was Customer First, although it was to have as many names as it had priests, for each was to brand it according to their own ways (and fee scales).
And Lo! The people did become customers; not just those in the shops and retail premises, but no longer they that travelled by train, ship, ‘plane or bus would be called passengers. No longer would those who occupied premises, whether domestic or for their trade, be called tenants. No longer would those in ill health and needing to see the physician be called patients. No longer (yes, yes, all right; we get the picture – ed).
From that day hence they would all be customers and all would be well. Their time of strife would be over and they could rest easy for, when they handed over their hard earned coin, all would be well and they would be treated in the manner to which they should.
And so the priests, gurus, mentors, consultants and trainers did prosper, their pockets full of their client’s gold, and there was great rejoicing throughout the land. Those who proclaimed the way of the Customer grew rich and, in some cases, famous. Those who had sought their help (he’s off again. Enough! – ed).
Ok, let’s cut the pseudo biblical stuff, leave this fantasy world behind and consider ours. Are you getting better service because your train operator calls you a customer? Or anywhere else where you have become “a customer”? I doubt it. Sure there have been improvements in some places, yes, but that is because people have been better trained, not because of a name change. You might argue that the name change brought about a change of thinking, but I would suggest that such influence was limited. When I travel in someone else’s vehicle I am a passenger; when I have treatment at the medic’s I am a patient and so on. I find inappropriate use of customer patronising, how about you?
Maybe I am in a minority on this (that would be good, I might have rights), and I know I am being a bit obtuse here, but the point of this missive is that you have to mean it to make a difference. Just calling something by a different name doesn’t, on its own, make a change. For me it is the equivalent of the old dodgy car dealer’s “change the plates and give it a re-spray”, and is about as salubrious.
My train of thought here came from having been pulled up for referring to the people who were renting premises as tenants. “They’re customers” I was told, but then the attitude towards them would not have been out of place for the inmates of a labour camp. Calling them customers made no difference to the way they were seen or treated, so why bother with the pretence. OK, this is an extreme example, but does calling me a customer improve my rail service? No, but what would make a difference is changing the service I get for my money. That’s the challenge.
Recently I had a meeting near London Bridge, but which way to travel? I go up to town about 15 times a year on average these days, and I’ve had bad luck with trains to and from Swindon one way and another in recent years.
An additional issue is that the cost is very high if I can’t book well in advance, and I try to keep costs down regardless of whether it is I or my client who is paying. A spontaneous run up to The Smoke from Swindon will cost about £120 including the car park for example. Another problem is the latter; car parking is a bit hit and miss if I’m not there reasonably early and, if I get there and can’t park, I’ve driven 15 minutes in the wrong direction and have therefore wasted about half an hour by the time I get to the M4 heading East to try an alternative.
Over time I’ve developed options for driving part way, usually to Reading where there is covered parking next to the station, a connecting walkway to the platforms plus extra train options from other routes that converge there. Nett journey time from my house to Paddington is about the same as going from Swindon, but the rail and car park charge is so much less that, even allowing for a mileage charge at HMRC rates, I can still do the run for about £35 less that by rail from Swindon.
Another option is to drive to Basingstoke. The extra mileage cancels out the slightly cheaper rail fare making it on a par with the run to Reading, but the traffic is easier and the cross country drive via my home town of Newbury is pleasant. The trains take me into Waterloo, so it is an easy walk from there to London Bridge, or across the river into central London if I’m going to, say, the IoD or Whitehall.
So I favour this hybrid journey of road and rail combined. Certainly it is less effective in terms of my green leanings, but it provides me with a cheaper and less stressful journey and, for the part I do in the car, is far more comfortable. Trains these days I find appallingly uncomfortable, and yes, I do understand that my size has something to do with that, but, whilst I accept responsibility for my girth, I can’t do a lot about my skeletal height and width. Train seating these days is clearly designed for dwarves and midgets and the lack of anywhere decent to park my carcass takes a lot of the pleasure away from what used to be a treat.
I loved taking the train, especially in the 80’s when I travelled around a lot of the UK by British Rail. And also trains in Denmark, Germany, France and the USA.
Even in my various spells of commuting into the City during the 60s into the 80s there was a bit more space and the seats were tall enough for me to have somewhere to rest my head, but then some idiot design team came in and refurbished all the carriages with small seats, plastic and strip lighting and the world of rail travel went on a downward spiral for me.
Now we have these ultra modern trains with their garish and lurid colour schemes that offer a period of torture rather than the pleasures of old. Yes, they are usually clean and reliable, but are they what we need to attract people onto public transport, especially given the, often extortionate, cost?
Such is progress.