“I cannot advise you on that Sir”

Here is a salutary tale for our times. Not a tragic tale – no disaster resulted – but a sad tale that demonstrates what happens when staff become scared to help customers.

Anyone who has travelled on an “advanced” train ticket knows that it is valid only for the train it is booked for. Failure to comply will result in the immediate payment of the full fare (with no refund on the original ticket).

But what if the train on which you are booked is cancelled? What train can you travel on? This question occurred to me as I stood at the gates of Leeds railway station at 17.00 learning that the 17.45 was cancelled.

I asked at the gate if I could get the 17.15 train and was told politely that I needed to be advised of my options at the Leeds Travel Centre. I trotted off there – queued up but to no avail, the Leeds Travel Centre is staffed by Northern Train staff who would not advise me on an East Coast ticket (though it turns out they sell them).

I was asked to queue at the East Coast Train Desk (hard to find) which I did. I got to the front of the queue in time to be told that I could have travelled on the 17.15 but I was just too late. East Coast told me that Northern should have told me to travel on the 17.15.

I talked with Northern who stormed off to talk to their manager about the insult from East Coast.

I went back to East Coast and told them of the stormy reception at Northern.

East Coast said I should make a complaint to Northern.

I got back to the barriers and went to the train information stand to get a complaint form. They told me I should make a complaint to Eastern and Northern and about the man at the barrier who had advised me in the first place.

To complain to Eastern you need to fill in a form which will be scanned and processed. The form has to be sent at your own expense by post if you wish to get a refund. If you wish to complain about customer service, this needs to go to a different address ( you don’t get an envelope but you do get a freepost.

It might surprise you that the East Coast mailing addresses are both in Plymouth.

When I got on the train, I asked the guard to confirm that my ticket was valid, he confirmed that as ” a rule of thumb” , you could take it that you could travel on the train before or after the train you were booked on , if that train was cancelled. I asked what happened if the rule of thumb turned out to be a rule of finger – would I be charged the full fare with no refund?

He looked at me ruefully and explained “I cannot advise you on that Sir“.

There seems to be a lot of rules governing what people can and cannot say to you in advice centres but there seems precious little help for the customer. You may think that my getting home at 10pm rather than 9pm is inconsequential and indeed it was. Fortunately no damage has been done.

But I was in Holland last week and travelled on lots of busses and trains. I saw a different attitude to customer service there. Advice in Holland seems to be outcome driven – eg directed at making things good for the customer. Advice on this occasion seemed to be an unwanted risk. I see enough of the latter attitude in my job so I shouldn’t be surprised to see it in others’.

Yet I am!

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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2 Responses to “I cannot advise you on that Sir”

  1. George Kirrin says:

    I was also in The Netherlands last week and had similarly better experiences, not just on public transport but also in shops, where assistants preferred not to make a sale if the customer was not getting what he/she were looking for. In one sports shop, I was even given the option to take time out and come back later, or not!

    So while I tend to agree with your snap analysis about outcomes, Henry, I wonder what can be done about it on this side of the Noordzee?

    Abellio, a Dutch company, even operates some of the UK’s trains and buses – the Greater Anglia franchise, and some former National Express Travel London bus services in London and Surrey. Has anyone notice any differences using their services?

    • henry tapper says:

      Thanks George

      I’ll watch out for these busses! I would say that the service from Virgin on the West Coast Line is incomparably better than that received today, they seem to be genuinely pleased to help and it is a great shame they are losing this franchise!

      We customers need to make a little more noise if we are to see things get better eh!

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