Time for some Twitter training?

3 Mar

“Our aim is to get the basics right and provide a service which is punctual and reliable, clean and safe.
Our vision is ‘A great journey every day.'”


“Crap old trains, complete disregard for passengers and lack of interest in employing any staff.
Now give us your money.”


Picture this. You’re standing on a freezing cold, wet train platform, waiting for the train that takes you to work. It’s late. Again. 20% of your take-home salary is spent on your annual rail ticket, but most of the train carriages are old and poorly maintained, you rarely get a seat and the service is regularly delayed or cancelled. Station announcements are unreliable, so you follow your train operator’s official Twitter account to keep yourself updated. You look at your phone and you see this:


Well meant perhaps, but might rub you up the wrong way, right? And like this customer, you might feel like Tweeting a response:


Probably best for the official First Capital Connect Tweeter to leave it there. But that’s really not their style:


Welcome to Britain, welcome to First Capital Connect (FirstCC) trains and welcome to their curious Twitter account, @FirstCC. You may well see no problem with the Twitter exchange above, but bear with me, there will be more on that later. First, some context. For those not familiar with the British train system, since the rail network was privatised in 1993, there has been a number of private Train Operating Companies (TOCs) operating on the various different routes. Most of these are franchises, let by the government. Inevitably, some of the TOCs operate better services than others. In a recent customer survey, Virgin were ranked top. FirstCC, who are responsible for getting many people to and from work in London, came bottom of the heap. Now I could blog extensively about the failings of rail privatisation, and the misery of using FirstCC trains, but what caught my attention recently was the way in which FirstCC are attempting to communicate with customers through Twitter. Any organisation considering, or already using social media for Customer Services or Marketing Communications, could learn a lot from the @FirstCC account. Here’s why.

Injecting personality

If you search online for advice on using Twitter for business purposes you’ll no doubt be advised to keep Tweets professional, but not robotic. A bit of personality helps. FirstCC Tweeters have taken this advice on board, using their first names and having distinct personalities. Recently, we’ve been treated to the sarcastic one:



And the condescending one:


And perhaps unsurprisingly, this injection of ‘personality’ irritates some customers:


Keeping it professional

I’m not suggesting that helpful and professional advice isn’t provided by @FirstCC, it is, and the Twitter team clearly care about what they’re doing. For every condescending remark there are many helpful ones, and at present it seems to be one of the better ways in which FirstCC are effectively communicating details of their many delays and bus replacement services. However, the inclination to respond inappropriately and engage in debate really isn’t what passengers need. Arguably, if a passenger is unhappy about their train being cancelled, there’s going to be little that someone on Twitter account can do about it. All that can really be asked of them is to provide the most up-to-date information, and leave it at that. Winding up disgruntled customers simply isn’t necessary and detracts from the more helpful responses:


Giving accurate information

Time and again I’ve found that the frustration caused by cancelled and delayed trains in Britain is multiplied by either no communication at all or a series of conflicting messages.  It’s not at all unusual for a departures board to display one thing, a station announcement to state another and the National Rail website to give no indication at all of any problems. Sadly, the FirstCC Twitter account just seems to be adding to the confusion at times, and presumbably through no fault of their own. It’s simply that the internal communications at FirstCC appear to be in as much of a mess as the exernal, therefore making customers feel as though they’re being deceived:


A difficult job

It can’t be easy working for any form of Customer Services in an organisation that causes as much frustration and misery as FirstCC. And I would never condone the verbal abuse of a member of staff, whether they’re standing on a train platform or Tweeting from cyber space. At the same time, I would never condescend or argue with a customer. Abusive Tweets from passengers are, quite rightly, ignored (most of the time), yet general moans and groans that do not require a response  are regularly responded to with unnecessary remarks by the @FirstCC Tweeters.

Ultimately, most passengers, myself included, would simply like clean, punctual trains, with helpful, polite staff, all at a reasonable price. You know, like they have in many other first-world countries. FirstCC are not to blame for all the problems with our decrepit rail system, they are, however, operating their franchise with absolute contempt for the passengers who have no choice but to use the trains to get to and from work. As one Tweeter put it, every day travelling on FirstCC feels like legislated mugging.

Now whilst I don’t feel qualified to give FirstCC advice on the steps they need to take to improve their service (though I suspect a complete change of senior management would be a good start), what I do have is a solid understanding of the power – and the dangers – of Twitter. And right now, @FirstCC are playing a very dangerous game. Perhaps they’ve just decided that customer dissatisfaction can’t get any worse, so they’ll do what they like, but I really don’t think that’s the case. Those operating the @FirstCC Twitter account do provide useful information and are going some way towards addressing FirstCC’s terrible reputation for communicating with passengers. Whilst adding a bit of personality to these Tweets is fine, the sarcasm and winding up of customers is not, particularly when yet another delayed train is preventing thousands of commuters from getting home to their families.

Lessons learnt

FirstCC do have published ‘Twitter Rules of Engagement‘ and have clearly thought through their Twitter policy. In fact, it seems they’re doing many things right, though – at the risk of coming across as miserable – I would question the need for FirstCC Tweeters to ‘entertain’, as it’s exactly this kind of quirkiness that most long-suffering passengers could do without:

“People often use Twitter to tell us when they’ve been helped (or entertained!) by one of the First Capital Connect team. Including #FCCthanks in your tweet will help us to pass your gratitude to the person who’s earned it.”


If there’s anything other organisations can learn from @FirstCC it’s that cheeky and sarcastic comments are no more acceptable on Twitter than they would be in an old-fashioned letter of apology or at the end of a telephone. The immediacy of Twitter means that when being used for complaints – as the @FirstCC account so often is – the customer is likely to be right in the middle of an unsatisfactory situation, when emotions can run high. They are not sitting at home after the incident, putting together a reasoned letter or email to Customer Services. It may be easy for FirstCC staff to call for a ‘constructive look’ at a situation when they’re Tweeting from their desks, but that’s not quite so easy for the passenger to do when they’ve paid £5,000 for their season ticket and find themselves standing on a cold platform wondering when (and if) their dirty, over-crowded train is going to arrive. For the sake of the @FirstCC Twitter team, I sincerely hope it’s only delays and cancellations they find themselves apologising for in the future.



Thanks to @rtfirstcc which enabled me to pull together these examples with so little effort.

If you’re interested in why First Capital Connect ought to be ashamed of themsleves, this site, put together by one of their many unhappy customers, is a good place to start: www.firstcrapitalconnect.co.uk

I’ve tried to contact every Tweeter featured above to let them know I’ve featured them on this blog post, but if I’ve missed anyone or, having read this, you’d rather I removed your Tweets, just let me know through this blog or Twitter. I’m not short of other examples to use!

And finally, my intention has been to present a balanced view and I would welcome feedback on this blog post from anyone at First Capital Connect.


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