I have just returned from a wonderful four-day city break to Paris. Family time, glorious weather (in the main) and one of the world’s most beautiful cities, made for a quite fabulous combination. I have been to the French capital many times, but this trip topped them all. From our lovely boutique hotel; to the friendly people (we only encountered one particularly grumpy rail employee in four days); to having dinner in the Eiffel Tower; to seeing astonishing artwork from the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh, Monet and Cezanne; the Golding family celebrated a birthday and wedding anniversary in quite some style.
This short holiday will live long in the memories of all of us – it was really a very good experience… for the most part! Travelling experiences are a common feature of my writing – in fact, some would say too much of a feature! It was never my intention to focus on any particular industry when I started writing about the subject of Customer Experience five years ago, but during that time, it has become clear that some of the worst (and best) experiences continue to be served up by those responsible for getting us to and from our chosen destinations around the world. Whilst our children will remember their Paris experience for the right reasons (thankfully), I will also remember what happened at the end of our ‘customer journey’ – and that is what I would like to share with you in this post.
On this occasion, we chose to travel to Paris by rail – not by air. As a frequent flyer, I am always grateful for getting a little bit of respite from the madness of the airport experience. In fact, in the light of recent horrific customer experiences served up by British Airways and United Airlines (to name but two), it was with a sense of relief that we would be getting to and from Paris via Eurostar, taking us through the channel tunnel. With the children not having experienced Eurostar before, the journey to and from Paris was to be as much a part of the ‘memorable experience’ as any other.
Our outbound journey went well. Whilst it would be difficult to describe the experience as particularly memorable, it worked as we expected, delivering us into Paris bang on time. A short ride on the RER and we were in our hotel. Although the departure lounge in London St Pancras was overcrowded, with insufficient seating for those travelling, we felt that the whole experience was far preferable to flying.
Four days absolutely whizzed by before we were due to do the trip in reverse. The day before our return home, we received an email from Eurostar. The email advised that we should arrive at Gare Du Nord station at least one hour before our scheduled departure time. Explaining that we were travelling on known busy weekend, we were pleased to be kept up to date with important information. We duly arrived at Gare Du Nord at approximately 12:30, well in advance of the trains scheduled departure time of 14:13. As we climbed the escalator to the Eurostar check in desks, we were all on track and spirits were high.
That was when everything changed. At the top of the escalator we were met by a mass of people and confusion. Two trains were scheduled to depart prior to ours. We stood in a queue we believed to be for the 14:13 departure, while dozens of people went backwards, forwards and across the departure hall, trying to figure out where to stand. If you have not been to the Eurostar departure hall at Gare Du Nord before, it can best be described as a wide corridor on a mezzanine floor above the station platforms. There is no seating available. As time went on, more and more people started to fill up the corridor space. During this time, only one member of staff was visible in the corridor – he was trying to find passengers who were due on the earlier departures. As the chaos grew worse, this chap did extremely well in maintaining his composure – I applaud him.
Thirty minutes went by. Then forty. Then fifty. By now, the entire corridor was full of people all wanting to get on to the 14:13 train. Young and old had been standing for almost an hour with not a single communication as to why we were still in the departure hall and not checked in. The informal queueing system had descended into a ‘free for all scrum’ – those arriving late managed to get further forward in the scrum than those who had been standing there for an hour. Still no announcements were made, or any additional staff made available.
Eventually the scrum started to move forward. We went through check in, French and English passport control, without a single comment or announcement about the delay. We were ushered straight on to the train. Eventually, our train departed thirty minutes late. Still not a single announcement had been made. No apology. Nothing. The training manager brightly welcomed all passengers onto Eurostar. Still no mention of the delay, or an apology, or even when the train might be expected to arrive in to London.
I decided to send a tweet to Eurostar – this was the conversation:
At least they responded to my tweet quickly. Fifteen minutes later, the train manager finally made an announcement acknowledging the delay. A brief apology was made, before a confirmation of the new arrival time. That was it. It almost felt as though Eurostar could not really see what the problem was. To be clear, let me clarify exactly what the problem was:
- We received a communication from Eurostar advising us to arrive early as the station was likely to be busy – we did as we were asked
- There was no structure or organisation to the queuing system at Gare Du Nord – this is not something that is too complicated to address – especially when they knew it was going to be busier than normal
- One member of staff was visible throughout – to deal with hundreds of passengers – where were the other staff?
- Should passengers be expected to stand for over an hour with no announcements, no seating and no water? To add insult to injury, the only announcements were about security and that is was important for passengers to finish their drinks before getting to check in!!
- There was NO communication at all throughout the experience – thirty minutes after departure is not acceptable
Forty minutes into our wait in the scrum of the departure hall, I made a statement I thought I would not make – ‘flying would have been far better than this!’. I was not kidding. We were treated no better than cattle by Eurostar. Do they care about their passengers? On this experience I would suggest not.
The next time I travel to Paris, it will be by air. I heard many other passengers expressing their desire never to travel with Eurostar again after yesterday. I do not for a minute believe that the airlines care any more about me or my custom, but I can at least be more certain that the experience will be less shambolic. What happened yesterday may not even be a usual occurrence, yet in the absence of any communication from Eurostar, I have no idea. All I do know, is that I do not want to experience it again.
The entire passenger transportation industry needs to take a long hard look at itself. We are not cattle – we are customers – who happen to be human beings. It would be nice to be treated as such. Things will always go wrong. Until airlines and rail companies figure out how to deal with the things that go wrong in an authentic, genuine, human manner, they will continue to be the subject of articles such as this.
Absolutely correct Ian! It’s a disgrace. And the senior executives get paid hundreds of thousands … where is the accountability ?
”The entire passenger transportation industry needs to take a long hard look at itself. We are not cattle !”
The Eurostar terminal in London is magnificent, but the people and processes are not so good. Too many organisations are focussed on cosmetic and tactical improvements to the customer experience (sending out emails etc), but without a deep understanding of customer needs or intentionally permeating that understanding throughout the organisation. It’s such a shame because Eurostar have a fabulous product and a huge opportunity to build on the emotional connection that they no doubt made with your children, but seem to be let down by a culture that isn’t hardwired to prioritise customer value creation.
As a frequent traveller and Carter Blanche holder I have witnessed the decline of a once great product.
From check in (who decided on the new security system – putting luggage on a belt that is too high) to the loss of Leisure Select and the truly appalling food (Raymond Blanc has a lot to answer for) – I now buy an M&S sandwich before travelling.
New trains are uncomfortable and cold. Steps into train impossible. Toilets either unavailable or disgusting.
New business lounge in Paris OK but a long way from train. Insufficient info on delays
Great post Ian. I know that little mezzanine at Gard du Nord well. Wouldn’t take long for a crowd to build up.
I agree with Chris, it is a great shame. I travelled to Paris on Eurostar during the London Olympics, and I remember feeling really proud seeing visitors arriving from Paris to a sparkling St Pancras station and lots of smiley games makers.
Perhaps time for Eurostar to take a step back and think about their people a little more. Delays are inevitable, but employees who feel loved can (and do) move mountains to make customers feel loved in turn.