I should have been in Paris this Christmas. I’d promised my mum that I would take her there because she loves the place and, in particular, she loves Eurostar. However, by the Sunday before Christmas, once we’d heard about those poor passengers stuck in the tunnel for hours and hours without food, water, toilets (!) or any idea of what was going on, we decided that this wasn’t a service to be trusted.
In a degree, we were right. Although I think Eurostar, with severe limitations, did its best to make things right in the frantic days up to Christmas, the whole thing was such a mess that it’s unlikely we would have got to Paris without a lot of cold misery on the way. As their website kept pleading with us not to travel unless it was absolutely necessary, we didn’t. However, I’m still waiting for a reply to my email to them (emailed because they also pleaded with us not to ring) asking them to confirm that we would be reimbursed for our tickets.
Not surprisingly, I’ve been following the whole Eurostar debacle on all the online news channels (Google News, doncha love it?!) and on Twitter. In fact, the hashtags #eurostar and #eurotunnel are still busy with updates from around the world (I’m @Jasmine if you want to follow me and my Eurostar/tunnel updates btw).
It occurred to me too that there are some good and useful lessons that any businesses can learn from the whole messy affair. Here are a few of my thoughts.
- Never assume that things can’t go wrong. Eurostar did very well for 15 years and got a bit complacent it seems. Of course it wasn’t an unblemished record as trains have been stuck, on fire and, more regularly, hours and hours late. But basically it ran pretty smoothly and massively gained in popularity over the years. The awful situation on the night of the 18th December came out of the blue because of very unusual weather but Eurostar bosses should have been prepared in so many ways for an emergency like this. Do they have measures in place now?
- If something does go wrong, make sure you communicate with customers constantly. This is one of the biggest sins committed by both Eurostar and Eurotunnel. From what I gather, it really was a breakdown of communication between these two companies that caused part of the communication problem with customers. I point the finger at Eurotunnel as much as Eurostar. Staff need to have some means of communication at all times, including within the tunnel, and they should be trained to communicate properly with customers too. This was particularly bad after the tunnel incident. We constantly heard of people in the stations and at home not having any idea of what was happening or what was going to happen.
- Use social media and use it properly. As I pointed out above, I’ve been following #eurostar and #eurotunnel for at least a week and it was quite clear from the start that neither had a proper social media strategy. Eurostar had brought in a fledgling social media company to promote itself on Twitter using the handle @little_break but they hadn’t even taken up the @eurostar name which was used by a guy in China! It took them days to get round to tweeting information – it should have been minutes. People on the stranded trains were tweeting, angrily, the moment they got out of the tunnel. The anger and hatred poured out on the Twittersphere and Facebook (which set up a ‘We hate Eurostar’ group after just a day or so) and was largely ignored for the first all-important 48 hours after the incident. Social Media is here and is a very important means of communication. Ignore it at your peril.
- Say sorry quickly and put things right as fast as possible. I think Eurostar did a good job of saying sorry and saying it honestly. However, they didn’t put things right fast enough. I don’t mean the engineering aspect – they did their best there against difficult odds – I mean the communication, the help to customers who felt they were in limbo and the continuing lack of communication (I’ve had a couple of emails but still no reply to my email from last week).
- Bring in outside help immediately if necessary. This, I think, is the answer to putting things right as fast as possible. Ideally Eurostar should have brought in extra, temporary staff to help in the stations and in call centres. It would have been worth the cost of hiring an outside company (I assume these exist – if not, here’s a business idea for you!) that specialises in trouble-shooting with a call centre and specially-trained people who are good at dealing with crisis situations. They tried to stagger on with the few, miserable, over-loaded staff they had and it just compounded the problem.
- Don’t play the blame game. I think history will show that the board of Eurotunnel have behaved particularly badly in this whole affair. When there is a crisis, everyone should pull together. I cannot bear the kind of person who, the moment something bad happens, does nothing to help but runs around going ‘it wasn’t my fault’ ‘I didn’t do it’. That’s what Eurotunnel did from the start and I think that their shareholders should demand an inquiry into that. I was interested to read these accounts from the Eurostarclient blog about the bad blood between Eurotunnel and Eurostar. In fact, if you’re interested in the whole affair this is a good blog to read.
- Build a brand that people love and feel connected to. That way, even if something terrible happens, like the trains being stuck in the tunnel for hours, gradually people will come back. This is my prediction for Eurostar – particularly if it does the clean-up job, PR-wise, that it needs to do. People have loved it and they want to continue loving it. That’s going to make future profits much easier to claw back. We’re on your side, guys, don’t let us down!