Reflecting on Customer Service

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Eurostar trains at Waterloo International

Can’t say I’d rather take train from UK to Poland rather than plane – no matter how fast the train was (unless you’re talking maglev and 400mph/600kmph). Door-to-door, London to Warsaw is six hours. Even if a train could do it in twelve, I’d pass. Unless it was thruppence ha’penny return.

So commented W-wa Jeziorki blog editor, Mike Dembinski, on reading my recent Eurostar sees a 21% increase in passengers post. It made me reflect on how different people perceive the quality of goods or services.

For jet-setting Mike, hopping between one business meeting and another, time taken from A to B is the deciding factor. But for my friend Jozek – and hundreds of thousands of Poles like him – a decent through train service with a proper luggage van would be just the ticket. Jozek is having to spend tonight (it’s now Wednesday night) in a hotel on the German-Dutch border because his van has bust a half-axle. He drove out from the UK on Friday night with van and trailer to pick up the belongings of a couple that have sold up in Poland and are moving permanently to the UK.

Mike’s comment reminded me of the time I travelled from London to Warsaw by train. It was November 1994 and Eurostar had just launched its public service between London Waterloo International and Brussels or Paris. I had business meetings in Brussels and Munich and then a short project to complete in Warsaw. Travelling by train – rather than flying and booking hotels – was actually a good solution to my travel and accommodation needs.

I left Waterloo on the morning service. A friend that I hadn’t seen for ages was also travelling, in his case just for fun, and we took photographs of each other posing self-consciously against the Eurostar train. We bumped rather than glided across the BR tracks until we reached the Channel Tunnel terminal. Here the train appreciably speeded up, though not as much as it might have done had the UK government not agreed to reduce the specification of the tunnel railway track as a cost cutting measure. Emerging into daylight at the French portal, the sudden burst of acceleration was phenomenal and soon we were flying along at 160 mph. All too soon, we arrived at our stop at Lille and from here the Eurostar bumped its way slowly over orthodox railway tracks till we reached our destination at Brussels. Passport control at the Belgian end was a handful of officials sitting behind folding card tables who just waved us through.

My Brussels meeting over, and replete with supper from one of the excellent Brussels restaurants, I boarded the night sleeper from Brussels to Munich. This was not a good experience. The German sleeping car attendant directed me to the wrong carriage, and then when I finally found my sleeping compartment and dragged my heavy luggage into it, I discovered that there was no water to freshen up. The attendant seemed to find my difficulties amusing. Here was one fellow who had not forgiven the Poles and Brits, for thrashing the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

I arrived in Munich, hot, sweaty and cross. I did not endear myself to my German hosts by informing them that the quality of customer service on their night sleeper services was crap, and that before I could start the meeting I needed a bathroom and a good wash. The evening journey from Munich to Hannover was a complete contrast. The ICE train (the German equivalent of the French TGV) was clean and efficient. The Swedish style smoked fish platter was delicious. Why was I then not completely satisfied? What was the missing ingredient?

I waited at Hannover station for the Brussels-Moscow train which was to take me to Warsaw. The Polish WARS sleeper carriages looked dowdy and unkept. My expectations were low. I found my compartment. The attendant poked his head round the door, with a broad grin on his face. “Would you like a hot towel sir? Can I get you a snack or a beer?” Suddenly I knew that the rest of the journey would be OK. I was home!

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One Response to “Reflecting on Customer Service”

  1. diana Says:

    The ‘government’ had no involvement in building the Channel Tunnel and certainly nothing to do with costs.

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