The boat is sinking – let’s paint it
01 December 2010
Recently got a request from a journalist at a leading evening paper wanting my recipy for how the national Swedish railway company SJ could improve their brand. Time and time again, they fail in a very un-Swedish way to deliver safe, secure and comfortable train travels. In an attempt to improve the service and communication with the travellers, SJ started twittering. People whom, for often unclear reasons, got stuck in chilled-out or burning hot trains around the country could connect, complain and get some level of comfort in that somebody, other that the stressed and unhelpful train conductor, was listening.
Already back then in 2009, I explained to anyone who would listen that they are putting a fresh layer of paint on a sinking ship in an attempt to reduce passengers’ anger and worries. At a social media conference down in Gothenburg, the social media guru Emanuel Karlsten (http://blogg.expressen.se/tabloism/) explained to me that maybe being able to blow off steam actually did function as a safety valve to avoid SJ having a total riot on their hands. Later that day, my train-ride home was fairly uneventful and relatively smooth except arriving 30 minutes late. Emanuel however got thoroughly stuck in the middle of nowhere for a long time.
My opinion has not changed. And I don’t understand why people, especially in the communications business, keeps going on about how good communication and social media in particular helps alliviate such a situation. Yes, of course it has an effect. It is what I do for a living and I know it works. To an extent. But if the trains keep getting lost, brake down, and fail in all sorts of ways – communication can only take you so far in trying to rescue to brand.
SJ is happy to take passengers to destinations in a slower, more expensive and less reliable way than the airlines. They fail. It appears that the issue of up-keep of the tracks and trains has not been managed properly, that communication isn’t working inbetween involved partners, organisations ans individuals. If somebody at the SJ traffic control knows exactly why the train is standing still, there is an unforgivable error not to let the train staff have that exact information at the same time. If the staff in the train knows, but doesn’t tell passengers, then they need training (or behavioral modification .
I’m ranting and speculating based on news paper articles and we all know just how inaccurate they can be sometimes. But it seems to me that when people start talking about the shortcomings of SJ in regards to their marketing and brand management – there is something seriously wrong. SJ’s main problem is hardly finding channels where they make excuses and let people blow off steam. The problems arise from the simple fact that SJ is a colossal, old-fashioned company which, through their own and the governments (in plural)incompetence has mismanaged their business. It is NOT about finding better excuses – its about solving the damn problems!
But of course, it doesn’t help when train drivers all of a sudden starts tweeting about who’s fault it is that the train is late or that conductors run around without having a clue about what is going on. So here is my, free of charge and not very substantiated recommendation for SJ. Get a crisis team started. Include people from different sectors. Get processes and technology into place, train the staff and make a fresh start. If the trains and tracks will take a few years to sort out, at least the staff should know what is going on and be well-trained in the psychology of making people feel informed and in control. Also, why not stock the restaurant car with enough stuff to keep people happy for a few extra hours. And don’t even think about charging for it…