A day in the life of First Capital Connect Customer Management Centre Article icon

A Emily Smart learns how First Capital Connect uses social media to engage with passengers

When you are stuck on a delayed train, plotting revenge against the train company that has left you with your face in a fellow passenger's armpit seems perfectly reasonable, unless you know that they are doing something to solve it.

That is why First Capital Connect (FCC), which runs some of the UK's busiest commuter routes carrying 180,000 passengers every day, has launched a customer management team to make sure that customers don't end up hot under the collar when things go wrong.

Once London received the news that it won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, customer service director Keith Jipps recognised that 'train companies across the UK would be placed under the spotlight to ensure that spectators travelling across the country are provided with an excellent service'.

Not only did it need to transport thousands of excited passengers quickly and safely across the country and provide a normal service for daily commuters, but FCC also needed an effective way to communicate with all passengers if a problem should arise.

Launched in 2011, the Customer Management Centre, which is overseen by digital engagement manager Allison Dear, was designed to do just that. Located in the centre of London but neatly tucked away from the mass of commuters FCC engages with every day, the four man team assume their positions before the mass of tweets arrive from their daily commuters.

The team works to ensure that passengers are informed and advised at all stages of their journey on FCC trains. Each member is provided with between two and four screens which display different information, ranging from a moving image depicting the progress of a train, detailed information on disruptions, to the Twitter platform.

The team is put to the test on a regular basis, when journeys go anything but smoothly. When a train recently broke down on the Hertford Loop line near Crews Hill, the Twitter account @FirstCC was sent 440 tweets from unhappy passengers asking for information as well as demanding compensation.

Along with arranging replacement buses, liaising with the control team and the Crews Hill station manager, the team spent their time replying to passengers faced with a three hour journey home. Staff member Lloyd worked to calm down a particularly irate but active tweeter, who was making false allegations about passengers fainting and being taken to hospital.

Faced with the problem of being off-site, the team asked the passenger to provide details and images in order for them to assess the situation, but received an abrupt I am exhausted!  It's been a nightmare! You honestly think I have time to do your job for you? response.

'You just need to be sympathetic and make sure that you relay the correct information to passengers,' admits social media and information support adviser Leigh. Informative and helpful tweets include Hi, sorry about any disruption tonight. Can I help with looking up a journey or anything? ^Jay and Evening Helen. Please get a service to Stevenage then a service to Hertford North. ^Lloyd.

By using personalised tweets, the team has built up a 'human' relationship with many of the FCC passengers. Each member of the team is free to speak as they wish and are allowed to adopt their own tone of voice. However, engaging in arguments or using too many abbreviations is deemed unacceptable.

'We wanted to quickly move away from being too corporate and make it a lot more personal,' explains Jipps.

Leigh adds: 'I am the most apologetic. I say sorry quite a few times, whereas the others may only say it the once. Coming from a customer service background, you can really see the difference of using Twitter compared to answering phone calls or emails. This way you actually get a thank you and you can see the positive impact that you are making.'

Information is relayed via a variety of platforms, including public address announcements, the website and text alerts. CCTV footage at stations can also be accessed from the centre, and the team can alter station screens that display incorrect information at the press of a button.

Until the Crews Hill delay, FCC had received almost 8,000 tweets in August. 'That is very quiet compared to what we would receive in peak times after the summer holidays,' says Leigh.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, tweets to the FCC account peak during the commuter hours - 7am to 9am and 5pm to 7pm - when passengers increasingly rely on its social media service to gain information quickly and, occasionally, to vent their frustration.It usually takes a team of two to answer these queries, whilst the other two members of the team work on updating the additional information platforms.

A bespoke Twitter platform makes it easy to monitor tweets. It is programmed to pick up on words, such as 'delayed', 'safety' and some obscenities. Tweets containing these words are placed in the priority folder which the team looks to solve as quickly as possible.

Jipps explains: 'Twitter is a great tool for a train company to have. What is great about Twitter is its transparency. One reply can potentially answer 100 other questions and it is that visibility that makes it even more powerful. I do think that people fear social media because it is so open but I think that it is the right thing to do.'

The account frequently receives tweets from Sir Plastic Pig, with its @theplasticpig handle. The account, which claims that it is a train, is a complete mystery to FCC but they definitely appreciate the support that the chatty locomotive gives them.

Sir Plastic Pig often interrupts FCC's Twitter conversations with aggrieved commuters to offer his views and insights, and lighten the mood. Comments such as I asked Doris out on a date once, but she told me that she was washing her circuit boards, when describing how much he liked the 'lady on the 377 fleet', can surely only bring about a positive reaction. 

Leigh concludes: 'When we feel stressed it is really nice to receive a positive or funny tweet. We think Sir Plastic Pig is great.'