South West Trains customer experience team

You are stuck on a deserted platform late at night waiting for the train from Guildford to Waterloo to take you home when suddenly four teenagers appear and the atmosphere changes. You turn to Twitter as a form of comfort and to your surprise South West Trains leans out a helping hand.

Just six months after launching on Twitter, one dedicated member of the South West Trains Twitter team noticed a woman in distress and tweeted her, prompting her to visit to the nearest help point so that they could speak directly with her. And by accessing CCTV cameras in the room, the member of staff was able to see the passenger and calm her down.

That was the moment that the team realised the power of Twitter and the effect it can have on its followers.

From day one, it was quite apparent that the South West Trains Twitter account, @SW_Trains, was going to be a big hit as its number of followers rose from zero to 500 within hours.

Today, two years on, the account has more than 62,000 followers making it one of the largest train operating companies on social media, despite being one of the last to take to the micro-blogging site.

The account is managed from the hub of South West Trains at the main control centre, essentially the heart, brain, ears and even eyes of the company which aims to keep services running as smoothly as possible. Adam Piddington, head of information and customer experience at South West Trains, explains: 'Sometimes the person tweeting from the account will be sitting next to the controller managing the service, so updated information can be tweeted immediately.

'Our main objective very early on was to provide real time information. The key is to be open and give honest responses, while driving for improvement.'

By having this objective set in place, the team is able to communicate correct information directly to followers, as well as being able to immediately pass on comments about local issues to managers and staff on the ground.

South West Trains is currently trialling a bespoke Twitter platform which Piddington claims 'to be working well'.

He continues: 'We want to integrate it more into the business to provide even quicker responses. It is important to get that ownership of customers locally and be aware of their issues.'

The core team of six, led by Piddington, is in control of a variety of platforms that provide information to passengers. Usually shifts will take place and only one person will look after social media at a time. Given the title as Information Team Leader, their aim is to continuously push out as much information as possible, be it answers to tweets or general information.

'Usually one person will be on Twitter at a time. We can call others in if it gets too busy but this is rare, we usually have the right number of people. Depending on what is going on, there are usually around 15 people pushing out information both internally and externally,' explains Piddington.

The additional members of the team update the website, the information screens, station announcements at the station and the free text messaging service.

The team is left to make their own judgments when updating information platforms or posting on Twitter. Piddington explains: 'We employed the team because we knew that they were going to be good at this. They can't have a script; you just have to trust their judgment. They are allowed to make mistakes as long as they review what they have done and learn from it.'

Although the team are left to develop their own style of writing, they are keen to refrain from forming a relationship with their followers. 'We toyed with using names which is a very familiar style that companies use, but we don't think people want a relationship with us,' remarks Piddington.

'We have invited some notoriously frequent tweeters to the office to see how we do it. And they begin to understand what we do. This did open up a different type of relationship as it is great to get an understanding of South West Trains' customers.'

The Twitter account receives more than 2,200 tweets every day but tweets, on average, just 100 posts over the same period, although this does vary during disruptions. The team is careful not to intrude on other people's conversations and, as such, will usually only reply to direct tweets rather than mentions.

When it comes to offensive language, the team has the attitude that just because someone has sworn in a tweet, it doesn't mean that they do not have a valid question that requires a response. Piddington claims: 'We try to engage absolutely where possible.'

When these tweets get particularly unpleasant or if 140 characters is just simply not enough for a response, the team will usually direct message customers and ask for their mobile number. However, Piddington is careful that the company is not seen to be taking tricky conversations out of the public domain.

He concludes: 'We are learning all the time.There is no absolute way of doing it but there are definitely absolute ways of not doing it. Each day we get between 90 and 100 new followers and we want to continue to grow. Two years ago, who'd have thought it?'