This post is the first installment of the three-part series on Twitter’s Voice In Transportation Customer Service: Three Cases. Putting companies through the social CRM test. ------ I think we all remember the ordeal of the Eurostar passengers who got caught in the tunnel under the Channel between the UK and France in December 2009. A whole night trapped in there. At that time, the customer service of Eurostar took a threshing for the mal-use (if that's not a word, it should be unstated as one!) of Twitter and the media didn't give the train company much of a chance either. However, a year later, very few were still openly monitoring the situation and the only piece I could find was by TechCrunch UK: One year after a Twitter backlash, has Eurostar finally got social media?. Luckily (or nit), just one day after that TechCrunch post was published, I was getting on the Eurostar to return home to Paris after a short stay in blizzard-battered London. Proof: Airports closed their runways, flights were cancelled... but strangely enough, the Eurostar was still running albeit with some delay. So I board the white, yellow and dark blue train with great hope of getting home without having to spend any time but the 20 regular minutes in the tunnel. Of course, it was packed. So off we go... And, as usual, off I go too, tweeting away for a few minutes before getting a file out to work on. First stop, Ashford International where the train usually drops off some commuters and picks up a few passengers to Lille in France (also commuters, i suppose). But then, the train just stays there and we're ordered to unboard. So I tweet. And much to my surprise, Eurostar replies with an apology. I can't remember how long it took but it was reasonable, given that I had simply *not* expected anything from them. What happened next was extremely interesting. They got us to park in the departure lounge of that small station, where one third of us couldn't sit. I tweeted to ask the reason why we were stuck since no announcements had been made. They tweeted me back that they had to change the train before making the official announcement in the microphone. Then I tweeted that some people needed to sit and that water or snacks wouldn't be a bad idea to make us wait. You can see the sequence for yourselves: Right after that, again, the official announcement was made that water and snacks would be distributed in one single place. There was a rush and within less than a minute, the small reserves they had brought out disappeared. Then another tweet on my part to let them know what had been going on and they served more bottles of water. As an observing participant, I could see groups forming for food -- including that one I found myself in: "I get water, who gets snacks? And soft drinks? Gums?," said one of the people standing next to me, talking to a group of us. Like survival in a train station guide. Reminded me of Lost, the multi-million dollar revenue TV series whose finale was the advertising coup of 2010. We finally boarded another train and carried on our journey without getting stalled (thank goodness) inside the tunnel. But on and on it went, with Eurostar not providing information to passengers, me asking for it and Eurostar broadcasting their replies. All the way to Paris, where we finally arrived just after 1.30 AM, i.e. the following day. I also asked what sort of compensation we would get and they announced on the train that ground staff would help us with compensation claims, saying that they would offer a free return in the same class of travel. Quick analysis Initial reaction time was good. Content was spot on: an apology and promise to do their best. Then the follow-up was of the poorest quality: customers were kept in the dark unless someone asked for information. I wondered to myself whether I was the only person tweeting the episode since they seemed to follow my cues so closely. We were handed a phone number to call to redeem our free return tickets. The service there was just perfect, really efficient and smooth (at least the English-speaking one, which is the one I asked to be connected to). Three weeks later, I boarded the Eurostar again on their freebie for a Paris-London excursion. I was glad I had two work meetings with prospects and could make it without forking out the money upfront (one of the prospects is now a Merrybubbles client for outreach on new media and social, yay!). Service onboard was particularly excellent on the way out so I tweeted it. It was not comparable on the way back (the attendant clearly had an attitude), and so I also tweeted it. On both occurrences, Eurostar replied. First, that they were pleased then that they wanted the train and car number to make sure service would always be good. So good points there. Just for the record, I did not heed to report the attendant however irritating his attitude had been -- we all have bad days. Since then, I've been going back and forth twice and am again planning to go in just over a week. And finally, I decided to enroll as a Frequent Traveller again. I used to be one in the very early days of Eurostar, in 1995 - I lived in London and I would visit my family in France quite often. During a whole week, I tried to clock in my various tickets but the process would stall at stage 3 for no reason. So in the end, I sent Eurostar an email to tell them exactly that, specifying that no matter which options I picked or not, it still would not work. Their response, once again, was pathetic: they said that I might have not entered my phone number correctly (although, given their online form, "no matter what options I picked" meant that there was no difference whether I entered a phone number or not at all). In short, they blamed the customer for not filling in the form properly when it's clearly their platform that is experiencing problems. And as if it were not enough, they attached a form to be returned to them via snail mail. What a fail!! Lucky for me, on Friday last week, I retweeted an article about social and customer service, saying that I just had had another "epic fail" from Eurostar: Then I elaborated a little further on my latest frustration by way of the following tweet. See -- another excuse: not able to read my email? Yes, Eurostar, you were able to read and, point in case, you replied. Something totally inappropriate but you indeed replied. They must have realized it because a few minutes later, the finally decide to follow me and subsequently send me this tweet (I'll let you enjoy their Twitter profile background now that you have seen my tweet): Way more satisfactory. I DM'ed them my cellphone number. Within the next half hour, Jeremy DUCK from the Eurostar customer service calls. Sends me an email with another form to fill and send right back. Within an hour of my tweet, I was registered as a Frequent Traveler. What I take away from this is that Eurostar still has some way to go to truly and fully leverage their real-time and social customer service. As it is, it is hugely uneven in quality and it seems that the procedure for crisis communication has not been clearly defined yet. Because I simply cannot believe that a social agency or head of PR in this day and age would set the rules for a blame game on false pretences as a first contact reply. I'm sure whoever they hired to help them with social is good but they may have omitted to train everyone across the various services. As Kate Spiers of Wisdom London put it in her comments of the TechCrunch post, "their Twitter presence is structured very much in terms of organisational / internal structures and siloes and NOT in terms of customer needs, expectations or even logic." As I was reading my Twitter timeline this morning, I saw the following Quora question pass by: Is social media the solution to bad customer service? So it made me think. Is it the social part or the customer service part that is flawed in Eurostar's case? I think it's a bit of both. I agree with Kate's position above and truth is that the quality of one (or lack thereof) affects the other as they mutually sustain one another. To conclude, I'd say the reply by Vladimir Dimitroff, aka Maistora on Twitter, is the by far the best: "The only solution to bad customer service is better customer service." On those words, I hope you enjoyed this journey with Eurostar and hope to see you soon (next week) for the second installment of the series, which will be about my experience with the social customer service of the airline Cathay Pacific. Comments, experience sharing etc welcome! And you, dear Eurostar, see you in a few days again. Good on you for the latest move with the swift Frequent Traveller enrollment after our Twitter conversation. Amazing what customers can do with a mobile phone!