Transport operator Eurostar's shortcomings have demonstrated how the customer engagement game has changed in the social media-enabled world, says Dan Martin.
Those of us with an interest in business use of social media have been glued to Twitter over the last couple of weeks as a major transport operator has been forced to learn some harsh lessons about customer engagement in the new, social media-enabled world.
Last month, five Eurostar trains heading for the UK broke down in the Channel Tunnel leaving 2,000 passengers stranded for several hours. A lack of water, heat and limited toilet facilities added to the unpleasant conditions and as more trains were cancelled further disruption was caused.
Unsurprisingly (at least for us regular tweeters) passengers on board the affected trains and those waiting for friends and families to arrive in London posted on Twitter seeking information. Among them was Colette Ballou, a passenger stranded on a train, who tweeted: "Shocked at how unprepared and uncommunicative Eurostar was. Eurostar failed to communicate with passengers and social media told the truth and got it to mainstream media fast."
It was at this point that a PR crisis management plan which fully embraced social media should have sprung into action. It didn't.
Eurostar does have a presence on Twitter through its @little_break feed but like many big corporates it has made the mistake of solely using the network for marketing. Set up as part of the company's Little break, Big difference campaign by social media agency We Are Social, the feed is used to tweet special offers and information about Eurostar destinations. Its Belgian operation also tweets marketing updates through @creamoflondon. But when crisis strikes, that isn't enough.
With no respond plan in place, Eurostar floundered. It was also revealed to be a victim of brand hijacking as a Twitter stream going by the name of @Eurostar_Uk was quickly shown to be a fake.
In the face of growing uproar, Eurostar was forced to rapidly overhaul its use of social media. Within 48 hours it was using its Twitter feeds to update customers on delays, cancellations and refunds and company chief executive Richard Brown used YouTube to apologise:
As reported in Media Week, Eurostar cancelled its 2010 marketing activity in the wake of the furore, with sales and marketing director Emma Harris admitting to Brand Republic that the company had a "big job to do from a brand point of view" after three days of "quite damaging" disruption. An urgent meeting was also arranged to discuss a rethink of its approach to social media marketing in 2010.
But the big question remained - would Eurostar's approach to social media would remain so positive? Would the company claim ownership of the @Eurostar_Uk account? Would the @little_break account simply revert back to being solely about marketing?
Initially, the signs looked positive.
The Little break, Big difference website was used to post updates on the situation, including a YouTube video Q&A with the company's commercial director Nick Mercer:
One slight hitch with this strategy was that most customers would still be going to www.eurostar.com rather than an obscure marketing website. The corporate site does contain information on the current situation but not as much as on Littlebreakbigdifference.com. To my mind, this suggested that We Are Social were still struggling to convince Eurostar head office about expanding its new found social media engagement strategy to its mainstream website.
Irrespective of this, there were other positive signs. After revealing that Eurostar services would resume on Tuesday, the profile of the @little_break account was changed, almost certainly by We Are Social. The previous marketing material was replaced with "Official Eurostar Twitter feed" and "Thanks for understanding".
Interestingly, the new profile admitted the team updating it was "not Eurostar customer service" indicating that the department with customer engagement at its heart was still not embracing the social media way of doing things. And this hunch was to be borne out.
After initially responding to the uprorar, using its @little_break Twitter feed to update passengers on delays, cancellations and refunds, on 29th December it all went silent. Admittedly it was Christmas but the country was back at work and most other companies had picked up their social media presence.
I tweeted at Eurostar and asked them why they had been so silent. This was the reply:
No questions? I beg to differ. Both these tweets were posted that same day:
Finding the above tweets took me a matter of seconds. All I did was type 'Eurostar' into the Twitter search engine. Not exactly difficult.
Social media is not just about crisis management; it's a full time operation. The company had the perfect opportunity to turn a negative into a massive positive but it failed to recognise that. If you have a presence on sites like Twitter you must acknowledge that people are talking about you and be constantly monitoring what they're saying.
So what should be learned from this whole episode?
The biggest lesson is that customers don't know (or care about) the difference between marketing and customer service feeds. All they want is answers and the company needs to provide them. The prevalence of mobile phones and other devices means that the power is in the hands of the customer and they can provide instant feedback no matter where they are.
In a blog post, We Are Social managing director Robin Grant revealed Eurostar's cautious approach to social media. When an idea for a "real-time social media listening and responding programme and crisis plan" was suggested, the company "could see the long term benefits of such a strategy, however as adapting their existing processes had wider implications across the business they decided to start small by moving forward with the Little break, Big difference campaign, to learn from the experience of engaging in conversations in social media".
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying a business' whole engagement policy should focus on social media but it has to be a major part of the process. The way customers engage with businesses has changed and any business - no matter how big or small - needs to accept that.
Like Richard Baker, who set up a Twitter account to converse with customers while working at Virgin Trains, said in a blog post: "Twitter belongs to everyone in the organisation who cares a jot about their customers. That requires more fundamental changes inside organisations to make sure departments are talking to each other."
As of 7 January, it looks as if the penny may have finally dropped at Eurostar. With yet another train breaking down in the Channel Tunnel, hundreds of passenger have again been left stranded. On this occasion, however, it seems to have learned its lessons and is adopting a fairly textbook social media approach. Long may it continue!