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Social Media Twitter Customer Service

Chiltern Railways for Social Brands 100


By Dan Grech, Marketing Consultant

January 26, 2012 | 8 min read

I'd like to nominate Chiltern Railways for this years Social Brands 100 report.

To big up a train operating company as a brand might sound slightly bizarre, you can judge me accordingly, but Chiltern Railways have long been practising a form of remarkable customer service.

If you reside outside of West London, Chiltern Hills or Birmingham you probably won't be aware of this, nor might it be considered so cutting-edge now. Back in late 2008 (keeping in mind Twitter had reached a mere 5million of it's current 300million+ user base) Chiltern Railways decided to adopt the social network for promotional purposes.

They quickly found out how to make this an all encompassing tool to deal with other aspects of communication as you will read below.

Despite my (infrequent) sharp tongued remarks in the face of inevitable delays I do commend Chiltern Railways highly and fully endorse companies using Twitter in a similar way.

I put some questions to Emma at Chiltern Railways and the responses are a great read. I hope you enjoy them.

How did the idea to use Twitter in this way come about?

At the end of 2008, we looked at the channels through which we were communicating with our passengers and where our passengers were talking about us. Twitter came up; it was still considered a little “underground” at the time, but we believed it would be an appropriate place for us to talk about our leisure offering. In doing so we quickly realised there was huge opportunity to communicate directly with passengers and to provide help, support and answer questions. No other train company was on Twitter at the time, so it was a leap into the unknown and an industry first, but we knew that it would be invaluable in terms of customer support and reputation management. It allowed us to communicate one on one and start to form relationships with customers; this then in turn would create advocacy and enable us to amplify our messages.

Did you consider any other social networks for this purpose?

At the same time we launched Twitter, we also created a page on Facebook. We also started actively monitoring blogs and looking at other opportunities. 

Was it originally launched to deal with customer service issues or to be informational about your service?

Originally, we did not see it as a Customer Service tool and our main objective was to use it to promote leisure travel. We started to broadcast messages and individuals started to reply and so we’d reply back. Of course if someone asked us a question, we’d answer it, but we weren’t as proactive in looking for people with questions or those making points about our service without @ messaging us. The big turning point for us came during a period of severe weather at the end of 2009 when we decided to actively contact people to tell them that we were open and running services when many other train operators were unable. We also began to utilise hashtags, which helped to spread get the message out.

Twitter has become an incredibly effective customer service tool as it gives us the powerful ability to communicate in real time and tackle real issues as they happen. In addition, as a customer insight tool it is also invaluable, we’re able to hear what our customers are thinking about parts of our service and feedback queries/ issues to relevant departments. 

What social CRM do you use? (If any)

If by this you mean a social CRM technological platform then, no, we don’t have one. We have a CRM system but social interactions are not documented through it. Social CRM of course works without a system or you could say that at the moment our system is currently our Tweeters. Information is held in our heads; we know our customers and can easily continue conversations with them. We do however avidly follow technological developments in this area and as our follower list expands we may decide we need to do things differently. One thing we are clear of is that we will never lose our Twitter tone of voice, our personal touch and the genuinely enjoyable ongoing interactions we are a part of.

Have you noticed a reduction in complaints and enquiries by more traditional methods (phone, letter, email)? By what %?

During 2011 Chiltern Railways made the biggest change in its history by launching Mainline, our new service between London and Birmingham and introducing a new timetable. We partly closed our line for two weeks and at weekends to achieve this. 2011 therefore is not a like for like year to measure against in relation to increased volumes of social interaction although this is something we will do moving forwards.

Inevitably there are questions answered through Twitter that otherwise would have gone via customer services and we are reducing those, but actually we may also be generating more discussion between customer services and our passengers. Now and again we see someone who is unhappy, but hasn’t directly spoken to us, via a social route or otherwise. We have contacted those individuals and arranged conversations for them with our customer service experts in order to resolve a situation.

What department run the @ChilternRailway account?

From the start the account has been the responsibility of the Communications department, however we have some interesting plans for increasing our specialist knowledge and team of tweeters in 2012. Chiltern Railways is full of passionate staff who genuinely want to delight customers and as our Twitter conversations grow, we want to harness that passion for the benefit of customers. 

What do you think other companies in your sector could learn, by using Twitter?

Having been the first train operator active on Twitter, I think transport companies have already learnt from us and continue to do so. 2011 has seen a dramatic increase in train companies using Twitter which is good news for customers and that’s what we are all here for. More brands will come on board in 2012 and we hope that everything we’ve learnt since we pioneered the approach will help them to get up to speed quickly. Of course, more brands means that we’ll have some stiff competition from other train companies in the Social Brands 100, and we’ll continue to innovate to stay ahead!

Innovation is central to our organisation; we like to do things differently and challenge what can’t be done. One such innovation in 2011 was Tweet the Managers. This is where different managers in our company go live on Twitter for an hour session. It was developed after wondering what we could do to make our Meet the Managers work for the modern day person who can’t always make a certain date and place. Before we launched Tweet the Managers, we asked one of our followers what they thought of the proposal. They liked the idea but they were concerned about how it would work on people’s timelines, so we changed the idea slightly and came up with the concept of following the session using a hashtag. Each manager has their own hashtag and the dates are pre-advertised along with the session hashtag. Sometimes, we even ask our followers who they want next and what they want to talk about.

Tweet the Manager has been very popular and it’s evolving, we now change our avatar to be a picture of the manager during the hour and we are focussing sessions on a particular topic. This year, we also have Tweet the Boss dates lined up, with our Managing Director, Rob Brighouse, so customers can put their questions and thoughts direct to him over Twitter. Other companies are starting to adopt the Tweet the Manager concept and we’re sure it won’t be long before it becomes the norm.

We’ve got other ideas for 2012, but we can’t give everything away, that would spoil the surprise...

Nominate Chiltern Railways for the Social Brands 100 report here:

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