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The customer is always wrong, apparently

September 20, 2010
Southern Railway logo

Southern Railway - the customer comes last when they want to spend a penny on the Portsmouth to Brighton line


Seth Godin’s recent book on leadership, Tribes, talks energetically about not sinking into corporate culture and taking the responsibility to lead – at whatever level you are in your company. By creating exciting and energetic leadership, you will create your own tribe of followers and engender commercial success. 

Great advice – it’s all too easy to get subsumed within corporate culture and the domination of unspoken rules. What a shame then that the UK’s Southern Railway has once again put the customer last in its strategic thinking about new trains running on its Portsmouth to Brighton line. How so? Because they think it acceptable that a train should have no toilet facilities on a journey that takes up to an hour and a half. 

So, on Southern Railway: 

  1. If you are taken ill on a train, either hold it in or be ill all over your fellow passengers
  2. If you suffer from incontinence or other ailments, take a cork and hope for the best
  3. If for some reason you need a moment of privacy, forget it
  4. If you have children who are ill, or who need a change of clothes out of the view of prying eyes, don’t travel
  5. If you really MUST use a toilet, use the ones provided on the station – you know, the ones you have to pay to use and which are usually either locked, blocked or just plain filthy

Southern Railway reveals once again how monopolies disguised as privatised competitive companies have nothing but contempt for the people who keep it going: the customers. Southern’s view is that heve “refreshed” the interiors and flooring of the trains – how divorced from the customer’s needs can you get?. In any case, I wonder how long they’ll stay “refreshed” when they’re covered with excrement, urine or even vomit. And the Department of Transport’s response? “It’s not for the government to micromanage the industry“. OK… 

In Godin’s book he encourages us to take control of our companies, to come up with new ideas, and to avoid sinking into the system because customers don’t buy systems they buy excitement. As he says: 

“We live in a world where we have the leverage to make things happen, the desire to  do work we believe in, and a marketplace that is begging us to be remarkable. And yet, in the middle of these changes we still get stuck. Stuck with archaic rules. Stuck in industries that not only avoid change but actively fight it. Stuck in fear of what our boss will say, stuck because we’re afraid we’ll get into trouble. Most of all, we’re stuck acting like managers or employees, instead of like the leaders we could become. We’re embracing a factory instead of a tribe.” 

Still, like all UK train companies, Southern Railway doesn’t care. It has contempt for its customers. It lives in a shell of its own. It thinks of trains and timetables rather than people and journeys. It’s own staff are not encouraged to think about customers – they are encouraged to think that ALL railways are and should be run like this. 

I have nothing but contempt for companies like this. Maybe if the British taxpayer wasn’t paying millions in state subsidies to support this negation of service, these companies would start to consider that when it comes to business the customer is the person who holds the sword of Damocles over your head. Frankly, they deserve to go bust – but neither the people nor, it seems, the government, have the power to do anything about it. 

Maybe this is what the Pope’s assistant meant when he said Britain had become a “third world country”.


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