Snowed under. How bad communications damage your business

Poor communication in business

When I looked out of my window this morning, I was treated to the sight of lots of snow.

It didn’t cause me any problems, though. When I took the children to school, I simply brushed it off my car’s windscreen and windows. Plenty of earlier traffic ensured the main roads were snow free. In short, travelling was almost as simple as on any other day.

Not so for everyone. Lots of people in my area are working from home today after train operator Greater Anglia cancelled more than 200 trains, and restricted service on many routes. Currently there’s only one train per hour travelling from Colchester to London.

On days like this, one of the worst jobs in the world is to be responsible for Greater Anglia’s Twitter feed. Being the brunt of hundreds of angry customers’ frustrations is never going to be fun.

But it struck me that the company is making one major mistake that is causing major damage to its brand. While it is good at communication how and when services are restricted or cancelled, it is bad at explaining why.

Think about it. We’re talking major disruption because of a bit of snow. Yet we all know that trains manage to run perfectly well in countries that have far more snow than us. After all, the Trans-Siberian railway has been running services between Moscow and Vladivostok since 1916!

So why can’t Greater Anglia run its trains? According to the company itself, it’s because of snow. But that doesn’t even begin to explain what snow does to make train operation difficult.

I found the answers elsewhere. According to Network Rail, when a train slows down as it approaches a station or a set of points, this can cause the snow to compact on the rails and turn to solid ice. This can coat the electrified rail,which means the train then loses the power that it needs to run. Also, if rails freeze together, signals can stay red and trains can’t move.

When I read that, Greater Anglia’s actions suddenly made sense. The problem is electrical, rather than a purely mechanical one. Running fewer trains helps prevent excessive build up of ice. Some routes are cancelled because they are more prone to these problems.

So why doesn’t Greater Anglia explain this to its customers? Before I looked into the reasons why trains have problems in snow, I simply felt the company was being over-cautious. Now I know why the service is disrupted, I actually feel sympathetic.

I think there’s a lesson there for all businesses. If you have to communicate a problem to your customers, always be clear about the reasons why. If you don’t they’ll think less of you, when a little more knowledge could easily have made them sympathise with you – and keep putting custom your way.

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