I recently went to board the Eurostar to Paris only to find out that I had made a mistake and that my ticket was for the next day. When I went to change it, they told me they could not exchange it and I would have to buy a new one, so I wrote them the letter below about the experience. My reason for writing the letter was two-fold. Firstly, it was to turn the experience from frustration into something productive so that I could let it go or turn it into learning and and be able to keep my heart open and secondly because I thought, if Life has gone to the trouble of manipulating me like this, I might as well do the work it is prompting. It also got me thinking about why we are failing to understand how to treat each other with empathy and consideration in large business contexts. It is something that no-one is enjoying yet everyone is perpetuating. My experience in business has provided me with a number of contrasting examples and their impact. One time on a heavily delayed flight back from Prague on British Airways, I mentioned to cabin staff that I was in danger of missing my last train home to Gloucestershire and was their anything they could do to help. They came back and asked where exactly I lived. I explained that my car was parked at Kemble station and that I lived close by in Minchinhampton. They came back to say that the captain lived close to Kemble station and that he would drive me to Kemble and he did, all the way back to my car. This had a considerable impact on me and from then on I flew BA wherever I could, they felt like my friends and my family. I also did not fail to share the story or to feedback to them the impact it had on me. Some years later, I was late for a flight in Luxembourg (the first time ever that I had missed the boarding time – I did so by 5 mins). The Luxembourg airport staff were very helpful and said to me that they would ring the BA rep who could come back and check me in. They rang her but she refused. I then had to buy another ticket costing me over £400 to get home. I had enough time to get through security and to the gate before the BA flight had even boarded and I asked the BA attendant why she had not allowed me to check-in. Her attitude was one of “that is the rule, you are a frequent flyer you should know that”. My sense of connection and trust in BA was shattered. This might seem childish, but then when it comes to our emotions we are all children, we get more sophisticated at hiding our emotions but they do not change. I still fly BA but my loyalty to them is severely dented.
At one of my clients, John Lewis, they introduced a new policy which one of my coachees was explaining having to persuade partners (all staff are partners at John Lewis) to adopt. The new policy was to accept items for refund even if customers did not have a receipt. Staff were understandably concerned that a small minority might well take advantage of this and return items they had not purchased from John Lewis. Yet my coachee won the argument by pointing out that they did not want to design the policy around the minority who might take advantage but around the majority who were trustworthy. They would have to accept some might take advantage but they would be serving the majority who didn’t. Now that struck me as enlightened thinking. Strangely though, people seem to lose sight of this in business. One would think it would be blindingly obvious but often the reverse applies. A number of years ago, I parked my car at a Great Western station with APCOA parking. When I came to get my car some 3 days later on a Saturday morning I realised I had got confused over the days and so was £1.50 short on my parking fee. The ticket was for £50. I wrote to APCOA parking explaining my mistake and that I was absent minded and that I had no intention of trying to avoid £1.50 and was very happy to pay that “would they be willing to waive the fine?”. Hearing nothing in response I assumed they had decided to waive it. Four months later I received a notice from the bailifs demanding £160. Being worried by this I paid it but then wrote to my MP to explain the situation who then wrote to the Managing Director of First Great Western. I received a very aggressive response from him, where he detailed the several times over a period of fifteen years of commuting when I had a received a notice as if this was damning evidence that I was sort of trouble maker or fare dodger, despite the fact I had paid each of these fines. Even my MP was astonished that he should be so aggressive towards a customer. He seemed to be suggesting that I had deliberately tried to avoid paying a £2 parking fee on each of these occasions, something utterly non-sensical. I responded to the letter by explaining that I was absent minded and that on each of these occassions I had paid the fine involved despite the fact that I had probably ended up paying more than 3 months worth of parking and that this could make no sense even if I were trying to avoid the fine. I also explained that I was not asking them to refund the money, but that I wanted to avoid someone else receiving such a shock and such an aggressive bailifs note; I said that if my money meant that no-one was treated the same way again it would be worth it. I received a response which stunned me, saying in effect, that they did not believe me and trusted APCOA parking (who responded to none of my letters even though I sent them recorded delivery). How could a managing director treat a customer like this as if they were an enemy? The issue is that large companies hold the danger of focusing on their own success without considering the paradox that their own success is entirely dependent on empathising with their customers and genuinely putting them first. They are more concerned with protecting against being taken advantage of than they are treating people well; it results in them treating customers impersonally at best and cynically and in a hostile fashion at worst. The I-Ching says to rule truly is to serve. I think in the current economic crisis this is at the core of what we are learning, that without morality business acts in a short term and cynical way which ends up ironically harming all of us and taking years to put right. There are no large scale solutions to the economic problems we face only individual and personal ones. When we start treating people the way we would wish to be treated, with heart and genuine empathy, then business will serve us all. Capricorn rules business in general and with Pluto there at the moment it is being transformed. Do as you would be done by feels a very Capricornian maxim of cause and effect and responsibility. Perhaps with the square from Uranus we are relearning this at a global, group level.
So much of my coaching with business leaders is to stop them thinking about the business and people as a whole. This is a dangerous focus; when they do this they think impersonally. I am working on getting them seeing that their role is an illusion and no different to how it has ever been. Instead of trying to impact the business (which they don’t control even if they lead it), which causes them to focus on numbers and processes, I challenge them to see that they can influence no more people than they ever could, that instead their focus is on working on themselves and helping develop the the individuals that they are directly responsible for. Instead of rushing round madly trying to influence “the business” they only need to focus on treating each individual that they interact with and particularly those they are directly responsible for with as much integrity as possible, in this way this influences how these people respond to those around them and so on throughout the organisation. Research shows that we are separated by seven degrees of separation but that our influence extends to three degrees of separation, ie. that the people we interact with are heavily influenced by our attitudes and behaviours, that the people they then interact with are heavily influenced by our attitudes and behaviours through them and even the people they then interact with, after that it falls of a cliff. No wonder the I-Ching is so pedantic in focusing on having the right attitude and behaviour in every interaction as Confucius comments in Inner Truth (the hexagram about how we influence even impossibly difficult people):
The superior man abides in his room. If his words are well spoken, he meets with assent at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! If the superior man abides in his room and his words are not well spoken, he meets with contradiction at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! Words go forth from one's own person and exert their influence on men. Deeds are born close at hand and become visible far away. Words and deeds are the hinge and bowspring of the superior man. As hinge and bowspring move, they bring honor or disgrace. Through words and deeds the superior man moves heaven and earth . Must one not, then, be cautious?
And finally, in true Sagittarian style, many paragraphs after announcing it and following much pontification, here is the letter:
I am a frequent traveller on Eurostar and a Eurostar Carte Blanche holder. I travel regularly as I have my own business working in Leadership Training and as an executive coach for senior level individuals at a range of companies. My work regularly takes me across Europe. With this focus in my work, I have spent a lot of time considering what makes business effective and particularly how to act with integrity and create a genuine customer focus in business.
Today, I arrived to catch the 9.17 train to Paris. When I arrived I discovered that I had booked for tomorrow by mistake. I went to the Business Premier office who were very helpful and booked me another ticket to travel on this train. They said that since I had booked a non-flexible ticket they could not refund the original ticket but to check with Customer Services because they might be willing to consider my case. They also said to make sure that at least my points for Carte Blanche were credited for tomorrow’s journey.
When I rang customer care I explained that it was my fault but asked if they could exercise some discretion given it was a genuine mistake and I had paid twice to travel once. I was told that the rules were the rules and that they were not prepared to do so. I then asked them about the points being credited for tomorrow’s journey but was told that whilst I would get status points for the journey, since I was not travelling I would not get any points for the journey itself. I explained that this seemed particularly unfair and like a double punishment, not only had I paid for my journey twice but I wasn’t even going to get the points for doing so: they were immovable.
Much of what I am teaching in terms of leadershp is emotional intelligence and empathy; to treat others, and customers particularly, as fellow human beings and to understand the emotional and long term impact of individual actions rather than focusing on short-term gain. Living in a global, large business environment makes it easy to treat people in an impersonal way but the emotional impact of this is severe and has business implications. At a personal level, I am left with a feeling of resentment. I know plenty of fellow coaches and businesses who are very strict in their approach to charging people, but I notice that while they may be successful in the short-term, the long term impact is usually detrimental and their client relationships suffer even if the clients appear to understand and they are following the legal contract. I have always aimed to treat my clients as individuals and adopted a high degree of flexibility. My colleagues ask me how I have remained so busy and successful despite the crisis and I can’t help wondering if this is one of the key factors. My fellow coaches feel they have to charge because they are worried about their revenues, which are under pressure, and because their clients will take advantage and not respect them if they don’t, yet the result is that their clients don’t respect them, they feel taken advantage of. Like most wisdom it is can feel counter-intuitive.
I think collectively that we are learning about this with the current financial crisis. Focusing on short-term gain at the expense of others and without looking at the long term impact of our actions has created the financial mess we are in now and it will take a long time to deal with the consequences. My loyalty to Eurostar stems from the excellent customer service I receive generally and in particular when I went to Paris some months back with friends to attend an exhibition. They were elderly and one was disabled with a severe back problem. When we went to the business lounge we were told that because it was midweek I was only allowed one guest not three as per weekends but they generously waived it. My friends and I have never failed to tell this story to everyone and it gave us all a sense of warmth and goodwill towards Eurostar.
The decision to travel with Eurostar as opposed to flying, given I live in Gloucestershire, is marginal. I save time (and probably cost) by flying but I prefer the experience you have created on the train. I can’t imagine that I am greatly different to other human beings in feeling resentful when I pay twice for something (it just doesn’t feel fair no matter how many rules are put round it) or for feeling goodwill and loyalty when I am treated with human consideration. I also can’t imagine that I am the first person to make a mistake, as the saying goes: To err is human to forgive is divine. I also can’t imagine that I am different in sharing my experiences with friends and colleagues, the only difference might be that I am a professional story teller, using my experience to teach leaders in business. I also write a blog that is followed by many of my clients and friends.
Most of my clients worry about how to manage the perception of their brand in the marketplace and to attract more customers; l work to help them see that it is more impacted by individual interactions than large marketing campaigns. It is not easy, but small acts of human consideration have a huge impact. Working as a coach in John Lewis, this principle is ingrained in their approach and training and it has been the cornerstone of their success rather than a burden or financial counterweight. I always go to John Lewis and buy from them, because I trust them to treat me humanly and fairly should anything go wrong and I am not alone.
In this instance I am sure I will continue to travel by train, but I think there is a strong possibility that I will probably choose to fly more regularly. Ironically the loss to Eurostar of one or two journeys would outweigh the cost of an act of flexibility and consideration and this would probably multiply considerably in terms of recommendations and goodwill.
Beyond all this though is a more important thought; what kind of world do we all want to live in and create? I haven’t met anyone yet who wants to be treated without kindness, fairness and empathy. There is a simple test, would you be happy to be treated the same way as you are treating your customers?