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I’ve travelled on the train pretty frequently with work. So when I decided it would be great to take the family to London to enjoy some Christmas cheer, I thought I knew the best way to get my tickets. I logged on to the Virgin Trains web site three weeks early to book my tickets and take advantage of the advance booking prices. I felt pretty good that I got a deal by being organised. It turns out that I didn’t get a good deal after all and could have saved a fortune.

To save time I decided to pop and pick up my pre-booked tickets at lunch time. As I work ten minutes from Piccadilly Station in Manchester I went for a brisk winter’s walk to pick them up. As I typed in my collection code a Christmassy looking member of Network Rail walked passed me and seeing twelve cards being printed he stopped and said, “That’s a lot of cards, let me help you sort them out”. He scooped them out of the machine and started sorting them for me. Spotting that I had two adult and two children’s tickets he asked what I was doing and we had a good natter about my mini Christmas break.

Then it happened. He said, “Don’t forget to take your family railcard with you when you travel”.

Starting to think I’d booked the wrong tickets I said, “I don’t have a family railcard”. He then explained that by booking online the system wouldn’t have flagged that for a one off £30 investment I could save 33% off the adult tickets and more from the children’s tickets. Typically they would advise buying one if you are spending over £100. He then asked me to hang on while he got me a leaflet and it would be worth considering it next time I travelled; which is rare.

On top of being very observant and giving me a great experience, he was using his initiative and his training to highlight that I could have saved money. The text book would say that’s excellent. He was a very helpful and friendly chap and was trying to do more to help me. In reality though he let the insides of the company leak out for the customer to see; me. The online process is flawed. It left me feeling pretty deflated because I’d just learnt that rather than spending £217.20 I could have spent £155.96, which includes the cost of the Family Railcard and saved £61.24. That would have bought us lunch in London.

So what can Network Rail and Virgin Trains learn? Firstly the buying stage of their customer experience has failed miserably. It isn’t consistent across all channels and the online process is broken. It should be possible to realise someone booking a train journey online for two adults and two children is a family and therefore deliver a brilliant moment where they tell me I could reap significant savings with a Railcard. They’ve missed a great opportunity. In addition it will now make me reconsider booking tickets online. This goes against the desire prevalent in most companies to drive low value interactions to low cost channels such as online self-service. Secondly the Network Rail chap was excellent. But his helpfulness actually left me feeling deflated and annoyed. Probably not the emotion they were trying to evoke in me because he exposed an internal process problem. Yes I’ve learnt something for next time, but by the time I travel again I’ll probably have forgotten.

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