Figure 1: no right to reply: patently false and deceptive claims from the 1930′s
In the good old days commercial communication was easy. A company or organization developed their messaging then worked to deliver it, via earned and paid media. There was a certain comfort in knowing that if you repeated a message often enough, people would absorb it. You didn’t have to worry about detractors, the best they could muster was a letter to the editor in a newspaper, a letter probably wrote with such a shrill style most reasonable people would brush the person off as a crackpot. Ah, those were the days indeed.
With the advent of the Internet, a whole host of tools have appeared which provide anyone with a megaphone to express their opinion, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Social media practitioners tend to tell companies that social media enables conversations between companies and their stakeholders, a very different paradigm from traditional top-down communication. All stakeholders, from customers and employees to investors and the communities where the company has a physical presence, have a right to reply to official messaging, not to mention an ability to create new discussions on previously taboo or overlooked topics. Companies are told to embrace this phenomenon, to enter into a direct dialog with their stakeholders.
Figure 2: We say companies should be listening & engaging on social media
Services like twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ serve to engage with various stakeholders by providing platforms to answer questions, stimulate demand and for companies to achieve recognition as all around good netizens, thus generating goodwill. There’s no shortage of success stories: Ford and Southwest Airlines immediately come to mind as companies which generally leverage social media to great advantage.
In the midst of a needed turn-around
What if you are a legacy state owned railway? Like your government, who also happens to be your boss, you’ve been chronically mismanaged, you’ve racked up debts that need to be repaid and you’re pretty much detested by the very people you’re suppose to serve? Perhaps your “brand” isn’t yet ready for social media. At the same time, you have a CEO, Mauro Moretti, who has been working for about 5 years to get the organization back on track, literally and figuratively. Investments made over the last several years are starting to bear fruit. Many stations, large (e.g Milano Porta Garibaldi) and small (Campiglia Marittima, LI), are finally being supplied with an appropriate number of self-service ticketing machines, finally making it easier for the honest to be honest while increasing your revenues. The chronically out of service ticket validation machines are being replaced. Local rolling stock, some of which would charitably be called museum pieces, has been replaced, facilitating better on time performance. Seat covers, which looked dirtier than the brown walls of the Milan subway, have been replaced. I traveled more than 20,000 km in the last year and a half using Italian railways and as such, I’m quite aware of both Trenitalia’s deficiencies.as well as the long overdue improvements that are finally showing up throughout the system.
Yet problems persist
Like any other big company, you have some dead wood that is difficult to prune, but you also have many dedicated employees, whom given the opportunity, really do want to make a difference – despite suffering low morale for years. You’re aware that many problems still exist. There’s a massive gap between client expectations, especially regarding local train service, and what you’re able to provide. Local service passengers are often unaware that they pay less than half the cost of their ticket, despite that fact you don’t miss an occasion to say so. You’re reliant on each regional government to make up the difference. Local service subsides impact investments in new rolling stock. If you don’t have the guarantee to be able to provide service over a time long enough to amortize your investment, you won’t be able to buy new trains (€ 12 million each for double deckers). Old trains have greater maintenance needs and are more subject to breakdowns which translate into delays and cancellations.
Use Social Media to overcome communications deficit?
Among the open issues which need to be addressed is a known communications deficit. You need to better communicate why obvious problems exist – not necessarily to justify them, but rather to gather the necessary political and institutional support required to effect change. You have a small team that has begun to leverage social media to engage with some of your most vocal detractors – and to collect concrete feedback useful to stimulate internal and external change. You start small, beginning with twitter, a tool with a limited population of generally more sophisticated users compared to Facebook. Your social media team realizes that there is a clear gap between the concrete progress you’ve made and the external perception of your performance. Perhaps a series of direct encounters with some of your critics might be in order. In reality, many of the Italian web professionals know one other already. Most of them have met at least once at one event or another. As co-founder of the premier business networking group in Rome, Arianna Mallus cannot be accused of just going through the motions at her job. The same is true of her colleague Betta de Grimani – anyone who frequently attends web events in Milan and Rome has probably already met her – and if they spent 5 minutes talking to her, they’d know she does sincerely care about public transport. Betta’s values are exactly what social media is suppose to be all about: sincerity and transparency.
It is in this context the Trenitalia¹ social media team organized day long open houses in Rome and Milan for a few people active in the social media space: a mix of participants and practitioners. Most, if not all, of the invitees have openly criticized the Italian railways.
#meetFs Open House, Milan Edition
To the Martesana maintenance depot, in style
In Milan the day started off by presenting the Italian railways’ crown jewel – the high speed trains that cover the Milan to Naples corridor. At Milano Centrale station we were taken on a special service high speed train which brought us, 5 minutes later, to the Martesana maintenance depot. This depot is dedicated to servicing the high speed fleet; a similar structure exists in Naples. Our guide for this part of the day was very enthusiastic in spewing out various details on Trenitalia’s crown jewel. We were also told about the various objects people insist on disposing in toilets (even the well-healed don’t behave the way they should – and someone has to pay for this) and how body panels are easily changeable (so there, cinghiale which insist in getting in the way).
To the Fiorenza maintenance depot, by bus
Figure 4: The German S-Bahn logo (left) should replace the poor contrast Milan symbol
For many, trains are simply a way to commute to work – and in that spirit the group then proceed to the Fiorenza maintenance depot used for Trenord local train service in Lombardia. The presentation began with a view of their internal analytics dashboards and considerations on the dependency on regional subsidies to pay for local service. When I asked if that means we need to let Roberto Formigoni, the head of the region, know of our desire for quality local train service, there was an uncomfortable pause. Lombardia has been very supportive of local train service, including the introduction of the extensive, if poorly promoted S-Bahn service, while other regions, like Piemonte, are cutting local train service.
Figure 5: A day’s worth of vandalized and broken seats from Trenord commuter trains
Open discussion of encouraging a key supporter is apparently taboo; not my fault, I’ve been conditioned to believe that with power goes responsibility and accountability. Never the less, there has been a significant introduction of new rolling stock, leading to better on time metrics. I suggested that the simple dashboard they showed us be published on their website – if for no other reason, to let people know that indeed someone inside regional transport is collecting this data, and presumably cares about it. In the maintenance depot we saw a container which is filled daily with destroyed seats – mostly due to vandalism, a manifestation of a lack of civility by passengers, not to mention cost someone has to pay for.
The Diamond traverses the high speed network by night
From the Trenord maintenance depot we were brought back to Milano Centrale Station where we boarded a train used solely for diagnostic purposes. Every day it travels the high speed network collecting data in an attempt to proactively detect problems before they occur. A similar train performs the same task for the traditional network. We were told that Italians are recognized leaders in this field. Not only did Trenitalia want to show this technology off, they also had the single female high speed driver on display. I felt a bit bad for her having to participate in this show, yet for the ostensibly masculine dominated Italian society, the presence of women in traditionally male roles is still a big deal and I appreciate why someone thought she needed to be there. One could argue that Italian men are actually controlled by their mothers, but I digress.
Peter Sellers, you’re wanted on the set
The open house proceeded with a lunch break: simple sandwiches and salad that anyone who has been to an Italian barcamp would recognize. After lunch we moved to the control room at Milano Centrale. Now I at least understand why there are platform changes at the last minute, although I’m not sure that makes a run from one end of the station to another any easier. Any train from any direction can be sent to any one of the 24 platforms, although elite trains, i.e. airport and high speed trains, have dedicated platforms.
The1960′s look of the control room reminded me of Peter Sellers and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but the reality is that it does work: I don’t remember one accident at Milano Centrale in the almost 20 years that I’ve lived in Italy.
Meet Mauro Moretti
Director of the most hated company in the country?
After the control room visit the group proceeded to meet with Trenitalia (actually Gruppo FS) CEO Mauro Moretti. Daniela Farnese opened the session with with a very candid: “are you aware that your company is the most hated in the country?”. Moretti didn’t miss a beat. He stated that it is the commuter rail service customers that hate the company (I wonder if customer satisfaction data is available somewhere… in the spirit of transparency, it would be interesting if they published this data on their website. Yet as cynics will know, you can elicit certain responses by carefully crafting questions and/or samples). Moretti continued to say that local service is both underfunded and lacking the medium term funding commitments from the regions required to invest in the new equipment needed to provide expected service levels. Regions are spending 17¢ on bus transportation for every for every 10¢ spent on rail (this data needs to be placed in the context of cost per person per kilometer, environmental impact etc). A person paying €50 a month (about 50¢ a trip) to commute from Bergamo to Milan needs to have more realistic expectations as to what 50¢ of transportation can buy. Trenitalia is more than willing to provide better service levels, and has offered regions a menu of various options to choose from, but someone has to put the money on the table. Many people say that Trenitalia needs to get its act together before they’ll give it any more money. While this visceral view is understandable to a degree, it demonstrates a lack of pragmatic reality and maturity. If Trenitalia is underfunded, where do they think the money is going to come from to buy new rolling stock and improve service levels? Its easy to say “just do it”, but to bury your head in the sand and hope it gets better won’t change reality.
Civility doesn’t seem to be a priority
While I’ve seen much improvement over the last year or so in many of the difficult areas, such as on time performance, there’s one area that I really care about which I suspect is not high on Moretti’s list of priorities: a right to regain quiet on platforms and in train cars. In large stations, Trenitalia assaults passengers with acoustic advertising: nothing more than an obscene abuse of captive customers in an already chaotic environment. Passengers in small stations aren’t excluded from acoustic pollution either: they may be forced to endure “FS Radio” blaring down from the platform loud speakers. On a train civility, and trenitalia’s conditions of transport, require passengers to avoid disturbing others. Why then does Traintalia violate its own rules in stations? On both accounts Moretti was somewhat dismissive: the volume is lowered during announcements, Trenitalia doesn’t completely control stations…. I understand his position politically, but that doesn’t change the basic fact: Trenitalia noise pollution is an abuse, regards of the volume and which Gruppo FS division is profiting.
Similarly when asked about quiet cars Moretti glossed over the reality that they currently are only offered on the Milan – Naples high speed trains, and there only in luxury class. For those who need to go from point A to point B on other routes, you’re screwed, you must endure your neighbor’s 40 minute breakup with their most recent lover, tough.
Arenaways & Italo
The emergence of a viable competitor, Italo, on the most lucrative Milan-Naples route has not gone unnoticed in Trenitalia, which through the holding Gruppo FS controls both tracks and stations competitors must use. This is clearly an uneasy relationship. I was told by an Italo employee that Trenitalia ticketing machines appeared near the Italo ticketing facility in Milano Porta Garibaldi after Italo applied for permission from Trenitalia’s real estate arm to place ticketing machines in the same very spot. Arenaways tried to institute Intercity service between Turin and Milan, but apparently stepped on too many toes in the process. Moretti’s only comment on Italo was that he feels that any operators on the lucrative routes should pay into a universal service fund to help defray service losses elsewhere. I couldn’t more than agree with him.
The CEO and Social Media
Figure 9: Trenitalia’s ticketing machines can
There was some discussion of Moretti using social media. Moretti diplomatically said he has bigger challenges facing him, and my view is that while great strides have been made, Moretti would be wasting his time, and ours, responding to users on social media. Rather, Moretti should try using Trenitalia services as a normal paying customer. He should try using a chip enabled Cartafreccia loyalty card in a brand new ticket machine just installed coincidentally next to the Italo ticketing area at Milan’s Porta Garibaldi station. He’d be surprised to find that he has to enter his code manually. The POS chip reader doesn’t recognize the card. I was told in the meeting that the newest machines can read the chip cards, but that is not my experience. Update 2012-07-04: the cards can be read, using RFID reader. Moretti should try taking the 6pm Intercity from Milan to Livorno, hoping that it arrives on time to catch the last regional train for cities further down the Tyrrhenian coast. He might want to take the Interregional train which leaves Milan at 5pm so as to not risk sleeping on a bench at the Livorno station due to a 20 minute delay which would mean missing the connecting train, a real possibility. He also might want to pee before getting out of the train in Livorno: the station toilets are locked at 9pm even though trains stop at the station for another 3 hours. Part of supermarket chain Esselunga’s success is owner Bernardo Caprotti’s insistence in visiting his supermarkets in person much as a mystery shopper would do. I suspect there’s something to learn here from Caprotti.
Telling was Moretti’s desire to use social media tools to foster internal communication. I couldn’t more than agree. Moretti also stated that he supports transparency. His salary is public (he is well compensated for his troubles, but then his job offers few other satisfactions I suspect).
During the time with Moretti, I wasn’t really clear what his real expectations were of the meeting (and possibile follow-ups).. I don’t get the sense that himself saw the encounter as a type of focus group. He didn’t seem to pick-up on concerns raised, i.e. he mentioned plan further divide the Trenitalia website by service category, i.e. regional, Intercity and freccia trains. Unfortunately that assumes clients are driven by service level and that all routes have a frequent supply of trains at each service level. He may be right, but I doubt it. I would assume that the first concern is to move from point a to point b and that most passengers would like to know about a complete range of options, based on common parameters like departure time, arrival time, trip time, number of connections, cost. Add advanced search filters to your website, but if focus on getting one timetable right rather than creating artificial barriers between service levels.
Service or product?
Moretti used the term product, much as bankers do. Trenitalia doesn’t have products, it offers a service, that of moving a person from point a to point b, ideally safely, on time and within budget. There many be differing levels of service on offer, but we’re still talking about service, not boxed products. If a company doesn’t acknowledge that it is providing a service, there is a real risk that it lose sight of customer expectations. It would be interesting to better understand why this misuse of the word product.
Yes we can, just look at our high speed trains
Through out the day there was a clear message delivered, albeit never expressed explicitly: we’re proud of our Milan-Naples Arrow trains: they’re the proof that given sufficient funding, we can do it! Moretti touched on this by telling us about his joy when negotiations with the Russians led to permission to use the trademark “Red Arrow” in Italy.
The cold reality two days later: one of the frequent strikes
As I draft this article, I’m seated in an Intercity train bound for Livorno. There is a national strike underway and it isn’t clear which trains are going to run. I’ve shown up 45 minutes early for my Interregional and find there is an Intercity which still hasn’t departed. I jump on it knowing: 1) it may or may not depart before my Interregional 2) I should actually have a different ticket, which if bought in advance would cost half the price of the Interegional but if bought on the day of the strike would cost twice as much without guaranteeing me a seat. In reality I hedge my bets, seeking out the conductor to “ask permission” to board with the wrong ticket. To avoid the crowds, I go to the end of the train, ending up in a compartment with a few train employees. Ironically even they have difficulty getting accurate information as to if and when this train will depart. It finally did depart, an hour late, arriving at its final destination 70 minutes late. The later regional train did run, arriving just 10 minutes late as was also the case with a later Intercity train. The Trenitalia website said service would be “almost” regular. You could argue that a strike is an exceptional occasion, although it isn’t. In France strikes stop everything for several weeks, enough to get management and labor to focus on agreements which seem to last several years. In Italy, one day strikes are an all too frequent occurrence which need to be better managed.
An #EpicFail: Trenitalia reaching out or the echo chamber?
Figure 10: Social media guidelines we should be teaching – and practicing
During the day participants used the hashtag #meetFS to share their observations on Twitter. It didn’t take long for many others to express their opinions regarding Trenitalia services and the open house initiative. Most comments were very negative. That any mention of Trenitalia inspires a visceral reaction in many isn’t surprising given the historic gap between service expectations and reality. That many would exult in the mob attack on Trenitalia wasn’t a surprise either: Maslow said we have a need to belong and there’s no easier way to belong than to join the pack in attacking an easy target. Its also much easier to destroy something then to help create or improve something. Some of the negative comments may have masked a frustration of exclusion – rather than maturely accept the fact that a company cannot invite everyone to every event, negative comments served as surrogate way to complain about not having been invited to this specific event.
What was really disappointing was that many of those who rushed to judge the Trenitalia initiative were the very operators in the web communication space who should be teaching people and companies to engage in civil dialog – and dialog implies that each participant, gurus included, need to pay attention, listen, show respect and provide informed constructive criticism. Listening in this case means accepting the fact that Trenitalia does have its side of the story to tell. Informed constructive criticism means consideration of both tweets and reviews of the day by those present before outright dismissal of the initiative.
Figure 11: often we say that companies don’t want to talk, today I saw that people are the first who aren’t interested
During the day we noticed a sincere enthusiasm on the part of the FS employees we encountered. They patiently listed to criticism. They displayed a willingness to answer questions. There were no limits placed on photography. And the aperitif with CEO Moretti? I expected he would go through the motions: show up, shake hands, have a drink and leave within 10 minutes. While I didn’t time our meeting with him, it probably lasted more than an hour. There was clearly a lot of planning that went into what we were shown and who we spoke to, but this was not rigidly piloted, like Microsoft’s recent surface announcement, to cite an example. The echo chamber got it wrong. Trenitalia opened itself up to a dialog with a stakeholder group, exactly what it should be doing.
Several people said that Trenitalia should solve its obvious problems before it attempts to communicate via social media..Nothing could be further from the truth. Part of the mess Trenitalia finds itself in is precisely due to a failure to communicate in the past, a failure which has created the persistent gap between reality, perceptions and expectations. Those who dismissed the initiative out of hand confused an open house for social media participants and practitioners with some sort of top-down marketing campaign or empty PR gesture. They didn’t pay attention. They didn’t listen. Worse, they didn’t set the good example they should have. The real failure was on the part of those who profess to be digital media experts yet didn’t practice what they should be preaching. Fortunately, a few people stood out as notable exceptions.
My Trenitalia wish list
Engineer Moretti I do want to personally thank you and your staff for reaching out. I understand that much progress has been made to date and many people deserve recognition for this progress. I understand that you and your team work in a very complex environment, technically and politically. Yet as a frequent traveler especially outside the Milan-Naples corridor, I share the frustration of those who feel like Trenitalia is focusing on its sexy crown jewel to the detriment of traditional long distance service.
So in the spirit of constructive collaboration, here’s my wish list. I know you have some bigger issues to address, like funding by regions which are bankrupt, but it is my sincere hope that some of these other issues can be addressed too.
- Missed connections. If a customer misses their connecting train due to a delay, they should be able to take the next available train, regardless of type, especially since they may not have any other choice and they should not have to pay twice for a delay.
- Canceled trains. If a train is canceled, for any reason, the customer should be able to rebook without losing any advance purchase discount they may have received. Again, the customer shouldn’t be penalized twice.
- Quiet cars If compartments are going the way of the dodo bird, then quiet cars need to be a viable option for those who want to work or read without being subjected to 30 different ringing telephones and the subsequent one-sided conversations which ensue. These cars should be available regardless of class: the people who egotistically only think of their own needs should pay a surcharge, not those who want peace and quiet. These cars should also be Electrosmog free – electromagnetic radiation, classified by the WHO as possibly carcinogenic, is magnified in metal containers like trains, planes and elevators. To force everyone to be subject to these fields just because it is popular, is like forcing everyone to be exposed to cigarette smoke, as was the case until all too recently. I’m aware of the commercial implications, but at the same time, this is a safety responsibility where the concept of prudent avoidance dictates a need for action now.
- Audio pollution. Rid the stations of audio pollution, whether it be advertising or the FS radio. Don’t turn it down, turn it off.
- Customer facing communication needs a drastic rethink. “Market trains” is an oxymoron where there is no market. Tearing out the compartments in Intercity trains to add more seats (and noise) is called modernization, but it is clearly a regression from current service levels – and the customer isn’t as stupid as one might think. When a new EU directive on compensation delays was introduced, Trenitalia used it as a justification to change payout thresholds from 20/30 minute delays to 60 minutes. Yet the directive imposed minimums, not maximums. On board announcements are erratic and highly variable in quality. The only announcements I can count on are those that remind me that many carriage doors don’t open, a safety issue, among other things. Wouldn’t it be possible to train staff to be consistent in announcing station stops? Staff incentives and mystery shoppers could work to insure it actually happened. Stop the automated announcement “Trenitalia is sorry for any inconvenience” as it rings hollow in the current state of things. If it wasn’t so frequent and there was better customer service, then it might make sense.
- Fix the website. The Trenitalia website offers an excellent way to both reduce costs (ticketing, support) and increase customer satisfaction if leveraged well. Given the recent regressions and what I understand to be a misguided strategy to distinguish service levels to the detriment of the primary need to move from point a to point b, I’m not optimistic that Trenitalia will get its web strategy right anytime soon. But I hope to be proved wrong.
- Loyalty cards. The arbitrary expiration of points was a self goal, throwing away good will to remove an accounting burden. The ticketing machine POS readers should also be able to read the chip-enabled cards. Having to manually entering the number on the card makes for a needlessly negative experience.
- Win a Fiat 500. Whoever had the idea to give away private passenger cars as an incentive to use the railway clearly wasn’t fully rational when the idea popped into their head. That no one else stopped the initiative leaves me puzzled. An appropriate prize would have been a lifetime train travel pass or similar.
¹In this article I’ve used Trenitalia as short-hand to refer to all of the entities that make up the Gruppo Ferrovie dello Stato Spa and all of its divisions (the graph appears incomplete, for example, Trenord is missing). From a user point of view, this complexity isn’t relevant, nor should it be.
- New Trenitalia site design is an opportunity missed
- Digital Native: Show Trenitalia Ticket On Computer Display – And Be Fined For Traveling Without A Ticket.
- Good news: Trenitalia Cartafreccia Loyalty cards CAN be read by Ticket Vending Machines
- Brand Confusion with Trenitalia’s Website
- IKEA Italy: what not to do when facing a social media crisis