FIRST CLASS ABUSE

I don’t often find myself aboard a Southeastern commuter train on its way London at just gone midday.  Three things were different between this and my usual rush hour commute: it was bright outside; the train was almost empty; and the average age of the payload was considerably older.

The ticket inspector, or ‘revenue protection officer’ as I believe they prefer to be addressed these days, sat down next to me to take payment from two ladies who had boarded earlier at an unmanned station.

“What was that kerfuffle all about,” asked one.  “Oh, someone sitting in first class without a first class ticket and they couldn’t pay the penalty so I threw them off the train. It was quicker than calling the police and causing everyone else a delay,” the inspector replied.

I had seen and heard what happened.  He looked about fourteen years old. Yes, he was being daft and had given her some lip when she challenged him but that’s what teenagers do.  So she threw him off at the next (unmanned) station with a 60 minute wait until the next train and saved herself some paperwork, no doubt.

I was annoyed, but accept that rules is rules, so I did what I could – I pointed out that the only thing that made the seats first class is the sign above them and that in every other regard, the seats are exactly the same as the others on the train.  I went on to explain that I’m familiar with first class travel, both on intercity trains and intercontinental flights and that theirs defy any meaningful description of first class. It hardly merited the extra cost (£28.80 vs £16.50) on that particular service.

She explained that first class tickets on the Southeastern railway are for customers that want a guaranteed seat on the train. I wasn’t aware of this before but only those that pay for a first class ticket (or pregnant women) are guaranteed a seat.

I asked, therefore, why it wasn’t called ‘a guaranteed seat ticket’ rather than a ‘first class ticket’ when the service was patently not first class. She wouldn’t admit it but I already knew the answer.

Language should describe and clarify, not confuse and obfuscate meaning.  Language us abused on a daily basis so that businesses can make decisions that, if they explained them honestly, would be embarrassing at best.  Terms in common use today include ‘right-sizing, ‘margin management, ‘best in class’, ‘centre of excellence’, ‘strategic review’ and ‘customer experience’.

The communications department should be the guardians of corporate language, not creators or purveyors of corporate bullshit.  A good guide for any business that genuinely appreciates their customers is to not make decisions that, when explained in simple black and white, would make the CEO blush.  If you work in the Comms Dept at Southeastern and you’re reading this, it’s time you had an honest discussion with yourself.

This might not make the business first class, but it would make it more honest and transparent, and that’s a good start.

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