They don't like it up 'em

I’ve written a lot recently about how organisations set up their channels of communication to make complaining difficult or fruitless. Ignoring the squeaky wheel but jumping in for a spot of Twitterwashing to shut them up publicly, forcing complainers to use webforms, pretending the complaint is about a one-off customer service failing rather than about systemic problems, and so on.

One of the unintended side-effects of conventional complaining is that the complainer is isolated. You don’t know if anybody else has experienced the same problem or if it’s just you; you don’t get any reassurance that you’re not just overreacting.

The internet has changed all that. As well as providing a platform for naming and shaming, it also gives us a place to compare notes. Getting nuisance calls from a certain number? Google the number and you’ll probably find a forum page where you can find out roughly what’s going on. Is an organisation stonewalling your complaints? Go public to warn others (and enjoy the frantic Twitterwashing). Worried about committing to a big purchase or contract with an organisation? Search the web and let other people’s experiences help you make up your mind.

The Victoria Hotel in Oxford ignored my sister’s complaint about being bitten by insects while staying there. I reported the hotel to the council’s environmental health department, but they showed no sign of taking any notice either. So what else could I do? Ten years ago, not much (apart from contacting the local paper and hoping it was a slow news day). In 2010, I could review the place on TripAdvisor and join a community of people giving experience-based opinions on places to stay. A month after publishing my review, TripAdvisor contacted me to say that over a hundred people had read it.

Feedback communities like TripAdvisor represent a big challenge for organisations. Suddenly your existing customers, past customers and potential customers are talking to each other! Some of the control you had over your own image is taken away for good, and it’s now in the hands of people who aren’t being paid to make you look nice.

That’s a scary thought if you subscribe to the “let’s just ignore it and hope they give up” school of complaint-handling. In fact, it’s scary if you do anything other than make it easy and worthwhile to complain. Because if you make it hard and pointless, people will find it more tempting than ever to go public in the first place, without even bothering to contact you first.

One of the most exciting online complain-y communities, for me, is Fix My Transport. Why? Partly because you can complain directly and go public at the same time. The system lets you send an email to the relevant company and create a public page about the problem in the same action. (It will also help you work out just what the relevant company is, which takes away another big potential barrier to complaining.)

Say you have a complaint about Oxford train station. When you go to report it on Fix My Transport, you’ll get a page showing you existing issues with that station. If someone else has got there before you, you can click the big green Support button to show you agree with them. If your issue is new, you can create a page for it yourself and get others to support it. (You have to create an account to do either of these things, but that takes seconds.)

It’s still early days, but Fix My Transport has the potential to allow transport users to organise. Instead of complaining individually and being fobbed off in isolation, we can see who else is experiencing the same problem and work together to get it solved. (Of course, for that to work it requires take-up on a much bigger scale than it’s currently experiencing.)

Scary news for transport companies? Maybe. But it’s also a huge opportunity for them to publicly demonstrate responsiveness. And, as others have pointed out, they could even use it as a handy way of publicly archiving responses to frequently raised issues.

Needless to say, some companies have failed to embrace this opportunity. When I raised an issue with First Great Western through the site, they responded:

Dear Sir or Madam

At First Great Western we aim to offer the highest standards of customer service and we feel that it is important to reply to our customers directly rather than simply post a reply onto a website.

We have no objection to you posting our reply onto the internet yourself and support the principle that others may well be keen to read our response. With this in mind, if you would like to send your correspondence to us again using our [First Great Western Railway problem reporting email] email address, we will be more than happy to investigate your concerns and respond to you in due course.

In other words: “We want to discourage people from complaining through Fix My Transport, so here’s another hoop to jump through. Here’s hoping you get tired and give up!”

Stagecoach have been even worse. They too seem to have a policy of not responding to any message sent through Fix My Transport. But unlike First Great Western, who replied to tell me they weren’t going to reply, Stagecoach have gone for the good old “just ignore it and hope they give up” routine. I’ve recorded three issues with Stagecoach through Fix My Transport, and it was only when I chased one up a month later that they revealed they’d had no intention of responding to any of them.

Dear Ms Griffin,

Thank you for your e-mails.

I’m afraid that we don’t deal with complaints or queries through third party websites. If you can send us your e-mail address, to [email address]then we will happily respond to these.

When a company receives a message sent through Fix My Transport, it’s made clear that any reply will go to the original sender as well as being published on the site. This means that neither Stagecoach nor First Great Western have given a valid reason for refusing to engage with Fix My Transport. I have no doubt that this is because their real reasons reflect very badly on them. And for me, this refusal to engage is a big clue that Fix My Transport is potentially very effective indeed.

Signing up for Fix My Transport takes less than a minute, and they won’t spam you. If you want to see (and maybe support) some of the issues I’m supporting, head to my Fix My Transport profile page.


Fix My Transport sounds like a wonderful idea. Even if the companies are at this stage refusing to respond, it still offers a place for people to get together and coordinate themselves. If you know other people are having the same issues you're more likely to take it further. The 'bury head in sand' tactic can only work for so long. 

Hi Kate,

This is Myf, FixMyTransport admin. You'll recognise me as one of the busybodies that leaves comments all over everyone's FMT reports.

I just think it's worth mentioning the other side of the coin, too: the operators which have dived in and engaged with their customers. As you rightly intimate, if a company is giving excellent customer service, they need not be ashamed to do it in public. Not only that, but they're actually amplifying the effect, as for every report we receive on the site, there are over 600 people reading. Where else can you get that much free PR?

Perhaps predictably, the smaller operators are proving excellent at making useful, personalised replies. But the big companies can do it too. TfL have been on board from the very beginning, and show excellent responses; and First Buses have stepped up, too.

What we reckon is that eventually, the more recalcitrant companies will look at the benefits these trailblazers are reaping from full participation on FMT, and wonder why they aren't doing the same. It may take a while, but we aren't going anywhere.

Hi Myf,

I certainly do recognise you! And thanks for your comment (which I just edited to fix the links). I said in my post that this is a great opportunity for transport companies to publicly show they're listening to customers, and maybe I should have made it clearer that some have already seized this chance. As for whether the bigger, more recalcitrant companies will start engaging with FMT in the future: I hope so too.