20140307_130047_1For those of you that follow this blog regularly you’ll know that I like UK Train Operating Companies (TOCs) as much as I like a tooth ache and that molar misery is always intensified by one of my regional carriers, First Great Western (FGW). My recent blog The Great Train Robbery highlighted some of the many crimes and misdemeanors that I believe them guilty of. Well, today, I had different experience, thanks to the efforts and humanity of one man.

I travel from Bruton in Somerset to Bristol quite frequently, which is normally a journey of about an hour through some of the most pleasant and calming countryside anywhere in this fair land.  For me it’s an excellent antidote for the other aspects of the journey, which are crowded, dirty, noisy uncomfortable trains – typical of FGW’s disdain and contempt for their local service customers. As they can’t be bothered to install ticket machines at Bruton Station, just in case that might encourage more passengers, I always have to buy my ticket on board from the guard.

Throughout the journey to Bristol the train guard changes frequently – don’t ask me why. It’s certainly not for the benefit of the passengers, or even the guard, both of whom would actually benefit from getting to know each other better and reduce the frustration of the repeated, unnecessary checking of tickets. So who does that leave as the beneficiary – The company of course!

Not long after leaving Bruton, I sensed an increasingly loud, but pleasant sound coming down the carriage behind me.  Could this be the guard? – But far too jovial, friendly and welcoming, as if he was actually enjoying his job. But indeed it was.  Enter Paul Northover – Guard Extrordinaire!  This may seem harsh on the other guards on this and other FGW local routes, and while none of them are unpleasant, and are generally efficient, most of them are just going through the motions. Paul was different. He was going through the emotions.

Paul immediately engaged with me and recognized me as a fellow human being. He made an emotional connection, made me feel welcome, glad I was on his train, happy to be alive, ready to forgive all of the sins of FGW. Alright perhaps not that forgiving, but it’s a start! And it wasn’t just me. He was this way with everyone, many of whom were clearly regular passengers, and visibly enjoyed the friendly banter, his warm smiling face and genuine larger than life personality. The best part? He was on my return journey as well. I realized this wasn’t an act, this was the real deal.

Paul obviously figured out a long time ago that if he’s happy, friendly, welcoming and treats people as they want to be treated, and doesn’t just see them as tickets or seats or as an inconvenience, then they just might react the same way. It doesn’t always work, but it clearly it does for Paul and his passengers. I even felt that if he had to issue a penalty fare, I might actually enjoy it.

One of the points I made in my previous train blog was not really revolutionary, but is at the heart of customer service excellence. Companies that get this right know that great customer experience and a living, breathing employee experience are inextricably linked. Most people in a customer service role really do want to make a difference. But when their company forces them to leave their compassion, empathy and humanity in a drawer marked “not to be opened during business hours”, while they administer dumb fare rules, try to explain cancelled services, make excuses for dirty toilets and carriages and generally have to deal with angry, frustrated passengers, even the best will reach a point where they go off the rails.

To his credit Paul has managed to transcend all this and while I didn’t get a chance to speak to him at length to find out his secret, (other than to thank him for the experience and take his picture); I’ll have what he’s having.

It’s not just the train companies that need more people like Paul. The world does. Whenever he decides to hang up his ticket machine, and whistle off into the sunset, there’s a place for him. I’d recommend that any company that wants to show their team, regardless of their products or services, how to create a passionate, positive, engaging and customer friendly environment, then to paraphrase a line from Breaking Bad, Just call Paul!

But be careful, he might get emotional.