Helping GWR stay on track – a day with the Great Western Railway Twitter team

At the first sign of delay or disruption, disgruntled commuters turn to Twitter to vent their fury. CR spends a day with GWR’s social team to see how they cope with complaints, questions and some very strange requests

It’s 7.30am on a Tuesday morning and on Great Western Railway’s Twitter feed, James Wood, one of the company’s four digital engagement officers, is already being asked if he really exists. “I can confirm I am a real person called James,” he writes in reply to the commuter, who goes on to tweet how bored he is of waiting for his delayed train. “Read me a story?” he asks. Wood, well into the first of the day’s busy peak periods, which will see the GWR social team respond to hundreds of passengers’ tweets, politely sidesteps the request. “Hopefully you aren’t too delayed this morning,” he replies. “Apologies for any inconvenience. James.”

GWR, previously First Great Western until its rebrand by Pentagram last month, is the largest train network in the country and has a social media presence that reflects its size. With nearly 300k followers on Twitter, more than any other train operator in the UK, it also has the highest levels of engagement with its online community.

The social team receive around 25k tweets a month and reply to 63% of them – quickly, too, with an average response time of eight minutes. From London to south Wales, up to Oxford, Gloucester and Worcester, down across to Penzance via miles of mainline and branch line routes, GWR are proving that Twitter is now a vital part of the experience of travelling by train. I know: I’ve been following them for years.

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@GWRhelp, the team reply to customers using all parts of the network: to people demanding to know why a particular service is delayed or cancelled, or asking why there aren’t enough carriages and/or seats; to others proffering that the new rebrand won’t make the company any better, or that the price of a season ticket simply isn’t reflected in the service.

Then there are those asking for help finding a lost phone (wallpaper is “me wearing wellies with 2 labradors”, for example), or requesting the air con be turned off. And what about that faulty toilet door? If you thought your mornings sometimes got off to a tricky start, imagine turning on your computer to read message after message of complaint – and having to deal with each one of them in turn.

Fortunately, the members of the GWR Twitter team do not take any of it personally – and this, it turns out, is a key part of doing the job. “We kind of have a team motto, like our mission statement,” says digital community manager Jessica Smith, who leads the team of four officers responsible for the tweets: Wood, Grant Hing, Ollie Evans and Andrew Couch. “It’s ‘Personalised service wherever, whenever’. Wherever you are on the network, whatever time it is – we’re 24/7 – no matter what’s happening, you’ll still get a reply from a person, helping you or giving you advice.”

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From their offices next to Paddington station, the team works shifts in pairs ensuring that Twitter is staffed from 6am to midnight. From midnight through to the early morning, the account is monitored by the central office in Swindon – there are no GWR services scheduled during this time, so very few tweets to deal with – and when I meet them, it’s some minor disruption near Maidenhead which has taken up most of the morning. Rather than a broadcast/sharing model, like most Twitter feeds, @GWRhelp is a responsive account – the team are largely replying to people as a real time customer services channel. “We’re more reactive than proactive,” says Smith.

The five of them also ‘sign’ each tweet they send out, which helps to personalise the experience. “It’s definitely a very personal thing,” says Smith. “If you write to customer services you’re going to get a formal response back, though that is changing, and it’s very much the company, not a person replying. The whole idea of putting our names at the end [of the tweets] is that it shows there is actually a person there, caring, trying to help.” Hing puts this human touch another way: “You can understand and empathise with [a customer’s] situation,” he says, “but then it’s about how you turn it around, resolve their issue and turn a negative into a positive.”

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While @GWRhelp recently transferred followers over from @FGW in time for the rebrand, it has only been in service as an official account since 2011. Before that, the company had a Twitter of sorts, set up by Ollie Evans while he was working in Paddington ticket office (he was then later brought into the nascent social media team).

“I had started an unofficial FGW account – the company knew about it – and I’d started sending them feedback of what people were saying about them,” Evans explains. “Twitter, at that time, was fairly new, especially for customer services, but you’d go on there and see a lot of people talking about us and getting no response. To me, that was more negative, it seemed more appropriate that some form of response should go out.” Evans’ on-the-ground station experience also helped inform how the company took to social media.

“I think it’s useful to have that background,” he says. “We’ve been there, we’ve dealt with the actual train service and been face-to-face with the customers who use it. I think it’s good to be able to build from that to bring it into the online environment.”

As of February 2014, Smith and Hing were brought into the social team (Smith from FGW customer services, already a @FGW tweeter; Hing from the British Transport Police) and a more rigorous approach began to take shape. Fast forward to today and the Twitter stats speak for themselves. The Tuesday of Wood’s existential tweet earlier this month, for example, represents a fairly average day with some 711 messages received, 505 of which were replied to. Average response times were between 1.30 and 2.30 minutes.

Compare this to a rather more unusual 24 hours, like August 7 this year when a huge power failure hit the Acton area on a Friday evening, one of the busiest times of the week. There were no services for a few hours and the team received 3,571 messages, responding to 1,503 of them. During just the 6pm to 7pm slot, they replied to almost the same amount of tweets they would normally have done in a single day.

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In order to send out accurate and reliable information effectively, the team make use of several systems. Firstly, they use the Conversocial platform to manage and monitor all their social media activity (it’s also used by Google, Marks & Spencer and VW). The package enables Twitter conversations to be displayed more clearly – vital for a service which responds to commuters in real time. Incoming tweets can be tagged with an appropriate subject (40% are “train service”, but others include “fares and refunds”, “crowding” and so on) and then categorised by ‘sentiment’ (positive, neutral or negative), before being archived.

Any of the team who then pick up on an enquiry which began, say, a few day’s before, can easily locate the timeline of the conversation and see if anything has been – or still needs to be – resolved. Tweets regarding issues with station car parking or the cleanliness of a train carriage, for example, are logged so that they can be acted upon.

“We have an assigned folder – for tweets that don’t need an automatic response, like lights not working – and we get them reported,” says Hing. “Rather than filling out anything, we assign the tweets to ourselves and pick them up. Then we’ll email the maintenance team, they’ll send an email back, and we can go and update the customer.”

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For day-to-day questions about the train service on the network, which make up the majority of the tweets they receive, the team uses two further tools that relay information. The Train Running System (Trust) is used by all operating companies and details the comings and goings of all trains via a rather archaic-looking BBC Micro-like screen display (the programme is so old that it doesn’t work with a mouse); while Tyrell, another system, conveys updates from the control centre in Swindon. The team also refers to internal comms and National Rail Enquiries.

Indeed, one of the problems GWR continually face on Twitter is the number of issues which cause delays on the network that, in actuality, fall under Network Rail’s watch. Signal failure, for example, gets passengers irate – but despite the fury vented on Twitter, it’s not GWR’s job to fix them.

“I can understand it,” says Smith, diplomatically. “They’re on a GWR train, they’ve bought their ticket from us, they don’t see Network Rail anywhere. To then be told, ‘it’s Network Rail’, people don’t want to hear that, they want to hear when their train is going.” Equally, some tweeters will suspect the team of using a script to generate answers, or believe that they simply copy and paste responses. Neither is the case; within reason, all tweets are hand-typed, no matter how many times the same information goes out.

So are there any particular characteristics which make for a good railways tweeter? Thick skin would certainly seem like a bonus. “It’s definitely down to the person, not so much the skills,” says Smith. “The skills can be learned; how to find the info, getting your typing speed up. The way you interact with a person, that’s a personality thing. It helps if it’s somebody who is generally quite a positive person, who can relate to other people, who cares – and can show that they care as well. Then also somebody who’s got a lot of patience, you need a lot of patience in this job.”

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While the GWR Twitter account is now highly valued by the company, if it ever needed proof of its worth, then that came just a few weeks after the team had been established in February 2014. The storms which battered the south west of England during that month resulted in part of the coastal track near Dawlish in Devon being destroyed. The rails collapsed into the sea and the line was unusable for nine weeks.

This coincided with atrocious weather affecting the Somerset Levels and also severe flooding near Maidenhead. Smith and Hing were only two weeks into the job but they now recognise how important it was for the company to have had a well-resourced Twitter feed in place. Evans, too, believes it’s what first prompted FGW to take on a 24/7 social media service.

“It came into its own during Dawlish,” says Smith of the company’s Twitter account. “A lot of people were stranded, everything was changing day by day; what trains could and couldn’t run. So that was a mission to get all the buses in place, and link up to trains between Plymouth and Exeter. Twitter was absolutely essential then; we were putting out lots of information on how to get from here to there.” Keeping people moving is ultimately what the @GWRhelp team is there to do and it’s clear they provide an invaluable service. Even if, at the busiest times at least, they’ll probably still draw the line at reading you a story.

This article appears in our November ‘travel and transport’-themed issue. Follow the GWR Twitter team at @GWRhelp. Our story on the recent rebrand of First Great Western to Great Western Railway is here. All tweets shown above are taken from the last 24 hours; the following tweet is from October 6.

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