Future Role of Social Media for Belgian Railway Company NMBS.

Unofficial Twitter Accounts NMBS demonstrate the need

Unofficial Twitter Accounts for NMBS demonstrate the need

As a result of my latest ‘interim project’, I’ve been travelling to Brussels by train every single day for about 3 months. The choice for taking the train is rather logic. Belgium is world-leader in ‘urban sprawl’. One cannot expect to reach Brussels easily by car. Hence the choice of taking a one-and-a-half hour train ride. And as railway services are still a public service in Belgium, all journeys are organized by the same company: NMBS.

NMBS is going through hard times these days. They cope with a genuine structural issue. Trains are cancelled and delayed daily. And what’s even more striking: customers are often not properly informed about cancellations and delays.

My three months proved enough to realize NMBS can’t undo all timetable issues. After all, much has to do with the inability to expand some key railway stations (like Brussels). There’s simply no room for growth anymore. It’s a mobility and infrastructure problem. Let’s leave that to spatial planners, shall we? Those same three months however also proved sufficient to see that the NMBS could do much more with regards to customer service. And that’s an issue marketers and business people can tackle without spatial planners. So here we go.

Social media can and should play a key role for customer service by railway companies like NMBS. But before we explain the future role of social media for the NMBS, let’s ask ourselves two simple questions:

  • Do our customers want support through social media?
  • Do we have employees willing to provide that service?
  • Need for customer service on social media?

    Customers definitely want to be informed about delays and cancellations through social media. After all those platforms allow to give real-time personalized information. What’s more: with the ever-increasing adoption of smartphones, most travellers are constantly connected while on the train.

    It’s very interesting to see the artefacts of this need: the numerous unofficial NMBS Twitter accounts. Those accounts are basically bottom-up initiatives by real travellers who do not work for the company but do engage with a community of ‘train travelers”. No way you can ignore the need if you look at those accounts.

    NMBS employees want to officialize their activities on social media - conversation on Twitter

    NMBS employees want to officialize their activities on social media - conversation on Twitter

    Do we have resources to provide customer service via social networks?

    Yes! The NMBS most definitely has those resources. The image on the right depicts an image of a Twitter conversation between NMBS employees and a traveler.

    The Dutch conversation states: “we are pleading for this service! Correct, fast and clear information”.

    The above sentence points to an interesting aspect. The NMBS employees are actually aware of the situation and want to help. On the other hand, the corporation, hasn’t set up official structures to manage this.

    So in fact, NMBS is in a very strong position. They have employees who love their job and organization and want to speak about it publicly on social networks. That’s something most companies can only dream about. NMBS should take advantage of this high level of employee engagement. They should stimulate the current people to grow and contribute to overall customer satisfaction.

    Why should NMBS empower all employees on social?
    First of all, it’s quite unthinkable that railway services will remain a public service. As Belgium is a part of the European Union who always favors liberal, free and open markets, one can expect future guidelines and/or demands to liberalize the railway services market. We’ve seen those demands before within other industries like Telco, Energy and Postal services. Those industries are now typically known for their fierce competition and new customer focus (vs. customer service to bring value). If NMBS manages to set-up customer service through social media, it will have a competitive edge in a deregulated market.

    But then again, the question remains the same: Will the liberalization result in on-time services and consequently improve the customer’s quality of life? Frankly I don’t know. One should ask an Englishman to know whether private railway services are better than public railway services.

    Second, because of my experience which made me happy and willing to travel with NMBS for future endeavours. The story is detailed below.

    Employee engagement - NMBS unofficially provides me Customer Service

    Employee engagement - NMBS unofficially provides me Customer Service

    My experience: train driver @RikiU2 helps me out

    December 14 2011. I had a rather intense day at work. I was incredibly looking forward to a lazy evening with my girlfriend while traveling home by train. When suddenly the train came to stop in the middle of nowhere. That sometimes happens, but this time it took a lot of time. After 15 minutes, my co-travelers started to get worried and frustrated. After all, they were once again to be later at home than foreseen and – what seemed even worse – there was no information whatsoever about why we did not continue our journey anymore. At one moment however, after about half an hour, the intercom of the train informed us about “a prior train in need will cause a delay of this trip”. Hooray! We were informed. Nobody, including myself, however knew what a “train in need” exactly was. It was some sort of tipping point for most of the travelers, including myself. It triggered me to shoot the question “what is a train in need?” on Twitter. It was more a helpless act than that I expected to have an answer to the question. Nothing was less true however. One clever train driver was at home and followed the #nmbs hashtag. As that hashtag was mentioned in my tweet, my demand came on the radar. I received an answer on my question and was consequently informed about the exact time delay, etc.

    Result: I could inform the people waiting for me, was happy again and was willing to continue traveling with NMBS in the future.

    What does all above teach us about the future role of social media for customer service?

    The above teaches us that social is truly a synonym for change. Things have changed and will continue to change. It would not be very intelligent to ‘ban’ social media platforms to employees. After all, they can act as a customer service representative or contribute to WOM advertising efforts, etc. For this reason companies should stimulate their employees to go online and speak in the name of the company. All companies should strive to realize this “superstar company state”. One great example of a superstar company is Dell – who transforms all employees into brand embassadors and certified customer service reps by providing them the necessary tools and training.

What does Mark Etting do for a living? On Marketing and the Marketer.

A common reaction marketers face?

A common reaction marketers face?

The What do you do for a living question.

It happens from time to time that people show interest in what you do professionally. Not surprisingly, some of them even pose the “what do you do for a living question”.

I formerly answered this with “I’m in marketing”.
And I recently stopped giving that answer.

Today “I’m getting market”, as it turned out that most people react to “marketing” with a frown of their eye brows while producing a little – rather scary – noise in between their teeth. It looks like the images on the left.

Agreed, I’m a marketer. My professional activities are about “getting market”.

I’m a marketer. And I can’t help it. It’s not a well-planned career path. It’s more something that I, as a sociologist, accidentally stumbled into. Nevertheless, it proves to bring me self-fulfillment. I’m happy with what I do, Trying to “get market”, like in marketing, like in “market getting”, not like in “pushing markets”.

Guess the whole frowning and bad-noise-making reactions on “being in marketing” has to deal with to the old-school conception of “what it is to be a marketer” or “what it is to push markets”.
Or: how old-school actually means old-scream.

What is marketing? The old-school vision: SCREAM : OLD MARKETING

Allow me to refer to Seth Godin’s book “Meatball Sundae – Is your marketing out of sync?” to explain the difference between “old marketing” and “new marketing”. After all the first part of the book makes a great analysis of how new consumer needs and the internet made old marketing (think: P&G, TV and mass production) less effective. The book continues by underpinning this difference with broader sociological phenomena that are re-shaping the world…
Yup, you’ve got to love it!

What is marketing? The new-school vision: Unleashing the Power of Marketing: WHISPER : NEW MARKETING

old vs new marketing: Meatball Sundae

old vs new marketing: Meatball Sundae

Within this respect Seth’s advice is to no longer interrupt people with spammy messages, to make innovation (in all its dimensions) your biggest cost and last – but certainly not least – craft marketing into your product(s).

This is what I would call new marketing. Don’t make crap, produce value and don’t push it. This is the only valid approach to take on marketing. It’s not about supporting short-term sales of crappy products. It’s not about advertising. Or as some put it: “commit acts, not ads”.

If you look at it like that, you quickly realize that marketing shouldn’t be perceived negatively. It can and should be used as a positive force to engage with your customer – whether to improve life (B2C) or business objectives (B2B).

But how can you unleash the power of your marketers?
Well, I believe the GE story is a great example.

How GE unleashed the power of Marketing

“When GE realized that its products would no longer sell themselves, it had to invent a formidable marketing function from scratch.” (Comstock, Gulati, Liguori)

Let’s say about 10 years ago, GE had no significant marketing. The company was quite confident in its technologies. It believed the technical superiority would get market for itself. People with the position of a marketer were assigned to sales support (lead generation, events, …) or to communications (advertising, PR). In the essential corporate strategy meetings, marketing wasn’t invited. Marketing was considered a support function – or even overhead. Things were about to change however …

GE - unleashed the power of marketing

GE - unleashed the power of marketing

The business was mature and GE could no longer win by simply launching increasingly advanced technologies or by taking existing technologies to new markets. Some of their best offerings were mere commodities.

The re-focus in GE’s strategy was accompanied with a note by the CEO who stated that: “marketing should be a vital operating function across GE and an engine for organic growth.”

How does one implement such a thing?

New Marketing is a culture, not a department, role or responsibility.

In short, one could say GE’s corporate culture changed. They gave Marketing the respect it deserved. It wasn’t just a sales support function for screaming messages at as many people as possible. As a result, marketing at GE is now an engine for growth. It paves the way for customer collaboration, new product opportunities and new markets.

Equally important however is that this new marketing is related to a new society. Let’s say Society 3.0 or the trends as described in Meatball Sundae. Did you know by the way that lots changed in society 3.0? Branding for instance. Your brand is about to be a reflection of your corporate culture, certainly in the long run.

New positions top-class marketers reflect New-school Marketing

I tend to see a compelling relation with the new positions by well-known marketing guru. Their new functions basically show this “unleashing the power of marketing and marketers idea”. Here’s a small overview of those top of my mind – feel free to suggest more:

Sincerely yours,

Mark Etting.

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