Talk to your customers, or lose them!

Your Business Continuity Plan must include communications

This is a call to action: make sure you have included communicating with clients, stakeholders and staff in your Business Continuity Plan.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to relate what happened to me on Tuesday. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have heard some of this as I was tweeting quite a bit.

The Walk

As it is close to Christmas and my son has broken up from his job as a Classroom Assistant in Letchworth Garden City, we decided to go for a long walk. Our chosen route was to follow the Kingfisher Way which stretches more or less the full distance between where I live, in St Neots, and where he lives, in Baldock. The walk itself more or less follows the route of the River Ivel and is about 21 miles in length. With the additional bit at my end that makes about 27 miles overall.

As Tuesday was also the shortest day, we realised that this was too far to walk in daylight, so we agreed to meet at Sandy Railway Station and walk to Baldock; about 17 miles. Sandy is the next stop down the East Coast Main Line from me and is an easy journey for Nick as well; so this seemed like a good plan. Luckily for me Varina, my wife, was working in Baldock on Tuesday so she gave me a lift to Sandy and dropped me off to await Nick’s arrival.

And then it all went wrong.

As soon as I entered the station it was apparent that all was not well. The train information screen showed delays to all destinations and there were a lot of people milling around. On talking to the lady in the Ticket Office, she informed me that the overhead lines were down at Huntingdon and no trains were running in either direction.

First point of note

This is not what the information screens, or the automated announcements were saying. Both were merely indicating delays of (at that point 34 minutes).

The next thing was a call from Nick saying that he was at Hitchin Station, where he needed to change trains on to the Peterborough line. He said they were being told that there was a problem up the line and to await further information.

In another call after ten minutes he said that a northbound train had just arrived and that he was in two minds whether to get on. The train staff were saying the train would at least reach Biggleswade (one stop before Sandy) from where there would be buses onwards to Peterborough via all stations. The station staff were advising not to get the train but await bus transportation from Hitchin.

Point two

Get your story straight. Having two “authoritative” sources of information is confusing.

On the basis that the train staff were probably better informed than the station staff, he opted to get on the train. Good move!

Meanwhile, in Sandy, I was now being told by the automated announcement that there was a 45 minute delay. The station staff were saying there would be no trains for at least 90 minutes. They made no mention of buses at all.

Another 20 minutes, and another call from my son to say he was now in Biggleswade and about to get on a rail replacement bus. When I passed this information on to the station staff at Sandy they knew nothing of it. Eventually they announced that a bus to Peterborough would arrive in 15 minutes. It arrived after five.

From that point on, our walk progressed to plan.

What lessons can we learn from this?

Obviously, I can only relate the story as it appeared from my perspective, but there are some learning points here.

  1. Make sure your communication channels convey relevant and current information.In this case, the most glaring examples of mis-communication were the automated station announcements and the train information screens. Until nearly the end, the announcements merely reported increasing delays. There was no attempt to use these channels to inform passengers what the problem really was and its likely impact on their journeys. Unless they were clustered about the ticket office, they had no better information on which to base decisions. On top of that, as was obvious from the ‘phone calls, the information being given out by the ticket office was inaccurate.
  2. Make sure all your communications channels convey the same message.Again, the train descriptor and announcements were merely reporting delays, whereas the station staff were saying there was a definite problem that would take a long time to fix.
  3. It’s better to say nothing than to mislead.This one is probably the hardest. If somebody, seemingly in authority, is asked “what’s going on?” it is very tempting for them to say something; even if they’re not absolutely sure of the validity of what they are saying. It is often far better to admit ignorance and offer to find out. After all, they’ve all got radios. At least you won’t have misled somebody.
  4. Make sure you know more than your customers.

    As an organisation, you know you have a communications problem when your customers have a better picture of events than that being communicated by yourself.


I’m sure First Capital Connect did have a Contingency Plan to continue serving their customers. The fact that buses appeared at Biggleswade is proof of that. However, my analysis of that plan indicates that its focus was far too narrow.

From my perspective, the plan focused to closely on the need to re-establish some form of transportation and ignored the need to keep passengers informed as to what was going on and how the disruption would affect them.

An observation

Given that the railways operate within a very strict safety regime and therefore have a sophisticated signalling system that knows the location of every train, at least to the extent of knowing which sections of track are occupied; then they have the basis for a very accurate passenger information system. Tuesday’s experience indicates one of two situations:

  1. there is little, if any linkage, between the signalling system and the passenger information system of train information screens and station announcements; or
  2. that there is too much linkage between the two.

I’m leaning towards the latter view. There was either no plan, or no means, to stop the passenger information system giving out increasingly misleading information when the real situation deviated from normality.

In Summary

I hope this little story helps to illustrate the importance that should be attached to communications in any Business Continuity Plan. Anybody who has been monitoring the UK news over the past couple of weeks will have heard many tales that mirror my experiences on Tuesday. Cases where the travelling public have either been uninformed or misinformed as to what has happened, is happening now or will happen in the future have been many.

Make it your task to ensure that your business bucks the trend.

Agdon Associates and Business Continuity UK are no longer in business. This website is not being updated: it has been left online solely as a source of useful information on Business Continuity.

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One Response to Talk to your customers, or lose them!
  1. RT @GarethHowell2010Talk to your customers, or lose them! [or how not to run a railway]| Business Continuity UK