Time for Amtrak to Join the Conversation


Yesterday I got up before 4am to catch the earlier train to New York city from Philadelphia. Little I knew I'd get on a train that had been having power/engine problems since it left Washington, DC. How did I find out?

When I tweeted to learn if @Amtrak is on Twitter, which it is (thanks to all who responded), someone else who seemed to be on my same train tweeted back and provided the back story in their stream.


So no power, and Amtrak knew that might be the case before we did. Why were we boarded in Philadelphia? Maybe they thought it was going to be spotty and hold until New York?

There we were, dropped on the tracks in Cornwells Heights with no further announcements. I was thankful for the cloudy weather vs. rain, there we were all standing, waiting.

Courtesy of Amtrak

Since I was standing around, I thought I'd check to see if Amtrak's Twitter stream had any info, or if someone had by chance seen my tweet and responded. The responses from my network were not encouraging.

Apparently, the Twitter account is for broadcasting promotional messages and the occasional weather alerts. They still channel people to their 800-number for customer assistance. We all know what those phone trees sound like. I think they've become short code for "don't bother" for the many of us who have spent the time waiting on hold.

Looks like Will @Amtrak will not be responding any time soon. He probably has the 1-2 tweets to send out per day all ready to go. And maybe, just maybe, the one metric that matters to Amtrak executives is the number of followers.

Counting the number of followers is not a good success metric when you fail to respond to people who are talking to you.

Amtrak Of course, of all the customer support horror stories, this is nothing, I realize. A waste of time on the part of the two dozen passengers who were on the train, mechanical problems cannot be helped.

As for the communication part — no response, no foul, right? Then again, why not use this as an opportunity to improve?

Amtrak Twitter Stream

Since March 2, 2010, the company's Twitter stream has sent out 200 tweets. Exclamation marks are employed liberally to emphasize promotions and reinforce positive comments from customers. The few @ replies I see are something like "glad you enjoyed the trip!"

What happens when you didn't enjoy? My hunch says not much. What can Will learn from his colleagues at top customer service accounts on Twitter? The Amtrak Facebook wall is a little better, in case you were wondering. They get back to you on occasion with a link to a feedback form.

Joining the conversation in real time

The Twitter account seems to have auto-follow enabled. When I followed the account, it followed me back — there I was, part of a collection. I can just see that report — we now have 3,843 followers!

Here's the thing: it's not how many, it's what you do with them. It's not about the numbers, it's about the opportunity to connect with customers. What does joining the conversation in real time mean? Let's look at the definition of real time on page 128 Greg Verdino published in his new book microMARKETING (Amazon affiliate link).

"The realtime Web is fast, fluid, torrential, and borderless. Fast means you view the world as always fresh. Fluid means updates come in many droplets more than a few buckets. Torrential because the volume of updates is overwhelming without filters an gatekeepers. Realtime Web changes how the Web feels. More immediate, interpersonal, complete. And human." [Phil Wolff]

It feels human. As Greg wrote, the biggest marketing opportunities lie not in the one big thing, but in lots and lots of small things.

Easy enough, right?

Except it's not that easy. For companies to join the conversation, they need to think strategically — in what ways are customers using these tools? How can we flip the funnel on customer acquisition? — vs. tactically — give me one of everything, and with a nice custom tab, to go.

More companies are seeing their competitors dip their toes in social media and decide to jump in feet first so they can share their promotions, coupons, specials, messages, etc. What you see when you're looking at the Amtrak social presences is what a tactical execution looks like.

Strategy requires a different kind of thinking, one that would take into consideration a broader view of customer relationships, beyond buying tickets and wanting coupons or choosing the better of two options over air travel — actually putting customers in the center, and potentially reconfiguring the organization to support a new way of doing things.

Hiring and training staff to respond in real time, learning to run promotions that are more social and engaging, and so on. The truth is that most customer service models are detached from the operational realities of customer relationships. Customer service is the new marketing — and the responsibility of the whole organization.

Maybe the current system works for Amtrak — and for the majority of the company's customers. Maybe a staff member taking the day off means very little when the Twitter stream is about pushing out messages. For sure, fixing the trains is priority #1.

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0 responses to “Time for Amtrak to Join the Conversation”

  1. It’s impressive how little these social media are used in any way, shape, or form resembling “social.” Mitch Joel just had a post yesterday about whether there’s real strategy being put into new media or if it’s just talk. I wrote a (sort of) rant recently about how Men’s Wearhouse, Delta, Comcast, etc seem to be able to do Twitter and Facebook right, but there are so many more examples of companies that don’t, Sandals Resorts in my case and Amtrak in yours.
    I tend to like the customer service and tech support focused social media outreach approach, but then again, I’ve worked in an agency that focused on that…helping our clients’ customers use their products, fix their products, and leverage their products better. Just throwing up a blog, Twitter account, or who-knows-what because “we have to be on there” is pointless.

  2. Do you really expect all large companies to respond to all customers in real time via tweets?
    That’s not realistic.

  3. @Eric – yes, even tactical executions or presences are more media than social. I found a couple of posts about product and service considerations you’ll enjoy. Stay tuned tomorrow am for my tweets. Thank you for doing that work on the agency side.
    @Cindy – it’s a day later and I still have had no response ๐Ÿ˜‰ So I take it you don’t expect companies to answer the phone, returns desk personnel to be there, etc. I take it? A tweet is a lot faster than a call.

  4. In my opinion, if a company plans to be “asleep at the wheel,” it would be better to simply not have a Twitter account at all. Merely having the account signals that you’ve opened up the mechanism for dialog. Letting it sit there unmanned is not a good idea.
    However, I almost can’t blame companies new to social media…there are so many folks out there ready to tell them:
    *Get 5,000 followers in ONE DAY!!!!!
    *I’ll get you signed up on all the important social accounts!!!!!
    *You can’t afford NOT to be on Twitter!!!!
    *Set up auto-tweets for the WHOLE MONTH!!!!
    You get the picture. Hopefully those companies can be “brought to the light” before the autobots completely take over ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Rosemary:
    You gave me a good chuckle, thank you. It’s true, there are plenty of screamers out there selling myths. It’s a Catch-22, isn’t it? Company wants results this week, agency/consultant promises amazing numbers (mind you not real results), company buys. There wouldn’t be such a thriving spam market if nobody went for it, would there? I’m surprised they’re not selling comments to prove engagement, yet ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Of all the organizations in the US, I’d put Amtrak toward the bottom of the list in terms of expectations simply because they are ridiculously under resourced. It’s not accurate to think of them like other companies of that scale. Only the US Congress could create such a basket case.
    Passenger rail is money-losing proposition, and it always has been. Your overpriced Northeast Corridor ticket subsidizes the less profitable routes through the less dense parts of the country. Most civilized countries accept that rail represents a strategic asset and an economic development must-have. Therefore, they subsidize it. US, not so much.
    I’m guessing you weren’t on the super-overpriced Acela, so you didn’t have wi-fi. My local commuter rail (MBTA / Mass) has wi-fi, but Amtrak doesn’t. There just isn’t money to do it. Only Acela cars have been fitted out.
    The point is that it’s not particularly reasonable to expect that there be a person inside Amtrak who understands what these media are and how they could be used. As I’m sure your experience has shown, for big organizations to learn major new skills like this takes either time or vision, preferably both.
    Amtrak has neither. They do the best they can with what they’ve got, but, brother, it ain’t a lot.
    Amtrak could and should deliver better service for a hell of a lot less money. No doubt there. Only they are not their own masters.
    Want meaningful Tweets from Amtrak? Vote for progressive congressional candidates that strongly support public transit.
    Also, you didn’t point out that making trains run on time is one of those mythic accomplishments that crown the achievements of good governments. So +1 to you for putting your delay in perspective and not getting all “I was late and I’m mad”.

  7. It seems there is a trend in companies setting up social media accounts just for the sake of being there instead of engaging with their followers. Iโ€™ve been reading lots of posts recently ranting about this issue. But I wonder, how could we possibly be able to get these companies to change their ways if they are not even listening in the first place? I dare not dial that 1-800 number!

  8. I love Rosemary’s comment. It says everything I was thinking, but I wasn’t thinking it that clearly even! LOL
    Valeria, sorry to hear about being miserably dropped on a platform. That’s awful to be standing around in limbo. You eventually did get to New York, but what an unproductive time waster to be in limbo in an unfamiliar place. If Amtrak valued your time, that too would motivate them to treat their twitter account like professional customer service.

  9. @Frymaster – I’m from Italy, I almost *expect* trains not to run on time ๐Ÿ™‚ And yes, you correctly assessed that the post was an opportunity to talk about tactics vs. strategy and not a “pitch and fork” against Amtrak. For which you get kudos. Too much of what passes for conversation online is venting and dissing. As for supporting public transportation and policy, I do. I’m glad you brought it up. I do hope that someone in marketing at Amtrak figures out a way to support the account better. They have a good start, it needs to get to the next level now.
    @Alexandra – having been on the inside, I know what happens. Someone suggests you should start accounts everywhere, and so the company does. Taking the initiative is good, one has to start somewhere. To pay off though, there needs to be a plan.
    @Melody – the conductor was very nice and helpful. And the next train did pick us up. Had it been Italy, Ferrovie dello Stato would have treated us to much worse ๐Ÿ™‚ If people knew what they could do to get better service, as Frymaster mentioned, they probably would become more active and engaged. So Amtrak is missing an opportunity to connect with supporters. I was glad for no rain, although they could have not helped that ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. With a company like Amtrak it would make sense to have regional accounts to handle things like happened here. If airlines can figure out how to update you flight info through text then it shouldn’t be hard to figure that out with train service.

  11. What strikes me is the “late and wait” still life captured by you.
    I secretly love it when my train is late or someone is late for a meeting.
    It’s like being sent out into the playground early. An excuse to muck up a little, day dream, strike up a conversation with a total stranger about a common enemy and remember the days when everything went smoothly ( more so because we didn’t notice or care) or set off on an adventure to find another way home.
    In strategy terms – if a systems produces these scenario’s frequently, a question I’d ask is whether Amtrak can trade “late and wait” on that demographic for some kind of value. It’s a puzzle.
    Hope it was not all bad.

  12. What I find hard to make companies realize, especially around where I operate, is that social media tasks should be managed by a decently trained individual, and not an intern or a normal employer reassigned from another line of job.
    Without the sensitivity needed to manage such a task you really can do more harm than good, and when you try to make managers and business owners realize this relatively simple truth, they instead prefer to pump their money into more traditional investments.

  13. To be sure, folks, Amtrak is _not_ a company, or at least it’s not like any other company in the US. I live near a train yard and the Amtrak trucks have federal government license plates like the Army does.

  14. @Sherman – that would require for the organization to be in the loop and coordinated internally. For many, this is still challenge number one.
    @Peter – it would have been less pleasant had it been raining. I was musing how jobs have become increasingly so demanding that there is no or little tolerance for those distractions, even when they’re accidents, or unusual occurrences. Something for me to ponder.
    @Gabriele – it’s also hard to relearn to be human online when so much of our daily transactions are optimized and maximized.
    @Frymaster – O’Reilly has been doing a fine job at documenting the progress that Government is making with Web 2.0…

  15. Hi Valeria,
    “I was musing how jobs have become increasingly so demanding that there is no or little tolerance for those distractions, even when they’re accidents, or unusual occurrences.”
    This is cultural – I wouldn’t be surprised if there was no word for late in Hindi or in the languages of the South Pacific.
    There is a subtext to this discussion around complexity and sustainability. Complex systems rely on tolerances or redundancy. If we plan tolerance out our risk of “failure” increases.
    Personally, the core of what we do is no more complex or demanding ( if you know what to focus on) – Sure some things are inherently demanding, but I have a deep suspicion that we might be going about the technology/business thing in a way that makes it harder than it might otherwise need to be.
    “optimized and maximized” made me a laugh.

  16. @Frymaster – Amtrak is indeed a government-owned corporation. Perhaps they should take a page from the Gov 2.0/OpenGov playbooks with regards to their social media presence.
    @Valeria – It seems to me that they need to be a bit more transparent – all their tweets are promotional in nature and only bring to light the good rather than the bad and the ugly. I don’t know if it’s a lack of resources to handle incoming customer service issues on Twitter (which I don’t really buy), “Will’s” lack of experience, or Amtrak just turning a blind eye. They seem to be taking tentative steps in the right direction, which indicates to me that they have a tentative strategy. They’re just not taking full advantage of the possibilities.
    @Gabriele – You make a GREAT point about assigning social media marketing to interns or other such inexperienced individuals. The managing director of the communications firm I work for made this point at conference at which he was speaking a few months ago, as well in a recent article he wrote for Social Media Today: http://www.socialmediatoday.com/mitcharnowitz/170379/10-pitfalls-avoid-social-media-marketing

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