PATCO. How A Good Brand Can Go Bad

As brand strategist Michelle Taglialatela explained in a previous blog post, “a brand is all about the experience.”  For certain products and services, a positive brand experience that leads to good word-of-mouth from your customers can provide a better ROI than any paid advertisement.

For years, I’ve been a very vocal (unpaid) promoter of PATCO,  my local public transportation system.  I make a short drive each workday to a train station with ample parking, friendly staff, and reasonable ticket costs. It’s good for the environment and my community.  I look forward to having 23 minutes of “me” time before and after my workday, to read a book, check my calendar, or just watch the world pass by my window.  I tell anyone and everyone how much I enjoy my commute.  The biggest factor in my decision: trains arrive often, and on time.

Except now they don’t.

Major renovation causes PATCO train to be late and customers angry - Tag Strategies Brand Blog

Critical repairs to trains, tracks, parking lots and stations are all happening at once. Yes, we saw the new schedule. Despite knowing it was coming, it was a nightmare. My 20-minute commute has stretched at times to two hours. Stations were overcrowded with angry riders, and police officers paced the platform to maintain peace.  Communication was limited to a poor PA system that no one could hear, and email alerts received after exiting the station and regaining cell phone service.  Riders took to Twitter to share status updates and their negative experiences, using terms like “apocalyptic.

Weeks of bad brand experiences add up to a very negative brand perception, and that can have serious consequences for any service provider.  Ridership is down significantly, and those of us still riding are unhappy. Unless they can change the current negative perception of their brand, many riders won’t stick around long enough to see those new cars or experience the improved service.

PATCO says they emphasize safety and customer service, but that was difficult to see from the crowded platforms and broken train cars.

They have taken steps in the right direction recently.  To address safety concerns, they have been providing status updates on repairs, and sticking to their deadlines for completion.  To address customer service concerns, they’ve joined the ranks of complainers on Twitter to share real-time delay notices and service updates. They’ve placed more staff in the stations, and I’m often greeted with a smile and an ETA on the next train when I pass through the turnstile.  I’m still riding the train, but I’ve stopped recommending it as the best way to travel.

The challenge for them now is to change the brand perception, and regain customers who left, which is never easy.  The lesson here: be prepared. Understand how the  customer experience will be impacted by change, and devise a plan around it. If you admit there will be problems, chances are your customers will be forgiving.