Train ticket fear destroys customer value

Tell me, what sort of organisation would advertise the fact that using their service creates fear in their customers, except perhaps roller coaster owners!

This is what British rail franchise company East Midlands Trains is doing at the moment. The intent of the advert is to address the serious problem of customers (that’s passengers to you and me) buying the wrong ticket. Up to One fifth of rail customers buy the wrong ticket as this BBC news report reveals.

One of the most worrying consequences for passengers is that if you ‘under-buy’, in other words make a purchase mistake you get a fine or as its euphemistically called a penalty fare. This means you are treated as if you are a fare dodger who has the wilful intent of avoiding payment. In other words the company regards you as a criminal. As harsh as this seems considerable effort is made by rail companies to make passengers aware that they need to buy the correct ticket in advance of travel.

All the same because of the complexity of their own ticketing arrangements passenger ticket fear is explicitly recognised by East Midlands Trains as fear of financial punishment and fear of being cast as a law breaker! Whilst the issue of rail fare evasion is serious I don’t think making fun of passenger fear in this way is appropriate.

I’d like to discuss two things in relation to rail passengers buying the wrong tickets from machines. Firstly the use of ‘fear’ in marketing communications and secondly the issue of value destruction. The latter is something we cover in our book Value-ology

Fear in marketing 

There’s an old adage in sales and marketing that ‘fear sells’. Disturb the customer about an inadequacy or a lack such as lack of beauty or bring up an anxiety such as fear of leaving loved one’s with huge funeral bills when you pass on.  Fear is marketing 101. BUT it seems to me that the  East Midlands Trains marketing team that came up with idea of, and authorised the use of ‘fear’ in the advert above have a mistaken understanding of the use of fear in marketing communications. Either that or they think it’s funny that their passengers are fearful. Why would you brag about the fact that your ticketing system creates customer fear rather than addresses a customer fear?! It looks like chopped logic to me. The marketing team are sort of in the right ball park but misses the point of how to use the idea of fear in advertising.

I do realise that the advert refers to an explanatory brochure that seeks to demystify ticket types but there is a difference in recognising customer feedback about their fears of buying a wrong ticket and then playing straight back at them in this way. I would have thought something more like:

Take the stress out of buying your ticket.

Buying the wrong ticket can result in penalty fare

You might worry if you have bought the right ticket for your journey

Our simple ticket guide will help you choose the right ticket for you

Value destruction

The potential for value destruction by dysfunctional organisational or individual activities has ben researched by marketing academics in recent times. See:

Ple,L. Caceres, R.C. (2010) Not always co-creation: Introducing interactional co-destruction of value in service-dominant logic. Journal of Services Marketing, 24/6 430-437.and

Echeverri P., & Skalen P. (2011). Co-creation and co-destruction: A practice–theory based study of interactive value formation. Marketing Theory, 11(3), 351–373.

Value can be destroyed by the supplier or the customer through a variety of means such as  impoliteness, aggression, lack of attention, humiliation and so on. .I realise that fare dodging needs a deterrent and the official identity of revenue protection officers serves a powerful purpose in that regard. The RPO’s are invariably  very polite and only assertive when they have to be. That said, the sense of potential public humiliation and edginess I have witnessed as a commuter as the Revenue Inspectors board a train (dressed in somewhat paramilitary body vests) is palpable. Even when the inspectors ‘let the wrong ticketed passenger off’ with a warning or just payment of a full fare rather than imposing a fine it seems to me that customer value is being destroyed. Fellow passengers have witnessed the interaction and so being ‘shamed’ in public is not ideal.One thing that seems to be overlooked is that the inspector-passenger interaction takes place in a public service-scape (see Servicescapes: The Impact of Physical Surroundings on Customers and Employees. Mary Jo Bitner 1992 Journal of Marketing). This means that all passengers within sight and earshot are also having their customer value (pleasant and relaxing journey) destroyed.

Of course in the world of behavioural economics you get people to change their behaviour with rewards and punishments. Yes dear customer we are cast as simply ‘dogs to be trained.Of course the whole purpose of revenue protection is to ensure cheaper prices (economic value) for us all. Seems sensible, but as academics Brock and Colgate point out firms rarely deliver just one sort of value. See Customer Value Creation: A Practical Framework J. Brock Smith and Mark Colgate Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice Vol. 15, No. 1 (Winter, 2007), pp. 7-23.

We use a  customer value model called the Value Onion in our new book Value-ology to show the interrelated types of value created by firms:


Surely the best solution to the revenue and fear problem is to have and indisputably simple and clear ticketing system rather than a Byzantine system that creates fear in customers and has the persistent latent potent to destroy experiential customer value?

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