Markus Lipp: RhB's lightning conductor

Markus Lipp: RhB's lightning conductor -

Whether 'forgotten' babies, toothless complaints or passengers whose sleeping patterns have been disrupted: there's no such thing as a dull day at work for Markus Lipp, Customer Services Manager at the Rhaetian Railway. He has been dealing with the concerns, major and minor, of RhB passengers for the past 27 years – with an appropriate mix of humour and gravity.

He's the man in the hot seat: Markus Lipp takes phone calls, answers e-mails and letters in which Rhaetian Railway customers point out shortcomings, register complaints – or simply express their gratitude. "We are getting an increasing amount of positive feedback, for example from travellers who were delighted with the professional and friendly service they received," says Markus Lipp. Every inch the railwayman, he has worked in a variety of positions at RhB for 42 years – since first starting out as an apprentice – and has now spent 27 years in Customer Services finding out how passengers tick. However, positive reactions still remain the exception: he is generally occupied with handling complaints. Most of these concern punctuality, missed connections, fines handed out in the penalty fares area or the friendliness and helpfulness of the staff. "That's something on which RhB focuses a great deal of attention when training employees. Good service at every point of contact is what matters most," of this, Markus Lipp is convinced. But incidents cannot be avoided altogether: "It's simply impossible for 1,400 employees to get everything right all the time." That's when Markus Lipp, the lightning conductor, comes into play.

Faster – and more demanding

Yes, of course society has changed, states Markus Lipp. He is sitting in his office answering customer enquiries. "People didn't used to be as spoiled, or rather: as demanding. And not as impatient. Today, passengers file their complaints while still on the train – via iPad – and expect an answer within 24 hours." However, thanks to the latest technology, Lipp's work has also become quicker and easier. He can now get the information he needs to solve a problem much more efficiently than in the past – thus also giving customers a satisfactory reply more quickly. Because ultimately, Lipp says, that is his job: to turn disgruntled customers back into satisfied ones. But not only has modern technology speeded up the process, people have also lost some of their inhibitions: "Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, people can get personal. But it's part of my job not to take such things to heart," the 58-year-old laughs. At present, 85 percent of enqui­ries and complaints reach Customer Services by e-mail, Facebook or Twitter.The rest are phone calls and letters. Actual letters sent by post? Yes, he still gets some occasionally: "There is a handful of regular customers that has been writing to me for almost 20 years. As soon as there is even the slightest hint of a problem, they reach for pen and paper. They're mostly people who are simply looking for some kind of contact."

A counsellor – for all kinds of cases

So does Markus Lipp see himself as a counsellor? "Yes, somehow I do. That's what makes this job so interesting! Every time the phone rings, something different happens, something unpredictable. No two days are alike." He takes time to get to know the people he is dealing with – something that is much appreciated. "Many people are simply looking for someone to talk to and tell me half their life story." And no matter how absurd their concerns may seem, Markus Lipp takes them all seriously. Even those he can barely understand over the phone because the old lady on the other end has forgotten to put in her dentures. And naturally those of the desperate young woman who left her baby behind on the train. And even those of the Chur school pupil who requested, following a timetable change, that the departure time of the slow train be changed back from 6:50 am to 6:46 am because the four-minute difference upset his sleeping pattern! Of course, Markus Lipp was not able to redo the whole timetable, "but we did apologise for the inconvenience and explained the reasons for the change."

«It's simply impossible for 1,400 employees to get everything right all the time.»
Markus Lipp

Learning from complaints

The timetable is a regular source of complaints – although RhB prides itself on the fact that in 2013, 97.2 percent of its trains were on time or ran no more than five minutes late. But passengers in Switzerland have high expectations. On top of which: "Capacity on public transport in Switzerland has just about reached its limits," according to the experienced railway man. "Cost optimisation has resulted in very tight connection times – which, by its very nature, leads to delays." In addition, as a mountainous canton, Graubünden is exposed to all kinds of weather: cold and snow can become a problem. "In line with our quality target, we aim to receive no more than 1,500 pieces of negative feedback per year. In a mild winter like the one we had last year, that's somewhat easier to achieve." But Lipp doesn't necessarily think of complaints as a bad thing – after all, continuous improvement is one of RhB's aims. And the company has been able to learn a great deal from passengers. But doesn't he ever get annoyed? Hasn't he ever wanted to shout at someone in all those years? "What, at a customer? That has never happened!" says Markus Lipp. "I'm sure I've cursed on one or two occasions – but only after hanging up," he laughs.