Trained to Annoy vs Trained to Cater. You Decide.

All I had purchased was a $4 barrette and was treated like I was acquiring a $40,000 diamond necklace. Juxtapose that with my experience on Amtrak this past weekend, and you might agree that our country would be better off if our rail system were run by a boutique owner. First, and briefly, about the barrette:

The associate who rang up my purchase complimented me on my choice of barrette, proceeded to wrap the item in a beautiful box and place it delicately in a beautiful bag that I am sure I’ll reuse. Not to be outdone, she squished the bag handles together with a lovely ribbon (have you ever described Amtrak as lovely)? The associate reminded me that I had 14 days to return the $4 barrette but if I have any questions or concerns to contact her.  Wow. I am loving my barrette.

Contrast this with my trip on Amtrak last weekend. Soup to nuts, it was a mixed bag. The good part is that I got to my destination and back home scar-less and safely (have we lowered the bar or what?). First, the machines to dispense tickets weren’t working so I waited in a line 30 people deep, feeling very “analog, and asked the Amtrak employee why the machines weren’t working for the second week in a row (“Don’t know, honey. Guess they’re broke.”). She was either referring to “broken” machines or to Amtrak’s financial state. Not sure. The Amtrak associate never greeted me, made eye contact or thanked me. Remember, this comes shortly after my barrette purchase, so I had high expectations.  She handed me my ticket without even putting it in one those well-branded Amtrak envelopes. The train sat in the middle of nowhere for 45 minutes without explanation. I was traveling to an unfamiliar town on the line and the “next stop” announcements were so garbled that no one knew where we were or when we were getting where. The bar car ran out of bottled water, though the worker tried to comfort me by noting that he had just sold the last bottle.

If you’ve ever traveled on Amtrak, you know that this is not just a “I’m having a bad day” story. It is typical. Many of us lower our expectations with Amtrak, as what we want most is to just get to our destination safely. But why couldn’t the experience be better? You already have people employed there, so teach them to be nice and helpful. Get feedback from customers after the trip and try to heed their advice. Communicate often to the passengers – they like that. You don’t have to wrap the train ticket in a box and put a ribbon on it, but make passengers feel like they made a wise purchase.  Apple is a big company that gets it right – studies have shown that even if people don’t buy anything from the store, they leave with a great impression and a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Back to the boutique and the barrette. This shop made no money off me on that visit. I might have cost them money due to the expensive packaging. But I will be back and most likely spend more than $4. I will spread the word about Weezie D’s in Bronxville, NY.  And despite their lack of competition on the rails, Amtrak should not take their customers for granted. There are other ways to travel.

– Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: dianeschwartz


  • Ellen

    I have only taken Amtrak a few times, because getting out of southern California to almost anywhere north of there on it is not easy and involves a bus that stops a lot. But my friends and family in the Fresno, Sacramento and Bay Area love traveling by Amtrak between those 3 regions, or up and down the entire California coast. So I am sorry your experience was not like theirs. Sounds to me like some of them were having a very bad day.