about anything under the Sun!
Cleartrip? Hardly Clear and no Trip in the end!
So if you are practical and you travel by train in India, (Yes, I can almost hear the smart comments about how much of a paradox that statement is, but enough already!), chances are you book your tickets using the Railways web portal, right? I mean, gone are the days when we stood in serpentine lines that were about as long as the train you intended to travel on, and waited an hour, sometimes two, to only find out that none of the trains headed to your destination weren’t interested in taking you anymore because they were so damn full. Right?
So yeah, most of us faithfuls that had access to the Internet simply switched over to using their website to book our tickets. But if only life were that simple? The Railways, true to form, strongly believe that one form of punishment should simply be replaced by another, and that’s not even counting the actual train journey. The web site is a disaster of astronomical proportions, and on so many dimensions. It is an ideal example of how not to build a product, the usability was simply left out of the site – most functions either don’t exist, or more commonly, simply don’t exist! I still remember the very first version of this monstrosity, and I regret not having taken a screen shot back then but I distinctly remember thinking it was a read-only information portal for the Railways, and then discovering to my pleasant (!) surprise that it allowed the user to perform some basic actions, including booking a ticket. In all seriousness, the current version of the site has been a huge upgrade over its previous incarnations, but it is still largely an exercise in torture to try and reserve a ticket through them.
And so, when Cleartrip came along and offered Train bookings on their site, it was nothing short of a blessing. Their user interface is fantastic – very, very simple to use and incredibly intuitive. Of course, if users had to justify coughing up the extra fees one pays Cleartrip in addition to what the Railways charge, then the experience had to be nothing short of stellar. And while there are a couple of improvements that are possible, I think they have more or less nailed it. Alas, that’s where the good news ended.
Pardon the tech diatribe here, but here is the high level flow for their application – Cleatrip calls the Railways service first to process the reservation details, then invokes the payment module to process payment, and once the payment is approved, it then returns to call the Railways service to complete the booking. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of things that could go wrong in between, and considering my proximity to Uncle Murphy, something did go wrong when I tried.
I was trying to book a ticket from Bangalore to Chennai recently, and it seemed easy as cake…until I got to the payment module. Firstly, the bank module where you provide details of the payment took forever. And after what felt like a year’s wait, the payment finally made it but then it croaked on finishing up the reservation. And the message I got essentially said “We took your money. Thank you! However, we aren’t really sure about your reservation, there is a good chance it didn’t go through. Why don’t you call us at this number and find out for yourself?” Classy…very classy. I was tickled that they were polite enough to thank me, honestly. How often does someone express their appreciation in a nice fashion like that after they screwed you over? Nope, you just don’t get that kinda courtesy anymore.
So anyways, I call the number only to find out that they don’t know if my reservation succeeded either. Nope, am so not kidding. So the customer service guy (think there is just the one guy – I called numerous times and always got the same individual) so nonchalantly says “No problem Sir, don’t worry. This happens quite often. Just wait for about 15 minutes for a text message (SMS) from the Railways Reservations system and that will contain the status of your booking. If it had indeed failed, then we can initiate a refund of the money that was taken, which will take between 3 and 14 days to make it back to your account. “How incredibly awesome? It took a lot of resolve on my part to not nominate this for some kinda Customer Experience recognition award. The guy didn’t seem to think at all that this was a problem – he blamed it on technical difficulties and that it was a common problem with those Railways guys and his wise suggestion was for me to check with the Railways directly on the ticket. Why I was paying Cleartrip a reservation fee is anybody’s guess. The guy thought the refund was the primary issue and as long as that got processed, then I shouldn’t really have anything to complain about? I can’t blame him though, such is the sorry state of Customer Service today.
Anyways, I wait…and an hour passes, and not a peep from any Railways service. While I was waiting however, I did get a couple of spam messages suggesting I buy some Insurance. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. So anyways, I call Cleartrip again (all of these are long-distance calls by the way, and they clearly tell you that the calls are your responsibility) and of course its the same dude, and he tells me, with relief in his voice, that my booking failed and that he will be happy to initiate the refund process. So I had no choice but to find alternate means of travel, and abandoned the attempt to buy that cursed ticket.
Now, I understand there are technology challenges to overcome here. Building anything that works with that archaic Railways Service is an accomplishment that calls for a Nobel Prize in Bravery, and all jokes aside, I tip my hat to the Cleartrip product team for even attempting to do this and having gotten as far as they have. But aren’t they missing the point here? It is my expectation as a paying customer that I am dealing with them and only them, and that it is therefore up to them to resolve any “internal” issues and give me an experience that is as delightful as their website. Sadly, things are a far cry from there at this time!