I knew I was cutting it fine to catch the 19.20 from Waterloo the other night. But I’ve done it often, and know which platform to head for. The train was still showing on the board. So I was more surprised than anything else when the doors closed in front of me, and I watched from platform 3 as the train pulled out. “But it’s leaving early!” I protested to the unruffled train controller who was right beside me as he waved the train off. “Thirty seconds before, that’s the rule,” he explained.

Trains that run on time are totemic, seen as the mark of a well-run country with a strong economy, like Switzerland. But our version, leaving 40 seconds early? This is surely a classic case of marketing myopia. As their name suggests, the train operating companies think they are in the business of running trains to a timetable, rather than that of making it possible (and, perhaps, easy, fast, cheap, comfortable) for people to get from one place to another. Their business incentives are set up to reinforce this erroneous thinking. It’s all about the percentage of trains which run on time. So it doesn’t take a genius to devise ways to ensure they avoid lateness – like leaving early. Which has the added bonus of leaving behind a few pesky passengers who might slow things down getting out at stations.

They have a solution for that too. I was on a train whose guard suddenly declared while we were between stations that it would now run non-stop to the end of the line. This was because of something or other causing something or other, and they apologised for any inconvenience. The thing is, it was a stopping train to a final destination, Guildford, which is also served by lots of fast trains. No one on that train was actually going to Guildford. We were all intending to get off at the stops on the way. The people who did want to get on that train and go to Guildford were on the platforms at those stops, who remained there. But, the train avoided being late at its final destination. That’s one less bonus-able target to worry about.

Running trains is a tricky exercise in logistics and heavy engineering. When it’s reinforced by business incentives, it’s not surprising that people get very focused on how to stay on time, regardless of the consequences. So the challenge is how to balance those forces, and the experts behind them, inside the business. It comes down to two things: clarity of purpose, and the voice of the customer. It’s the job of marketers to keep those things in view inside the business.

Marketers often worry about their own accountability for their marketing budgets. There’s a lot of focus on measurement, effective investment and ROI in marketing. But it’s just as important that we hold the rest of the business accountable to our collective purpose, as experienced by our customers. This means having measures of business success that show how well the business is achieving its core aims, which must include its reason for operating, the job it exists to do for its customers, and not just the financial outcomes for itself.

When measures fail to be aligned with purpose, things can go spectacularly wrong. Enron executives’ behaviour makes sense when you understand that their main aim was to maintain the share price – massaging revenues and costs to meet the analysts’ earnings forecasts, so as to protect the share price from shocks, because senior execs were bonused on it. This aligned nicely with their share options, too, since smoothing earnings helps to maintain a steady upward trajectory both in profits and in the share price. (This is described in Charles Kindleberger’s book, Manias, Panics and Crashes, a thoughtful academic tome which uses moderate language to describe immoderate behaviour.) Share price might seem like a good measure as it is usually an outcome of running a good business, which would normally include serving customers sustainably and profitably. It can trigger quite different behaviour when it becomes an end in itself.

Back to London Waterloo. In a normal business, customers might take their custom elsewhere, but of course the trains aren’t really a normal business. Next day we were all back on that slow train to Guildford, all eye contact avoided and spirit-of-the-blitz interaction over, until next time it snows.

Thought leadership | April 2015