To mark eCommerce Show North on 11 and 12 October 2017 we're doing a series of blog posts on the eCommerce failings of Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) in 2017. More information on speakers is here

Today's post is looking at the partnership between VTEC and Seatfrog. Recently to great fanfare VTEC announced a new app called Seatfrog. This app isn't their own but is intended to offer upgrade auctions to airlines and over rail operators in due course.

The partnership was launched with Donna Air in King's Cross and promised upgrades from £5 through an on the day auction.

Unfortunately it's not as simple as they make out (check out our 1997 era parody 'Seat Toad'):

  • You must book your tickets through the buggy Virgin Trains East Coast website (this is to be expected)
  • The site only supports the eight character ticket collection references which you only get if you select tickets to collect at the station. If you want your tickets by post, want to use print at home or mobile tickets you're out of luck. This was not made clear to people and so disappointed many
  • The auctions are on the day and you won't know in advance whether your train service will be offered
  • Even those who have tickets for collection and therefore a valid reference have reported problems

These launch troubles are typical of the VTEC approach to rolling out new technology in 2017. The new website was released before it was ready meaning many customers were spending ages on hold to web support to do tasks that were simple on the old website and the new Travel Buddy app received almost all one star reviews as it's basically just a wrapper around their new website. Releasing products that are not ready while marketing them as a massive improvement on what was there previously just raises expectations unrealistically and creates annoyed and frustrated customers.

If you compare the average tone of Twitter users that tweet @Virgin_TrainsEC in 2017 you'll notice that customers generally seem less satisfied than they did in 2016.

Devaluing first class

One of the complaints from customers that regularly buy first class tickets is offering upgrades for £5 is devaluing the product and makes them less likely to want to pay a significant premium to upgrade. This coupled with declining service standards on board has made first class a less appealing prospect. If people start thinking of first class as only been worth a small premium they may be less willing to shell out the normal amount for first class tickets. If they had started the bidding at a slightly higher amount (e.g. £20) it'd still mean people could get a good deal but it wouldn't make the product feel so cheap.

Someone who's had to travel to London on a short notice trip and has paid over £100 for their ticket are unable to participate in the auction but someone with a cheap advance ticket paying around £20 can then bid on the day to upgrade and may get it for £5 if no one else is bidding.

Adding extra hassle

One of the advantages of train travel is to avoid all the extra hassle, particularly when you travel first class, it should be a relaxing experience. A better way than an auction would have been to offer fixed price upgrades to customers via the app like British Airways sometimes does. If you decide to take the upgrade offer it's confirmed as soon as you pay and then you can select your seat in business class. With Seatfrog you won't know until the auction is closed whether or not you're getting upgraded and you lose your ability to choose your seat as they've been pre-allocated.

Is Seatfrog legit?

Although they seem to have existed for at least a year it seems like Virgin Trains East Coast is their first client. They've certainly not mentioned any other partners on their website or Twitter. Despite this the Seatfrog app has a flight section of their app which lets you enter your booking details. It doesn't mention which airlines you can upgrade, it looks like they partner with no airlines at the moment. I'm not sure why they have this section in the app, is it simply to make them look bigger than they really are or do they want to collect users airline booking details so they can approach airlines saying that they've seen some of their customers want to upgrade using the app.

What should VTEC have done?

Some people think Seatfrog was a bad idea (as it devalues the first class product) and others think it's a good idea but the current implementation is poor. My view is fixed price upgrade offers targeted at users would be the best way to implement this rather than an auction system.

It's also worth noting that those who could most benefit from a cheap upgrade (regular business travellers on a standard class only travel policy who'd be willing to upgrade with their personal money for extra comfort and season ticket holders who want to treat themselves occasionally) are unable to benefit, it's most likely to appeal to the occasional traveller.

If they did want to offer upgrade auctions (despite all the drawbacks) it could have been offered to all users. There's no need for it to be tied to a booking references it could be open to anyone with a valid ticket, after all they still need to show their original ticket when on board so if someone bids without a ticket they still can't travel so there's no reason for people to try.