December 2008

Over the Road: Searching for Good Customer Service

by Jack Burkert

Experience is a great teacher. And this year, as part of a long-planned vacation, I decided to experience motorcoach travel for myself. The idea was to take the pulse of the industry from the consumer’s point of view. After all, the bus and coach industry is in the midst of one of the most significant growth opportunities in a quarter century. In these times of sticker shock gasoline prices, the travelling public is finally looking for an alternative to the automobile.

The plan was simple enough: include bus transportation in my travels. Through a series of admittedly random firsthand experiences, I hoped to learn and report on whether the coach industry is in a position to hold onto new passengers who may, for the first time since their school bus days, step on board.

It wouldn’t be fair to discuss the vacation in a manner that would allow a particular service provider to be singled out, good or bad, and so all I will say about the trip is that it included a few guided tours, a bit of line service and even a “train ride” aboard an Amtrak scheduled coach. Some trips were booked in person; others were booked online. As I travelled, many states were crossed along with an international border, taking in scenery and service, listening to other passengers and watching driver habits — digesting it all.

You probably want to know how things turned out, so right away let me tell you the answer to the question, “How is the bus industry doing?” isn’t a simple one. There are really three answers: good, bad and in between. Looking at some positives: almost every trip left on time; routes were, by and large, driven safely; equipment was modern and clean; online booking worked, and the cost of coach travel was quite reasonable.

But, there were negatives as well: information at pick-up points was often sparse (curb side, terminal and hotel lobby alike); service providers were not always easy to contact (800 numbers provided didn’t work from Canada); driver welcome announcements detailing safety were only occasionally offered and driving habits frequently deteriorated as the trip neared its end.

Driver performance
If there was one constant in the entire bus travel experience, it was that the primary impression of the trip was specifically related to driver performance. To the passenger, the driver defined the experience. Throughout my travels I often heard passengers offering praise for a driver, but all too frequently comments such as, “Wow, he’s having a really bad day!” were offered. No level of coach amenities made up for an unpleasant individual in the left front seat.

The smooth coach operators, driving gently and safely, offered the passengers a luxury experience, but others in the same make and model coach offered the classic white knuckle ride, with disturbing left-lane aggressive driving frequently accompanied by hard-brake applications.

In the end, some things were learned, and these recent experiences drove home a few critical customer service points. The passenger transportation business is a people-to-people one, dependent on shared information presented in a courteous and pleasant manner. One elderly couple said it all when they expressed a common sentiment, “We are new to this and don’t know what to expect.” And here I was, after years of bus industry experience, often feeling the same.

Passenger comfort begins when the travel process is understood and explained in a logical and consistent manner. Websites can start, but not finish the job. Little online maps of a curb side pick-up point left much to be desired. Hotel bellmen, (doubtless not on commission by my selected tour provider), who didn’t know if my bus even stopped at their door, didn’t build confidence.

Signage for one company (not mine) at a station stop assured me that a bus would be coming by, but it might not be mine. And crossing the border? My past experiences in border crossings by air did nothing to prepare me for immigration via coach: what was on the surface the same process clearly was not, and the coach experience was not the better.

My vacation travel experience offered a firsthand observation of customer service skills and user-friendly experiences. Looking at the things that mattered most to passengers, quality customer service is clearly within the grasp of every company. While every aspect of a travel experience is under scrutiny by the consumer, a few elements do stand out as more vital than others. Some of my experiences included these elements.

Communication skills
Sharing information on board is one of the best ways to build positive passenger relationships. This is a driver-managed process, and while not every driver is now or will ever become a communications expert, every driver can learn some essentials. Some of the drivers I encountered, especially tour drivers, were excellent at managing the information flow, letting us in on “secrets” and getting to know their passengers. Other drivers were barely civil, offering little information of consequence and even that, in a grudging manner. A few were simply silent.

Communication is a learned skill, but to be learned, the company must teach. Clearly, providing training in communication skills to drivers (and every other public contact individual) would seem to be a foundation of quality customer service.

The facts are these: passengers don’t necessarily know the trip or booking process nor what to expect along the way or at the destination (even commuter trips can have new passengers on board). When passengers don’t understand, they are uneasy and uncomfortable; explanations and information shared ease the burden and can help to create positive experiences. When things go awry, or changes occur, explanations help.

When the answers to questions are unknown, or unknowable, a driver willing to express that reality and offer to do their best to get the answers can help to ease the tension. And as expected, any and all passenger communication should be clear, honest and low key; the customer who is listened to, empathized with and ultimately responded to is on the way to becoming a repeat rider.

 


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