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.

 [PAGEBREAK]Attitudes matter
It is no secret that an employee with a poor attitude can do serious damage to customer service and satisfaction. No company with personnel in contact with the public can afford to employ anyone who is not customer-service driven.

Of the many drivers I met during my vacation, only one exhibited a seriously negative attitude. With that one exception, the coach industry and its people demonstrated quality. Yet, he did exist and is clearly remembered, with his off-the-cuff, stage whispered commentary about some of life’s little inconveniences. When opening the coach door, nearly knocking over a passing pedestrian, his comment to her was “What are you doing so close to my door?” Not a reassuring attitude, leading someday, perhaps, to litigation.

The obvious first step is for the coach company to prevent the hiring of employees with bad, negative or unacceptable attitudes, persons with poor people skills, and individuals with an aggressive or combative nature. The truth about each of these unacceptable attributes is that they form over time, are slow if not impossible to change, and are usually subject to exposure through testing and interviewing. It is reasonable to expect effective interviewing and pre-employment personality testing to spot pre-existing “problems” to prevent that poor attitude from being added to the company payroll.

Prevention is only a first step toward assuring positive employee attitudes, as the ongoing relationship between driver and company can slowly redefine the driver’s ability to meet and even exceed customer service standards. Several years ago, a Chicago-based grocery chain was named “Employer of the Year.” It conducted its business with an “employees first” approach, acknowledging that no customer can be made happy unless they are in contact with happy employees. Developing happy employees is the subject of books, and many are good reading for the customer-driven service company.

Quality control is important
Like most products and services, variations in the quality of the transportation service provided are inevitable. Drivers, vehicles and operations should have a “norm” of excellence, defined in specific and concrete terms, the standards of which are known to all employees. No one can have a perfect day every day, but problem-free service should be the norm, not the exception.

During my travels, excellence was not always in evidence, but competence usually was. This bodes well, as the leap from competence to excellence is not a large one, achieved through consistency in direction, fine tuning of operations and employee training, constantly reinforced in the day-to-day operations.

To gain the excellence that is demanded by the highest level of customer service, it is important to discover and correct service failures. Discovery of service failures has historically been difficult for transportation operations to successfully achieve. When complaints come in from passengers, they tend to involve gross failures. What are left are small problems, unrecognized and unaddressed, which through simple neglect can create a climate that ultimately leads to major problems.

In the passenger transportation world of today, some aspects of customer service, principally safe driving can be managed electronically: event recorders, onboard cameras and other devices allow management to oversee many behind-the-wheel habits. But, most customer service is outside the limits of monitoring devices. For effective oversight, periodic use of on-board observers is necessary. Trained observers, aware of company performance standards, most effectively anonymous, can notice aspects of service quality that even the most particular rider might not know to demand.

Image is an inevitable issue, as many riders considering coach travel have not been on a bus since their school days. Much has changed, but remember, every trip matters, and for new riders, the first or second matter most. These early experiences can define a consumer’s potential for repeat business. Good experiences create confidence. But there may also be testing of the industry at its weakest link.

Negative images can create long-lasting doubts, and service failures have costs well beyond the repair bills. Every serious crash reported endlessly on cable news heightens safety awareness of riders. But even a bus at the side of the road, with passengers milling about, can create doubts in the minds of potential riders. Highly qualified, skillful drivers and well maintained vehicles can do much to help overcome natural fears.

To move forward and capture the hearts, as well as the dollars of those passengers who are refugees from their SUVs and high priced gasoline, the passenger transportation industry must continue to build on its ability to provide safe, reliable and ultimately excellent service. Top quality customer service is needed for the road ahead; top quality means setting a destination of excellence.

Jack Burkert is director of safety and security programs for the Trailways Transportation System. Jack may be contacted at jackburkert@verizon.net.