Since the start of this COVD19 situation, bus operators around the country have all been actively, passionately, and obsessively involved in the “what do we need to do to keep passengers safe” conversation. I have watched as operators have scoured the internet, looked to other industries, formed committees, and discussed with one another until they could not keep their eyes focused on exactly what they need to do next. We have seen vendors and manufacturers that love and serve this industry step up and source new cleaners, fogging machines, UV lights, air filters, and PPE equipment, as well as provide countless hours of training and support. This is an industry that cares deeply about its customers, passengers, and employees.
Now, we are seeing some levels of consensus when it comes to procedures. While not mandated or required, we see that operators are embracing tools, procedures, protocols, and products that are specifically designed to make it safe to use a motorcoach, even during a global pandemic.
While there are lots of different versions of “open for business” when you look at states and even counties individually, there is a promising trend that is leading people toward more and more bookings. In Texas, as I have reported before, the reopening has been quicker than most anticipated, and now, we are seeing buses on the road. I know others are not quite there yet, but regardless of where you are located, there is a united hope that we will see a prompt restart in bookings and the ability to turn a profit.
One universal truth is that these new cleaning, sanitizing, and safety procedures that we are rolling out across our industry are causing us to spend more time and money keeping coaches ready for the road. This “investment” needs to pay dividends, and for most companies it is not. It is not because they have spent hundreds of hours and remarkable amounts of money building, refining, and implementing a solution, they have forgotten to do the one thing that matters most — tell their customers about it.
This is the weaponizing that I am talking about: turning what was a mandatory investment in response to a health threat into a tool to land more bookings. This effort needs to be the top priority for operators, right now. Here are the steps you should take to turn the work you have done into the bookings you want.
Ask why it matters to customers
For the past few months, you have been focused on the how and the what. How do we clean out coaches? How do we support social distancing? How do we train our drivers? How do we clean a coach between a tied move? What products do we use? What equipment do we need? You have no doubt worked each question tirelessly to get to the bottom of it.
Unfortunately, customer’s care very little about the how or the what, they want to know only one thing…how does it apply to them? So, in this case, as you begin to weaponize your plan, look at everything you have done, every product you chose, every piece of equipment and procedure and ask yourself “why does this matter to my passenger or customer?” Imagine that you are prepping a bus for your grandma to ride on and what you would tell her about why you are doing all the things you are doing.
If you find yourself headed down a “how” rabbit hole, take a step back and try to refocus on the why, specifically why your customer will care?
Remember, it is not all new
I have never met an operator that did not care about the cleanliness of his/her coach.
Everyone, no matter the age of the coach, or how many panels on the outside needed bodywork, want the coach to smell and be clean. At the end of the day, it is just good business.
One thing to remember as you weaponize your increase in products and procedures is that this is a continuation of your commitment to providing passengers a safe and comfortable experience.
Make sure when you are done, before you hit send, that you read back whatever you are planning on sending and double-check that it reads that you are increasing what you are doing, not that this is the first time you have cared about cleanliness or germs on your equipment.
Get pictures (or videos)
Like the internet has said for decades… “Pic’s or it didn’t happen.” If you are using a fogging machine, or you have a new procedure that your cleaning crew is using, go out and get some pictures, or better yet, videos. Nothing says we are taking this seriously and investing in your safety, then an actual video of your team working on a coach. No amount of text or bullet points can replace a simple video or a few photos of exactly what you are doing, how you are doing it, and why it matters to a passenger.
The other video that people tend to shy away from is that of owners talking directly to their customers about what they are doing and why. As informal as it may need to be for you to be comfortable, the idea of you talking to your customers, telling them that you care about them, and that you want, more than anything, for them to be safe from this virus when they are on your coaches, will endear you to them and will make the entire effort feel personal. Get out of your comfort zone and dive in, you will be surprised at just how easy it is with a cell phone and a quiet bus.
Make it bite-sized
One of the biggest mistakes I see is people trying to put out a dissertation as a marketing tool for their company. I like to employ the “seriously, would I stop scrolling for this” test as I look to create content. There is a place for long content, but for the purposes of education mostly, not for marketing. As you consider how to weaponize your efforts, look for more marketing and less educating. We have a long history of this in the bus business. We use words like preventative maintenance to shortcut the details of how we inspect belts and change oil, or we talk about qualified drivers as a quick and easy way to skip over the drug testing, training, medical certificates, and background checks.
This is no different. If you are like me, you don’t want to know how many steps it took to make the ice cream, you just want to know what’s in it and what it is going to take to get it in your face.
If you feel the need to build things about the how in this case, then make sure that it is data and definition that backs up the marketing messages which should be short, sweet, and easily distinguished as something that your customer cares about.
Remember that attention spans are shorter than they ever have been. Recent studies show that millennials now officially have shorter attention spans than a goldfish….I am not making that up… so we must realize that our mission is to give them what they need to make a decision we want to influence, in a way that they will consume it.
Basically, will they stop scrolling down their Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feed long enough to register what we are saying and recognize that it matters to them.
Yell it from the hilltops
Although where I live in deep south Texas the only hills are overpasses, I stand by the statement. This is what the entire bus industry has for so long frankly sucked at — self-promotion. While I could digress here and talk about how this little oversight is what is costing us our place at the table right now when it comes to relief funds, I will resist the urge… but seriously it is.
To properly weaponize your plans, you need to tell the story to everyone, then tell them again, then show them a video, then tell them some more, then show them some pictures, then send them an email. Here is why: I cannot tell you how many times I hear someone say “yeah, we made that a blog on our site” smiling proud as punch that they did some PR. But here is the reality, we live in a world with a news cycle that is shorter than one rung ladder. In 24 hours what you put out there is old news, tired, ready for the pasture and what you are going to put out there later today, is only a few hours behind it.
Part of weaponizing this is about understanding how to deploy what you create. You can put your life’s work into something, but if no one sees it, what have you accomplished?
As you deploy here are some places to consider using:
Your Website: If you are going to put this on a blog or some sub-page, make sure that you reference it front and center on your homepage. Be proud, talk openly, and work to make it a part of the conversation not just something you have in case someone ever asks.
Email: If you are not talking to your customer base at least every month, this is a great place to start.
Social media: For the purposes of this, we will lump all social into one bucket. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest, or whatever other channels you have already established, use this as a series of posts and realize that if you did one a few weeks, or even days ago, everyone has already forgotten, so spin it and post it again.
Quotes: Include this information with every quote you send. An ounce of proactive effort here is worth a pound of $100 bills. This may be something as simple as a link to a YouTube video or the web page that you built on your site in an email. You can also include PDF flyers of what you are doing, or you can ask your salespeople to make a special follow up call and walk customers through it personally. Whatever you do, use it as a unique selling proposition and let it set you apart from the competition, while also justifying your price.
Video: Yep, it is here too…use video. Create a YouTube video, then share it on your website, through social channels, on emails, and put it in a press release.
Earned press: Just when you thought you were done, in comes earned press. The motorcoach industry has proven over the last two months that we can earn press when the story is “we need federal funding.” News channels around the country have run stories about the motorcoach industry’s plight. I know we do need funding, but now is the time to put our newfound skill to work on growing our businesses. Turn to local news channels, bloggers, even customers with a reach of their own to showcase the positive things you are doing for your customers and communities.
Go back to the top and start again: I know its redundant, but trust me, attention spans, and all that. Think back to your email over the past month. How many did you get from people trying to sell you something…what did they say? The point is not to assume that nothing gets read, the point is to keep planting the seeds that (insert hypnotic sound effects here) “now is the time to move forward with your charter bus plans.” Consistency is the key to any marketing effort, and as you weaponize these procedures, it is more important than ever.
Empower your staff
Every single employee you have will at some point have a direct interaction with a customer or potential customer. They are for lack of a better term, your feet on the street. Some, like sales and drivers, may talk to people on a daily basis, others may talk about their job while sitting at a church function, but you can count on every one of them being a mouthpiece at some point for your company.
This is an asset, or at least can be in terms of this project, but it requires some work to get them what they need. Here is what you should do:
Create your talking points: These are basically the official answers to questions that may come up around your procedures, products, and/or practices. Start with questions that have already come up like: What cleaners are you using? How often do you clean the coaches? Do I need to worry about getting sick on your bus? How do we do social distancing on your bus? Do I have to wear a mask? Answer these questions for your staff so they do not have to come up with an answer on the fly. It will keep them on message and reduce confusion in the long run.
Empower salespeople to sell these procedures to justify your price: There are stories going around the industry right now of people losing charter quotes at $450 a day. If we engage in a race to the bottom, no one wins. Buses cost more to run than that and the justification of short-term cash flow should never be enough to warrant a money-losing strategy. Teach your team to use these tools to show customers just what you are doing that sets you apart and helps them understand that they want to use you over the guy at that bargain-basement rate because you are the better choice.
Make materials, videos, and tools available to everyone: I have seen companies who invest in creating materials that no one has access to. It is a waste of time and money. Make sure that whatever you are using for customers that your staff, and I mean all of them, have access to them.
Focus on drivers: Drivers have always been the face of the organization, for better or for worse. Right now, drivers are on the front lines when it comes to being in the trenches with passengers as they board the bus, engage in social distancing, decide to wear PPE or not, and so on. Think about what you can do to help them toe the company line. What tools do they need? Is it a video that plays before departure? Is it a flyer that they hand out? Is it signage on the coach or a sandwich board at the door? What can you do to help them as they deal with passengers who will inevitably be experiencing the emotions tied to either side of the “caution” bell curve?
I know that we are all sick of hearing celebrities say we are “all in this together” from their Malibu estates, but right now, we are all at the same place in the motorcoach industry. We are looking for ways to get in the black, to have more buses rolling, and to find a way to work ourselves out of this situation. Unfortunately, not every company will survive. We have already seen this sad reality come true, but most will. Those that weaponize their cleaning procedures will be some of those that will emerge from this and will have a new skill set that will do nothing but help them in the years ahead.
Christian Riddell is the former President of United Bus Technology and Executive Director of the Motorcoach Marketing Council. He is the Owner of a marketing firm, Deliverabilities, which has been dedicated to the motorcoach industry for over a decade.