Monday, 21 March 2011

On my soapbox

An unusual event last week was the opportunity to take part in a conference in London. Entitled “The Big Bus Debate: The Future of Local Bus Service Delivery”, this was a commercial event organised by the Waterfront Conference Company, at which a number of key industry figures addressed the question of the future of bus service provision in the context of changes in public policy, with associated funding issues, and changes in market expectations.

It is not my intention to give a blow-by-blow account of the conference here – the trade magazines were well represented and I am sure the event will be well reported, but it was an enjoyable and interesting day.

My role was to take part in a panel of five speakers discussing the consequences of the government’s localism agenda, although in fact the discussion was far more wide-ranging than that. Also on the panel was one of the industry’s most respected figureheads, Peter Shipp, Chairman and Chief Executive of EYMS Group – one of the largest surviving independents. Due to a clerical error, I too was listed in the programme as Chairman and Chief Executive of EYMS Group, much to his chagrin and the cause of a great deal of banter during the day. I can assure him I am happy with my lot in life and would not wish to usurp him from his rightful and well-earned position!

The other representatives on the panel were Jonathan Bray of PTEG, Gavin Booth of Bus Users UK and Mike Cooper, Managing Director of Arriva Bus. The discussion was lively and interesting with a range of questions from the floor, but the one that seemed to me most pertinent came from the conference chairman, John Owen of UK Bus Awards and retired ex-Managing Director of Thamesdown Transport.

In response to a comment from Mike Cooper in his opening remarks that Arriva enjoys 91% satisfaction rating among its customers, John asked why it should be the case that the industry continues to see slow decline or only marginal growth and struggles so badly to attract new customers, when satisfaction ratings among existing users are so much higher than one would see in many industries.

I think this question goes to the heart of why the bus industry struggles sometimes to do itself justice, and also why we started Velvet in the first place back in 2007. My belief has always been that the industry as a whole – with honourable exceptions - fails to understand customer service, and is complacent about the level of service it provides.

Inevitably, at the strategic policy level, it is necessary to talk in terms of big numbers – we have roundly one million passenger journeys per annum on our buses, the industry as a whole has around five billion passenger journeys per annum, so just a one per cent increase or decrease is a cool fifty million journeys either way!

However what people sometimes forget is that those millions of passenger journeys are actually millions of individual human beings, all with their own individual set of values, beliefs and perceptions and all with their own individual reasons for travelling. Each will have their own triggers in terms of what will make them want to travel more, and what will make them travel less. And many of them will be regular travellers – a typical commuter might travel to work 250 days in the year, so if you upset one person you lose five hundred passenger journeys at a stroke!

On the whole, the industry does a pretty good job of getting the buses out. Collectively, we run the vast majority of the miles that we’re supposed to run, and the vast majority of them are at about the right time. But in too many places it seems that this is enough, and the attention to detail is frightening.

Yet it is that attention to detail that makes the difference between people travelling by bus or not. Will the driver be friendly, or will they be made to look a fool if they ask a simple question? How will they know what the fare will be, or when to get off? If something goes wrong how will they know about it, and what will the company do to put it right?

I see so many examples of service failing at the very detailed level. These rarely appear in statistics, but the journey to or from work can be a very stressful experience for people, and if the experience isn’t good on the ground, they may try it a few times but as soon as they can find an alternative they will.

One of my particular pet hates is buses running late, being allowed to continue to run late through the day with no intervention to put things right. Most people accept that delays can occur, but they won’t understand why a delay at 09.00 hrs should be responsible for two buses running in convoy at midday, yet these things happen all the time.

And the key issue when looking at satisfaction statistics is that existing users often have different expectations to new users. In many cases – whether we like it or not – our existing customers are travelling with us because they have no choice. They have got used to the devil they know, and very often they’ll put up with service that I would regard as being unacceptable, just because for them it’s the norm.

So if you ask them whether they are satisfied, they will almost certainly say yes, and in that sense a figure of 91% is something to be genuinely happy about. But that certainly doesn’t mean that someone who is not used to the idiosyncracies of bus travel, perhaps has higher expectations and certainly may need more help and guidance, will give you the same response.

It remains my opinion that the whole industry needs to raise its game in this area. Devolve responsibility for service delivery as close to the front line as you dare – give drivers and controllers the responsibility and initiative to deal with problems and take pride in doing so, and they will pleasantly surprise you. Give them the right support and back-up from the centre, but let them do what they’re good at.

I would never claim that Velvet is perfect – we have plenty of areas where we can improve – but the feedback from our customers time and time again is that they find our services friendly, reliable and easy to use. The reward has been very satisfying patronage growth on our key routes for two successive years, but we’re not doing anything amazing – just giving the drivers to opportunity to go out and give the customers a great service, and trying to get the attention to detail right.

As you may have noticed this is a bit of a soapbox issue for me, and in that sense I am pleased that the discussion last Thursday certainly brought the issue to the fore!

1 comment:

  1. I did notice that in one such magazine you were incorrectly referred to as 'Bill Stockley'!