Saturday, 4 June 2011

Relationships are Important!

This morning I was sitting in studio 2 of 102.5 The Bridge awaiting the start of my Saturday morning political show, when someone came up to me and said "when are you going to sort these buses out, Phil?"
If I had a pound for every time I'd been asked that! And heaven forbid anyone would ever give me free reign to "sort the buses out"!
But nonetheless I stopped momentarily from deleting Britney Spears from my show play list to hear what she had to say.
It all centred around a bus taking layover in a lay by and the bus she was intending to catch sailing by because the driver never saw her. Also the age old chestnut of 2 buses coming together. (In this instance when there should have been 20 minutes between them).
Of course I'm not able to solve any of these issues. So I gave the often "standard" reply - "why don't you take it up with the bus company?"
But quite often I get a familiar reply - no one actually knows where to start with such a complaint.
There's a lesson to be learnt here.
Some of the best bus companies have a subliminal "rapport" with their passengers. I'm thinking of the likes of TrentBarton here. I suspect not only is "brand awareness" high at TrentBarton, but that if people have comments to make, they have a good idea how to make them. That's because the best operators go the extra mile to make their bus journeys part of people's lives that aren't just autonomous functions of life (although I guess a bus journey to most people is really just that, but you see what I mean.....)
So why, when people stop me at the radio station, in the pub, at the hospital whilst I'm volunteering, do they feel so remote from contacting the provider of the service they have a "beef" about?
In supermarkets there's a desk you can go to as a first stage of making your thoughts heard. But of course in the world of buses, it's more difficult.
But this doesn't mean to say that significant improvements can't be made in "customer relations" (a phrase I often dread!)
Around here, people are often still unsure about who to comment to. Some people still think Centro run the buses. Others think the smaller operators are sub-contracted by National Express. Understanding the structure of the bus industry can often be tricky for those who don't live and breathe it.
Many years ago, I got involved in organising bus users surgeries. Park a bus up in a town centre, let people come to you and have their say. Often a simplistic way of gauging opinion, it nevertheless had a secondary function - let the users meet the providers.
It's an often strange world where people may use buses almost daily, yet their only contact with the world of buses is the driver. Put him/her behind a perspex screen (for entirely understandable reasons) and issue the user with a pass (three-quarters of people making bus journeys in the West Midlands Centro area are using some sort of pre-paid or concessionary pass) and the interaction between user and provider is virtually nil.
This of course varies in different parts of the country. We're talking a fast-moving operation in the Centro urban area, but there are better passenger / bus company (driver) relations in less frantic areas.
Nevertheless, I still feel the industry has a job to do to interact more with its passengers.
In my time organising bus surgeries, I gave them a new title - "Your Bus Matters". Because it does. And it hopefully says to people, give us your thoughts, because it's your service, ultimately.
But moreover, it gives passengers the opportunity to discuss issues with managers who operate their buses. There are sometimes uncomfortable moments, but on the whole, the events are, I think, worthwhile.
Statisticians may tell you that this isn't "statistically valid" research. For that you need to do a lot more in-depth digging with some controls if you really want to understand the travelling public. My former employers Passenger Focus are masters of this - their research in both bus and rail is both superb and vital.
But a snapshot of people out shopping / on their lunch break or doing what they do, telling bus operators what they think is often revealing and fascinating. Quite often, people confirm that they are really quite pleased with the service!
My point in all of this rambling is this: If passengers aren't confident in even knowing who to comment to, their dissatisfaction will remain deep inside of them. And the next time something happens, it adds up like building blocks.
Buses are so much a part of people's lives that use them, "mundane" as they may be. Having a real relationship with the travelling public ought to be very high up on any bus operators list. Granted, the smaller operators may find resourcing that difficult, especially in these hardened times, but relationships are important!
That's why, especially in urban areas like Centro-land, the Passenger Transport Authorities (and their equivalents) can play a leading role in being the "face" of public transport.
Your Bus Matters - as much now as it ever did!

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