Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Little Things That Matter!

I went to buy a printer earlier this week. The usual bewildering choice.
Sadly, the "customer service" was as I expected. No one in "multi-national A" (as we'll call them) was remotely bothered. So I bought one eventually.
Equally as predictable, it had a fault.
I took it back. Equally as predictable, no one was remotely bothered. Except when I wanted a refund. I got one, in the end. But a bitter taste in the mouth was what I was left with. I won't be shopping there again. And I suspect "multi-national A" won't give two hoots either.
I took my business elsewhere, to an award-winner retailer. Much better service, product worked, I'm happy. I'll go there again.
But what has all this got to do with public transport?
Tonight was a prime example of how the little things really matter.
In the example of the printer, there were 2 retailers. One was, frankly, rubbish. The other went the extra bit. Not far, but enough to make me feel like I was happy with the service, and I'd be happy to shop there again.
In many examples of public transport, there is a monopoly provider. This isn't a "political" attempt to promote commercial competition in transport, nor to sing the praises of a monopoly public service provider. It is a simple, yet telling tale of how public transport has to understand the service it provides in the eyes of its users.
This evening, I have caught a late night bus home. In fact, mine was the last one. The great British weather has cast its spell again, and it was freezing at the bus stop.
As is the usual case, I can see my bus parked 100m down the road. Driver slumped half way down the vehicle, lights off. My bus is due at 2320. At 2321, there is some movement, and the bus shuffles onto stand, eventually departing 2 minutes late.
What's my beef, I hear you cry?
The bus left well within Traffic Commissioner standards. It got me home.
But to me, it says everything about why this particular bus operator - and the industry in general - need to understand customer service a lot more.
Like when I had my printer experience, the "service" was eventually provided, but I was left disappointed by "multi-national A".
Here, myself and 4 other passengers were left to shiver in a cold, dark bus shelter until the driver decided - 1 minute late - to saunter up to the stand and pick us up.
Imagine if he'd come up to the stand 5 minutes earlier and let us escape the cold? Imagine how much we'd all have felt - maybe even subconsciously - about public transport?
As it is, you get the impression that it reinforces stereo-typical attitudes about the industry. "If only I had use of a car".....
I board the bus, ask for a £1.70 fare back home, and am greeted with......well, actually nothing.
The whole experience is a sterile, love-less one.
And yet, by the simple acts of allowing us on 5 minutes earlier, and a "thank you" with eye contact when I pay my fare, just think about how my experience of public transport could have been transformed.
Public transport needs to learn these skills universally.
On my travels, I come across excellent examples of good practice, many of which I post on here. When I work on the railcar, I'm acutely aware - always - of public perception of the service I'm providing. Public transport, often as monopoly provider, needs to delight passengers whenever it can. This isn't always possible or easy, especially when there are problems, but it IS possible to do this much of the time.
Out of the 2 retailers I dealt with with my printer experience, 1 will get my custom next time, the other will not.
In the world of public transport, many won't even have the option of an alternative supplier. The danger is that, should they have an option of ditching the bus/train/tram or coach in favour of the car, some of them seriously would do so.
This is the great challenge for the public transport industry.
Giles Fearnley, MD of First (UK) Bus said recently "the challenge is to make the price of a bus ticket as valued as the price of a cappuccino"! He's got it in a nutshell.
Huge numbers of Brits pay well over the odds for overpriced coffee, yet value what they have in their cups. Yet huge numbers of Brits resent paying for their travel costs, as shown in endless surveys. Why is that?
The answer, of course, isn't simple. Maybe we'll never get to the point where we're happy to hand over our hard-earned to transport operators, in the same way that we get excited over skinny mocha-latte. (Or whatever it is).
But we really have to grasp the idea that, often, it's the little things that matter.
And when you're shivering at a bus stop at twenty past eleven at night awaiting a bus you can see with the driver not willing to relieve you of that feeling until he absolutely has to, you realise that public transport still has a way to go.


  1. The late night bus experience is not as easy to perfect as Phil would like. I did late shifts for many years, and can testify that letting passengers board well before departure time has it's pitfalls.

    You get punch ups, drunkards, all of the less desirable side of society on night buses. You'll decide that all looks calm but as soon as yuo approach get to the stop these characters appear out of the gloom.

    I once ended up pinned against the inside windscreen of my own bus by a group of squaddies simply because I told them it was time for me to leave and they wanted a few extra minutes snogging the local tarts they had picked up for the night before leavingh my bus.

    Quite how you do provide a better experience for night time bus (and train - many stations, even quite big ones, now being unstaffed overnight) without great cost I don't know.

  2. Hi Andy. Yes, I appreciate what you say. However, I think opening the doors just 3-4 minutes before we're due to depart is just good customer service. I experienced this again last Sunday where the driver actually sat on stand and watched myself and another passenger stand in temperatures of 0C right up until the moment of departure before opening the doors!
    OK, don't do it 10 minutes before if you feel that there is a potential for problems, but when I am working on the railcar, we have an open-door policy, we have it open all the time (albeit we don't have huge amounts of time before departures).
    It can be a tricky one, and I'm sorry you've faced the problems you describe. I guess it's horses for courses depending on how long you're parked up before you leave and if you think there may be a problem.

  3. I do agree - most of the time there are no problems; my point was more about how do you encourage use of public transport in the late evening when many waiting locations are dark, dingy and quite scary - I bet Stourbridge Junction when you're not in the platform can be like that, I certainly wouldn't want to be a lone female traveller late at night.

  4. Hi again Andy. Actually, Stourbridge Junction is quite a good place to wait for a train. Well lit, with CCTV. The new Stourbridge Interchange, which opens this Sunday, is also a great new facility, even late at night - as are many of the Centro-operated bus stations locally. I do take your point about other facilities elsewhere around the country though. Often local authorities don't have the funds to upgrade what they have.