We must focus on ensuring that the roadside infrastructure does not let the side down, and that it provides a welcoming, safe and comfortable environment that merges seamlessly into the rest of the brand experience
INSIDE TRACK with PHIL STOCKLEY
While the bus industry’s approach to product presentation and branding has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, one key part of the customer experience is still all too often overlooked.
I am not talking about a small, insignificant part of the journey, but something that is usually the first point of contact the customer will have with our brand, and which can significantly affect their enjoyment of the journey. The humble bus shelter.
A long established feature of the urban and rural landscape, we take bus shelters for granted. They just exist quietly in the background, getting on with the job of keeping our waiting passengers dry.
Occasionally one might hit the news, usually when poor communication or a simple mistake means that a local authority installs a shelter on a road just in time for the buses to be taken away, making an easy cheap headline for an outraged local paper. But generally they have always been there, always will be there, do not draw attention to themselves and we take little notice of them.
Yet their role in giving people a good experience of bus travel is vital, and we underestimate them at our peril.
First impressions count, and the bus shelter is the gateway to our brand. Once our potential customers have made the decision to travel by bus and armed themselves with the information they need about times and fares, the first time they physically interact with our service is when they go to the bus stop.
Thankfully, modern technology means that it is increasingly the case that people can turn up at the stop just a short time before the bus is due, so the days of staring down the road hoping a bus will appear are increasingly few and far between.
Even so, most people are cautious and even if they know exactly when the bus is coming, they will choose to be at the stop a few minutes early. There is plenty of scientific research to show that people overestimate the time they spend waiting, so it is vitally important that we give them a pleasant environment in which to spend that time.
Most operators who understand branding and marketing have worked out how to make their buses sparkle, and their publicity wow potential users and entice them on board ever more sophisticated vehicles.
But the ‘waiting room’ – the first stage in the journey – is too often windswept, vandalised, dirty and unkempt. A depressing first impression that reinforces outdated stereotypes of bus travel being a mode of last resort for those who cannot aspire to anything better.
Beyond our control?
At this point, many operators will be quick to point out that bus stops and shelters are the responsibility of their local authority and therefore beyond their control.
But that is precisely the problem. How can it possibly be right for us to care so much about those elements of our product that move along the road or dazzle people with technology, yet be so quick to shirk responsibility for the first thing the customer encounters when trying to use the product?
What impression are we giving people when they have been seduced into trying our product based on glamorous imagery and a promise of a warm welcome, only for their first experience of the product to be a battered metal frame with rubbish piled up in each corner and panes of glass missing?
Any good brand, in buses just as in any other retail market, must offer a consistent and positive experience every step of the way. Any part of the product that does not come up to the standard will undermine perception of the entire product. Just because it might be paid for by somebody else does not mean that a poor waiting environment is any more acceptable than a grumpy driver or cold bus.
Our customers do not care who pays for what. They just want the product to work and to offer a consistent, predictable and enjoyable experience. So it is not good enough to say that because the local authorities have traditionally provided the infrastructure, that it is okay for it to be poor. Nor should we try to explain where the responsibilities lie. Lengthy and tedious explanations sound like an excuse and detract from the simplicity of a good, well positioned brand.
Instead we must focus on ensuring that the roadside infrastructure does not let the side down and provides our customers with a welcoming, safe and comfortable environment that merges seamlessly into the rest of the brand experience.
This requires positive engagement with councils, to help educate them as to why this is important, and more critically to ensure that we can influence the presentation and maintenance of such an important feature of the travel experience.
At a time of severe cutbacks in public expenditure, many authorities are cutting maintenance budgets and abandoning all but essential services. Surely this is the moment for a willing partner to step forward to help shoulder the burden.
Yes, that might involve us putting our hands in our pockets and getting involved financially. But why should investment in stops and shelters be any less important than nice leaflets, a sparkling livery or a friendly driver?
If we are to ensure that the bus remains a relevant and important part of the transport offer for a modern, aspirational society with ever increasing expectations, we must keep improving every aspect of our product. No longer can we afford to neglect our waiting rooms, and instead it is time to put them in their rightful place as part of the journey experience, and give them the investment, time and attention they deserve.