Claire Johnson, formerly commercial director at bus company First Manchester, launched JR Buzz, a marketing and commercial support business for public transport operators. She argues that operators are often too focussed on the day-to-day challenges facing their businesses to take the time to get to know and understand their customers. But if they did, the rewards would be considerable.

Do you know me?

“I’m 35, I work in my local town centre in retail, I have a smallish home, two young children, a dog and a goldfish. We only have one car so I use the bus five days a week.”

“I’m 19, I love Arctic Monkeys and spend lots of my free cash on music and apps for my iPhone – which I use for most of my online interactions. I’m studying to be a pharmacist at University but I still live with my parents. I can’t afford the insurance for a car so it’s public transport all the way for me – I use bus, train and tram too sometimes.”

“I’m 10 and about to go to big school, I’ve never used a bus before as my dad always takes me to school but now I need and want to try it out. I’ll be allowed to go into town to the shops with my friends soon too so I need to know what to do!”

Recognise anyone? If you are a public transport operator, these are your customers; the people who travel with and interact with your staff every day – people with jobs, hobbies, interests and needs that you need to know and understand in order to serve them better or to start to serve them at all.

There are too many times in the bus industry when we sit working out the best product, price, communication, distribution, network without really knowing who it is we are talking to. Sometimes it is a matter of deadlines – you have to get something out to your customers – you know your stuff, you have a rough idea of the target audience and you know what you want to say so you get it out there, on time and looking OK, but did it do the job? Did you hit the spot? Can you be honest and say “I don’t know”? I have seen the difference that targeted and blanket marketing has and can honestly say that the results were five times better when I knew who my customer was and how, what and why I wanted to speak to them.

So knowing your customer is important? You know it is, and the industry is moving forward towards the retail model of ‘knowing what your customer wants before they even know’. But it’s a slower process and sometimes harder task for the industry.

It’s not simple for everyone to know who their customer is. A small operator can carry nine million passenger journeys per year but only have a customer database for 300 people. They know their name, where they live and what buses they use and sometimes what they do. But that is only a small percentage of the actual number of people they carry – never mind the potential customers out there. The reason they don’t know is that still, in most areas, people get on the bus and pay cash for a journey or a time frame. The ticket machine takes the boarding point for the fare but it doesn’t know who they are, how often they make that journey or the reason why.

It can be time consuming to build up a customer database that can be used for targeted marketing (especially without ticketing technology) and the industry is busy – busy preparing plans to protect revenue from the impact of BSOG, local authority plans, concessionary schemes, different modes – the list goes on. But before you go out there with your plans – stop, take a breath, and think about the people. Who are the people you move now and want to move in the future? That should be the basis for taking your plans forward and growing or, at the least, maintaining patronage. If you’re waiting for the technology then stop – there are things you can do now. So take those steps to creating, building or developing your customer database and then use it. You will see the benefits – just ask your colleagues with loyalty schemes, smart cards, or manually gathered feedback, that use them to target certain campaigns.

I’ve seen the difference – will you?

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport. Click here to subscribe.