Professionalism isn’t imperiously poncing around in a suit, it’s
understanding your product, your customers and your staff


souter_drivingStagecoach chairman Sir Brian Souter could often be found behind the wheel of a bus, even when he was the group’s chief executive


You would have thought it was rather important to have a reasonable knowledge of the product or products you are offering to your customers, and for some staff a fairly comprehensive knowledge is a must. Can you imagine going into a shop and the sales staff being ignorant of their merchandise, although, shamefully, that does happen (seldom in Selfridges,  John Lewis, Waitrose, Ginger Pig, Daunt Books or any shop in South Molton Street, luckily – that’s me profiled neatly). I’m always deeply impressed, encouraged and delighted when I hear of transport MDs who know their networks quite intimately, even more so when it’s because they want to rather than have to. But so they should. Product knowledge is not just desirable, but ought to be essential to a number of departments, especially those in the business of selling and promoting bus services.

But I can’t tell you the number of times we have been asked to design a piece of publicity which requires a map, only to find the marketing department woefully – and in my view, criminally – ignorant of exactly where a specific bus service goes. Worse still is the fact that when we’ve asked precisely where, for example, the bus stops are, we can hear the sigh at the other end that the person now has to go off and find the information. What a bind! Of course, we shouldn’t expect a rookie to know bus routes as perfectly as a seasoned lag, but isn’t it incumbent on them to have a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of any specific product they wish us to help them sell. I mean, have you ever heard of a good engineer that knows how to fix engines and the like but only has a vague idea of what engines he has in his fleet? Of course not, they’re professionals.

And while we’re talking about bus stops, it’s alarmingly common to find that stops, or sometimes even areas, are known in one company document (say the ‘official’ timetable) as one thing and something completely different in another piece of information supplied. AND no-one in the company has spotted it – d’oh! We do, and we tell them off right royally. Again, you can hear the sigh. It’s a bit like a department store having a label on a shelf saying 100% cotton sheets and the tag on the actual sheets saying 80% cotton/20% polyester. I remember well producing one timetable where the stop was described as being by the Post Office whereas, in fact, the Post Office had moved some 100 yards away. Good job we spotted that and checked. You should not be giving out wrong or confusing information to customers. No way.

It’s all very well knowing how to sell, but it’s pretty fundamental to know what you’re selling. It’s about being professional and being good at your job. Is it because they can’t get excited about the bus product ‘cos it ain’t cool enough for them? If you’re really not that interested in the product, go off and sell something you are interested in.

Isn’t it wonderful and inspiring when top management so much love our great industry that they regularly go out and not only experience their product range as a regular customer but sometimes take a turn driving and collecting fares? There’s a lot to be said for walking in another man’s shoes (or lady’s – but not the heels; a bit too risky with the pedals), and understanding how they have to do their job successfully. Yes, I know there are some who can’t wait to get behind the wheel, so what! Good on them, I say, so long as it isn’t at the expense of what they’re expected to do in their job description.

We need more people who have true undying, unconditional love for successful, profitable public transport in their DNA and a little less of the bean-counting, spreadsheet-obsessioning, KPI/ROI hero worship that, however significant it may seem in current business fashion, can subsume and consume the very thing it is meant to improve. Get a snapshot of things and understand possible trends from your forms and analyses by all means, but get out from the tastefully decorated office and away from the screen and taste the fruit, smell the coffee and kiss the ground – that’s reality. There are your gorgeous customers in their ample or slender flesh with their hopes, dreams, neuroses and ready cash to give you.

John Lewis runs a scheme called ‘helping hands’ whereby all head office are encouraged to spend two days in the run-up to Christmas working in branches or distribution centres. Of course it’s partly about helping out (and presumably an economic use of human resources – hate that term, don’t you?) but it’s mostly about making sure management understand what’s going on in the business and understanding their products and
customers at a real up-close and personal, intimate level, as opposed to anonymous figures on a spreadsheet. And it is also about walking in those other men’s and lady’s shoes. It’s voluntary but almost everyone does it
– and likes to do it – as they can get outside the head office precious bubble and see the real business as it happens; what they’re really all about.

One good thing about this, and one aspect of being professional the further up the food chain you are, is understanding the ramifications of any decision-making you may have in your power to make. What may seem like a good decision from your individual, probably isolated and possibly insulated, position may have appalling consequences for those further along in the process. It may mean, for example, that what might appear plainly cost-saving at your level, could pile on the costs further along or seriously cause difficulties for others having to make your well-intentioned plans come to fruition.

For example, I have been in the thick of it on a number of occasions when capital expenditure for a project has only been released at the last minute (presumably for some sophisticated accountancy figure-juggling purpose), giving – in the case of vehicle supply – barely enough time to build the buses without the manufacturer having to pull some pretty impressive stunts with many, nail-biting, sick-inducing, sleepless nights. Worse is that when it’s a new product, and we have a fair amount of intense design work to do beforehand, which may include long lead times for new materials, finishes or sampling, everyone in the chain is put under unnecessary pressure through lack of consideration and possibly any inkling of how long or complex some the tasks are to achieve the end result. This happens all too often and those that imperiously work in splendid isolation should have scorn, derision and opprobrium heaped on them from on high for not having the courtesy to even consider other people’s tasks, timescales or pressures. It’s uncaring, unhelpful and unprofessional.

I remember one managing director many years ago, when he wanted us to do something, would pick up the phone and say something like: “I’ve got something I want you to do, how busy are you? Can we work out timescales that would work for both of us.” That sort of approach makes your processes and contribution feel valued and, fairly or unfairly, you delight in pulling out all the stops for them. It’s about respecting other people and their function. And it makes for a happy band of people that all do their jobs that much better.

Professionalism isn’t imperiously poncing around in a suit looking all superior and ordering your minions around like some Edwardian nob, it’s recognising, understanding and accepting everyone’s tasks in an organisation and making everyone feel valued and an important part of the process, which they are. Now, put on those shoes and get walking.


About the author: Ray Stenning is the award-winning Design Director of Best Impressions, which provides creative services to the passenger transport sector.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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