When someone has paid to travel with us, they are not simply cargo. We must seduce them wickedly, devastatingly, completely

Seductive stunners: Have a gander at Transdev’s new double deckers just coming in on Witchway

Let’s talk about seduction. By and large, and increasingly over the years, the retail sector has really understood the art of seduction as a way of making sure customers buy its products as opposed to someone else’s, or not buying anyone’s at all. And this is true whether it’s a cheap choccy bar or an expensive Mercedes. And talking of cars, the things we are trying to get people out of and on to our buses, – well, manufacturers have long known how to get people all loved up and drooling over their shiny metal boxes.

In contrast, the bus sector has not universally got to grips with this to the same level of sophistication, artistry or even belief. In fact, apart from some notable shining exceptions, it would seem that quite a chunk of it doesn’t seem to believe this is necessary at all, and possibly wouldn’t know how to do it that well anyway. Is there still a view that we’re only here to carry people who, as the unfortunate and pejorative term goes, depend on buses and therefore there’s no need to seduce them? Or is it another belief that our business is simply to run buses (and tinker a bit with them) and we don’t need to go in for all that fancy nonsense, thank you very much.

Not only is this short-sighted, it also flies in the face of perceived business wisdom and just about everything we ought to be doing to encourage people into using public transport, especially where we are at this moment,
where going by bus has been demonised by all and sundry from government to vox pop. I see reports of bus companies switching off Wi-Fi, of expensive new websites being extremely un-customer friendly, of proud statements that they see no need to print timetables, and refusals to publish system-wide bus maps (even online) of one of the world’s greatest cities bus network.

Meanwhile, you can browse and buy with a lazy flick of the fingers a secondhand car from your sofa, get it delivered to your door, and if you change your mind about the colour of the upholstery after a week, they’ll take it away and bring you another. That’s seduction.

The customer is becoming ever more discerning and expects a far more intimate service than ever before

Order a kettle from a department store online, and you can choose to pick it up from the store or have it delivered. They’ll keep you posted as to its progress from warehouse or store to your door. The Royal Mail is now going to collect parcels as well as deliver them. The customer is becoming ever more discerning and expects a far more intimate service than ever before. We’d be wise to remember that.

In some areas new buses have appeared with amazing new propulsion technology that, unfortunately, look, well, just like any old dreary bus – with dull grey floors, walls, ceilings and seats, and some with overbearing shouty messages everywhere you look. That’s not seduction. That’s wham, bam, and not much of a thank you ma’am.

I’ll tell you what else isn’t seduction: expecting people to sit on hard moulded plastic over wheelarches with small, minimally padded cushions, or giving them a window to look out of but covering it with notices and stickers or blocking it altogether with an external advert or that shocking vision-blurring contravision. It isn’t very seductive either when you tell a member of staff about something that went wrong only to be told you have to fill in a form – “Nothing to do with me, mate.” Or a great long list of things you mustn’t do on a bus. What the hell are we thinking of, I ask you (in sorrow, anger and incredulity)?

Why is this? Two years after the event I’m still reeling from the shock of hearing two very senior engineers from groups agreeing with each other that how the bus looks isn’t important because their customers have no other choice. And there is still this entrenched view in some quarters that to do anything more than inform simply isn’t necessary. So much for reaching out with open arms and enticing customers in. They’ll come if they really want to, won’t they, so why should we put ourselves out.

I have often made this point before but it’s worth emphasising. When someone has paid us money to travel, they expect to be taken from A to B in safety, of course. But they are not simply cargo. They are sentient beings and are giving up 10 minutes of their lives to us (five minutes, an hour, whatever) while they go from A to B. It is our duty to make those minutes not just comfortable but enjoyable, thrilling, relaxing, stimulating, whatever, so they get off the bus looking forward to giving us more of their time another time. It’s a no-brainer. We must seduce them every single time and use every trick in the book – and come up with new ones – to make every journey the best it can be, every time. And I’m not talking just about gizmos, I’m talking of ambience, comfort and real heart-thumping style.

I’m not talking just about gizmos, I’m talking of ambience, comfort and real heart-thumping style

Take USB charging on board for your phone or device. I’ve been on buses where it’s buried between seats or under your seat where you have to be a contortionist to plug in and embarrass yourself with undignified fumbling. Have a gander at Transdev’s new double deckers just coming in on Witchway and Cityzap services in Lancashire and Yorkshire that we’ve worked on with Transdev Blazefield boss Alex Hornby. Sorry to sound as if I’m bragging, but they are something worth bragging about and are breaking new ground in seducing our customers. And they are stunners, seductive stunners.

Go North East has just introduced some electric buses built in China. So have some other bus companies. Go North East’s are curvaceous and slinky (that’s a trick of our livery but don’t let on) and have enticing customer-delighting touches and a well-designed décor. Some other companies’ largely similar ones are as different as you could imagine – dull and drab.

And while we’re on the letter D, let’s talk about the two D words that are being bigged up big time at the moment – digital and data. I listened to online presentations the other day from experts in gathering data. Many things were said about how important collecting all this data was in improving the customer experience, and there were certainly a lot of acronyms and shibboleths bandied about, but not once was it explained just how it should benefit the customer, as if harvesting this data was an end in itself; a bit like bus spotting without the advantage of being able to get out in the fresh air to do it.

I know there are some absolutely brilliant people out there who know how to make good use of data to make seeking out public transport easier, more understandable and more alluring. But if at the final hurdle the actual product and experience is lacklustre and dull, or disappointing and a bit grim – even awful – then access to all the data in the world ain’t gonna make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and certainly won’t make a novice user keen to repeat the experience.

And of course, one of the most revealing ways of gathering soft touchy-feely data as opposed to mere statistics is to get out there and go bus spotting and bus passenger spotting. Walk in your customers’ shoes and experience your own product in the rude reality of the everyday. Get to know and understand them as human beings with feelings thoughts and emotions, not as statistics. Observe their reactions, have conversations and ask questions. Find out all the things blind data could never tell you. Smell it, taste it and see it first hand for yourself, not just filtered through a spreadsheet.

Do everything to make them believe going by bus is an amazingly uplifting, stylish, cool way to go

I understand that it’s so easy to get excited by shiny whizz-bang technology – after all, it’s probably cost a fortune – but if that seat’s still bum-numbingly uncomfortable and ugly, the legroom pinched, the windows filthy, the décor dreary, drab and more akin to a down-at-heel hospital corridor, and you’re surrounded by admonishing notices and the driver is surly, it won’t make your customers fall in love with you. That’s what we must be aiming for. Do everything to make them believe going by bus is an amazingly uplifting, stylish, cool way to go. Seduce them wickedly, devastatingly, completely.

And that means getting all the touch points right – appearance, comfort, messaging, attitude, style, approach and reaction. All of them, every time.

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.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!