After nine enjoyable and rewarding years in the transport industry, I’m moving on. But before I go, I want to offer some observations

We must persuade more people to leave their cars at home

As I prepare to bid farewell to The Go-Ahead Group, this month marks the end of a stint of nearly nine years in public transport. In many industries, that might seem a long time. However in transport, I realise I’m still very much a newbie.

It’s been an enjoyable and rewarding experience building better bus and train services for customers and communities across the UK, Europe and Singapore. But before I go, I want to offer some observations about the transport industry – the good, the bad and the ugly – from a customer experience, strategy and marketing perspective.

As an industry, we have incredible strengths but we have the odd blindspot, too. More importantly, we have a huge opportunity that we need to seize.

Public transport in the UK has the potential to be the best in Europe and it could command a much larger share of all journeys. We should, and we must, persuade more people to leave their cars at home. But to achieve that, the industry needs to make a truly persuasive case for the benefits it can offer in building economic growth, in creating stronger communities, in improving public health and in meeting Britain’s net zero carbon commitment.

So without further ado, here is my advice in achieving that vision – intended in a constructive, rather than critical, spirit:

Values driven

Starting on a positive note, the transport industry is packed with motivated people who love their jobs and who care deeply about what they do for a living. Rail and bus operators are, generally speaking, a supportive group who look out for each other when the going gets tough.

There can be no ambiguity about the social purpose of what we do. We deliver for communities by delivering an essential service. And I believe everybody in transport – whether public sector or private sector, infrastructure provider or operator – shares a common goal of making our customers’ everyday lives easier and more convenient.

If you build it, they won’t necessarily come

Marketing is vital in building successful transport services. But there’s a risk of viewing it as secondary to the physical operation of running a bus or a train. Without good sales, without innovative marketing, without building strong relationships with our stakeholders and maintaining a constant focus on delivering what customers want, we won’t have a viable operation – all our buses and trains will sit empty in depots as people find other ways to travel.

To put it bluntly – for too long, we’ve assumed that if we build it, they will come. And that’s just not true

To put it bluntly – for too long, we’ve assumed that if we build it, they will come. And that’s just not true. Of course, poor services, or ones that don’t turn up, aren’t going to win many customers. But getting the operation right is merely our licence to operate. Our industry sometimes tends to see it as the end in itself.

Tesco doesn’t say “I’ve got the baked beans to the shelf, job done”. Yet some of those who work in transport simply argue that transport can prosper on derived demand and sit back waiting for the customers to come. No other sector suffers from that complacency. Howard Schultz didn’t build Starbucks into a global business by simply saying: “I’ve made some coffee in case anybody fancies it”.

Walk a mile in a customer’s shoes

We need to be diligent about asking our customers what matters to them, and what we can do to improve their lives. Transport Focus, and individual operators, carry out polls on satisfaction. But we need to go much deeper to understand whether the service we are providing is what people want. In many consumer industries, focus groups or detailed customer research are carried out every few months covering every possible angle. Transport has never quite got the knack for this – we need to up our game.

At a fundamental level, we need to walk in our customers’ shoes. We tend to say we’re good value for money. Or that it’s easy to grasp basic things about travel – what ticket to buy, which fare is cheapest, which bus to take, or how engineering works will affect a journey. Unfortunately, that’s not always true.

In these days of flexible working, clear information is more important than ever. In London, ticketing is relatively joined up – but still, nobody wants to undertake a mind-bending challenge to establish whether a twice weekly journey into the office is cheaper using contactless payments, an Oyster card, a season ticket or by using return tickets.

It’s still a struggle to persuade people that public transport offers good value in comparison to a car or to calling an Uber.
We can argue, legitimately, that the comparison doesn’t add up unless you take the cost of insurance, tax and MOT into account – but that doesn’t always fly. People want a clear value proposition in terms of the cash in their pocket.

The sound of silence

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, nobody cares. Likewise, if a train runs and nobody knows about it, nobody will get on. Communicating is just as important as doing.

We’ve improved hugely over the past decade on day-to-day customer communications. Enhanced by social media and constantly improving apps, it’s better than it used to be. But as an industry, we are still inclined to manage the operations and see the communications as secondary.

Despite working in transport, in the last few weeks I’ve been taken by surprise by engineering works, which meant I had to switch to a car. I’ve had to look at both an app and a website to work out what ticket zones I needed for a particular, unfamiliar route I was taking with my children during half term, and I’ve been flummoxed by a row of identical bus stops, all apparently for buses going in different directions.

Unless we talk to our customers effectively, the operations won’t matter because passengers will lose patience and will jump in the car or, especially post-pandemic, not travel at all

Unless we talk to our customers effectively, the operations won’t matter because passengers will lose patience and will jump in the car or, especially post-pandemic, not travel at all.

People moving people

We’ve come a long way in recognising the value of our people. The purpose of our businesses isn’t to move buses and trains. We are people moving people, and this has become more evident in the training, line management, support, and recognition we give to our workforces. They are the real differentiators – customer satisfaction may be driven by reliability, punctuality and value for money, but customer happiness is driven by interactions with our people.

Apprenticeships are improving the quality of training and development in the industry, especially for drivers and engineers. These programmes are improving customer service, engagement, reducing absence and improving retention.

What we haven’t done so well on is diversity. I don’t just mean gender, age or ethnic diversity, although on all of these, our industry has its challenges. In a wider sense, the industry still finds it difficult to hear disparate voices, to listen to ideas from other sectors or even to learn from its own mistakes. When things go wrong, it’s easy to make excuses. It’s tougher, but more fulfilling, to reflect on what we could do differently next time to lead to a different outcome. That involves listening to fresh perspectives, away from the traditional core of transport experts.

Community champions

We enjoy a terrifically privileged position in our communities. We’re entrenched in local enterprise partnerships and in chambers of commerce. Generally speaking, our bus and rail companies have excellent links with schools, universities and local businesses.

Almost everybody in any given town or city knows and uses our services. That’s a platform the industry can build on. As transport providers, we can, and should, lead the discussion on cleaner, more open spaces at a local level.

It may well be that high streets, and town centres, are going to change in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic which has not only prompted more remote working but has encouraged people to appreciate their neighbourhoods a little better. We need to be in at the very start of that conversation, making sure that public transport is part of the blueprint for future communities.

Calm in a crisis

Finally, if the last 12 months have reminded us of anything, it’s that the transport industry can be brilliant in a crisis. Bus and rail operators adapted quickly, and without any great drama, to changes brought on by Covid-19.

Colleagues across transport have faced a collapse in passenger numbers, constant contradictory changes in government guidance, a need for protective shields, social distancing and a requirement for passengers to wear facemasks. Each challenge has been dealt with calmly and efficiently, and the show has gone on. Above any other industry, people in transport know how to tackle emergencies – and we should be proud of the way we’ve kept our people and our passengers safe during the pandemic.

Now I look forward to being those customers’ shoes, that I have asked you all to walk in. I will continue to be an advocate of the benefits of public transport, but I will be equally intolerant of the excuses for not making it better. Good luck! .


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Katy Taylor is Chief Strategy and Customer Officer at Go-Ahead Group. She joined the group in November 2012.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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