The Your Bus Journey survey of bus users by Transport Focus provides insights and a league table we should all care about

Levels of bus users satisfaction were high in East Yorkshire

Who was surprised by the Transport Focus ‘Your Bus Journey’ scores? I certainly wasn’t and felt faintly reassured by the results as it proved the merits of a mix of my many mystery shops across the UK’s bus network, alongside gut instinct and a glimpse into some of the internal workings of companies. I could have predicted some of those topping the tables and maybe also those languishing in and around the relegation zone.

I’m delighted that the top four in the survey are all members of my Great Scenic Journeys scheme. I’m not for one second suggesting I had a hand in their success in any shape or form, more that their subscribing to our marketing and customer service proposition demonstrates that they care about what customers think and how to improve satisfaction, and also intensify their marketing to get bums on seats. Throughout my time in consultancy, I’ve tended to find that those who want to engage are those who actually fret about customers having a good journey and are attentive in providing a strong, customer-driven proposition and good marketing. Time and again, they tend to be the ones that win awards.

The businesses that reached the heights are all, in my view, led by fine leaders and strong teams – grounded, not rah-rah, self-obsessed sorts but those who quietly get on with the job in hand, building on their significant experience they also have longevity in their roles and in turn an intimate knowledge of their local market garnered over a lengthy period, where they’ve seen the nuances, peaks and troughs of trends in market conditions. Marc Reddy, Andrew Wickham, Ben Gilligan, and Dave Astill – when the results were unveiled, did anyone think of those at the helm of these companies and feel a sense of surprise? No, these are folk with the highest of reputations in the industry and having mystery shopped fairly extensively the services at all these companies, I concur that their all-round proposition, particularly the friendliness of their drivers, is absolutely first rate, so too the marketing, under the stewardship of the crème de la crème of the transport industry’s commercial talent.

I could have predicted others in the top 15. We’ve all long known, for instance, that Trentbarton’s attentiveness to customer service has been unstinting for many years now and a legacy has been created. No shock that their bus drivers hit the top spot. For many years they’ve run a driver mystery shopping programme which is the most fastidious in the industry, with every report initiating a conversation between the depot manager and the driver, irrespective of its content and with awards aplenty for high performers.

The businesses that reached the heights are all, in my view, led by fine leaders and strong teams

The nationwide score for driver satisfaction was 85%, with a span between the best and worst results (between 74% and 93%). On the one hand, a figure of 85% belies that lazy, age-old stereotype that bus drivers are miserable, grumpy so-and-sos. However, it’s not really a cause for celebration, in that 15% of customers board a bus and are dissatisfied with the driver. Again, from my various mystery shops of the UK, I’m not really surprised by some of the league table placings here and I know for a fact that all those in the top 10 have invested heavily in improved training, development and performance management of their drivers when it comes to customer service – ahem, some with Yours Truly (shameless sales pitch here, I know…).

Meanwhile in South Essex, in Ensign Bus, First has acquired a small company, fiercely proud of its commitment to providing a high quality customer service and under the leadership of Garry Nicholass, you’ll struggle to find someone more integrated in the local market or more driven to proactively identify and meet current and future customer needs. Morale there is high, as it is at those other high flyers. I’m not surprised either to see Go Ahead’s Cornwall business right up there too – another to benefit from a longstanding managing director, in Richard Stevens, who has his finger on the pulse on the requirements of his local community. Reading Buses continue to be ‘there or thereabouts’ and so too Transdev, a company which perfectly sets its business up to succeed, devolving accountability to small individual business units that reflect the specific nuances of each market that they serve. I’ve long bored anyone who cares to listen that its number 36 bus from Leeds to Harrogate and Ripon sets the benchmark across every customer touchpoint for bus services across the UK and beyond.

It would be unfair of me to comment as extensively on those in the bottom spots. If you are in Arriva West Yorkshire’s shoes, you’ll be feeling the pain right now – I don’t know this organisation, but I do know that Arriva has been through much change in recent times, moving to a more centralised structure and now slightly more devolved. The protracted Arriva Group sale process won’t have helped – with that there will have been inevitable uncertainty and there has been a fairly high level of turnover in the bus division in recent years. However, there are some very good people, particularly in the West Yorkshire business, and challenges don’t get overcome quickly. The road to recovery takes time, but I would be surprised not to see them climb the league table in future years.

It would be interesting for a nationwide employee satisfaction survey to be conducted around the same time as Transport Focus Your Bus Survey scores. I would bet my model railway in the attic on there being a very strong correlation between staff and customer engagement. From my fairly good insight into those top four companies, their people are hugely motivated and engaged, benefiting from an understanding, empathetic and credible leadership and one that focuses in an authentic, sincere, undersold and unpatronising way on employees. Those languishing in the lower regions of the Transport Focus survey tend to be companies where I hear tales of a communication vacuum or those that have just lost their way a little and need to galvanise their team around a unified, exciting plan and narrative. Others are those where sometimes leadership is high profile and noisy but lacking self-awareness and a realisation that their messaging is totally at odds with the actions their organisation takes towards its people.

The Transport Focus results hit the headlines around the time that Greater Manchester franchising also dominates the narrative across our sector, and it’s worth a mention given that the latter is designed to improve customer satisfaction. Unlike the Transport Focus scores, it’s difficult to accurately determine how it’s all going as there as so many conflicting stories. That Go North West, purveyors of the initial franchised services are third from bottom in the league table, one above Diamond North West is interesting. Stagecoach, who last weekend took over services from their Queens Road depot, have fared markedly better towards the top and this bodes well. Under Rob Jones’ leadership, their part of the Bee Network is in the most reliable of hands. I would expect Diamond to score better next time round as they’ve put a lot of effort into driving customer satisfaction and are building something impressive here, the results of which will be yielded in due course, I feel.

It’s difficult unless you are a regular bus customer in Greater Manchester to determine if franchising has been a success, including the transition from old to new operators as part of Tranche 2. Ignoring the industry-led social media outputs in some quarters, and digging deeper into posts from actual customers, many claim it’s been a worsening service, caused by driver shortages and vehicle unreliability. Next year’s Transport Focus surveys could be the real crucial test.

I confess to being pretty won over by the concept of franchising. I like the uniformity and the focus on customer service and also the profile that it has shone on the value of bus services in Greater Manchester and other cities on the horizon. It’s also been pleasing to witness, first hand, in some parts, strong, quiet but effective collaboration between operators to achieve a seamless transition and respect that this is an emotional time for many drivers, transitioning to a new employer and environment after many years without change.

I know for a fact there’s been a lot of emotion felt by drivers, those whose daily lives are most affected by changes in employer. Some are relieved to move, others excited and many feeling nervous apprehension. Just as when a railway franchise changes hands, we should never underestimate the impact on frontline employees and the ability to manage the transition in a grounded, empathetic manner will undoubtedly have an impact on the mood of drivers when they are behind the wheel and interacting with customers. It’s only human nature.

The test for franchising will be in around two years when it has calmed down. We’ll see how the traditional operators have settled into the required new approach and also the impact of newcomers such as ComfortDelGro, who have fared well in the Tranche 3 selection and have a growing and increasingly glowing reputation.

The test for franchising will be in around two years when it has calmed down. We’ll see how the traditional operators have settled into the required new approach

Another interesting feature of the survey was the fairly even spread across the league table of the various owning groups. All of the big players experienced placings at various ends of the table, with there not really being an apparent flux of one group dominating the top spots. This suggests perhaps that however great an operator is, overall satisfaction can still be determined by a whole range of other factors, sometimes out of their control, such as the condition of bus stops, a lack of bus priority measures or occasionally subjective stuff such as the extent at which many journeys are ‘distress purchases’, where there is no alternative or for moribund reasons, such as commuting, as opposed to fun days out or with lovely scenery out of the window. Survey someone who has just got off an open top bus by the seaside and they’ll tend to be in a better mood than the person who is reflecting on his or her daily grind to work or trip to the doctor.

And if we’re really getting subjective here (trust me, folk throw this accusation at me when I reveal my own customer survey results), people in X part of the country tend to be cheerier, more appreciative ‘glass half full’ types, than those self-entitled whingers who reside in Y. I’m not daring to reveal actual place names here, suffice to say us lovely lot in leafy Surrey are always keen to accentuate the positives and heap praise, of course.

Apart from its North West business and maybe its North East company, where prolonged industrial action didn’t majorly dilute the customer satisfaction survey scores as much as might have been expected, all the other Go Ahead brands, performed very strongly indeed and were more consolidated at the upper echelons than their peers. Another excellent job done by Go Ahead’s hugely popular regional supremo Martin Dean and the superb, devolved structure in play there, where the focus is intently on local markets and the needs of customers.

Arriva were out of the top spots and predominantly in mid-table combined with a presence in the lower regions, whilst First appear to have enjoyed more success its Kernow, South Yorkshire, Leicester and York companies compensating for travails in West of England/North Somerset and always-challenging Norfolk. Stagecoach enjoyed mainly highs and despite a few struggling results, they were, in footballing terms, akin to my beloved Crystal Palace in never falling below lower to mid-table and at no point genuinely in danger of the relegation zone.

These are really interesting times. The return of the Transport Focus survey delighted me because it shone the light after some time in the shadows on customer sentiment and created a sense of competitiveness among regions and operators. I wonder if in future times, we may see the survey treated with such importance, that managing directors are hired and fired on the basis of the results? A league table is guaranteed to solicit interest and be a call to action, so too the results of winners and losers in a competitive tender, such as Greater Manchester franchising. Other locations across the UK will in the coming months and years be embarking on their own versions of franchising. Buses will become more high profile and the stakes will be higher than ever. If this doesn’t excite you – nothing will.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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