Juggling All the Variables of Customer Satisfaction
Customers are the foundation of any business, and this is as true in the public transport industry as it is in any other.
If services are poor, always late and in substandard conditions, customers will protest with their voices (whether face-to-face at your staff or on social media) and then with their feet as they abandon public transport for their own cars.
The qualities that passengers desire in a public transport service are seemingly endless. There are obvious basics like safe, clean and reliable transport; there are value-adds that have slowly become an expectation over time, such as passenger information and extra services during special events. Today, we can add transport on-demand, services every 5 – 10 minutes and protected transfers from one service to the next to the customer’s wish list.
The sheer amount of data that must be analysed and factors that must be calibrated to deliver all of the above is daunting. Challenges abound: the intricacies of enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) must be considered; budgets can’t always stretch enough for so many extra services; information often resides in separate systems and is hard to access and integrate.
However, at the end of the day the public transport industry exists to serve public transport users. If we do not keep up with their needs, we risk becoming obsolete and unnecessary.
The real question for transit professionals is – how can we juggle all these variables to consistently deliver a satisfying passenger experience, no matter what is happening ‘under the hood’?
Step 1: Plan Intelligently
Passengers don’t care how much planning or research went into creating timetables or scheduling services. They just want trips that run when and where they need transport most. The challenge for transport authorities is staying ahead of this demand by identifying which services are most popular and allocating resources appropriately.
This is where the data collected from an Automatic Vehicle Location and Control (AVLC) system is immensely valuable. An AVLC system will reveal which services are overcrowded and which are underutilised. It will contain a wealth of information concerning on-time performance, travel times and passenger movements.
This data can be analysed to help transport authorities and operators anticipate and cater to changing conditions and fluctuating demand. For example:
- A transport authority might use historical data from large sporting events like the Commonwealth Games to work out how many extra bus, tram and train services are needed at the next major event.
A savvy operator could use arrival time data to keep up with their KPIs. For instance, they could check if the lack of school drop-offs during school holidays is causing buses to arrive at stops ahead of their scheduled times and adjust accordingly.
All of this information can then be fed into a planning and scheduling tool capable of providing solutions that satisfy all operating parameters (EBAs, vehicle numbers and the like) while achieving your goals (service frequency, passenger loading, asset utilisation and so on).
These days, you can go even further than historical and operational data in formulating timetables.
With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), Smart Cities and the Internet of Things, it is possible to harness even more information than what was traditionally available to transport agencies: weather forecasts, real-time demand, road congestion data and social media feeds are just a few examples. Leading agencies like Transport for London are already looking into this.
Step 2: Course-Correct Swiftly
While operators always do their utmost to keep services running to schedule, disruptions and delays are a reality in the public transport world. After all, even the best laid transit plans will be thrown in disarray by unforeseeable disruptions like car accidents clogging up the roads.
For obvious reasons, when things are going wrong is not the best time to figure out what to do. Being reactive puts you on the back foot: in the high stakes world of public transport, a hasty decision could have serious consequences for your organisation.
A popular military adage is that proper preparation prevents poor performance. To be able to course-correct swiftly and pre-empt network chaos, you need to be proactive.
One operator that does this really well is the Swiss transport company Verkehrsbetriebe Zurich (VBZ). Their dispatchers have over 250 pre-prepared dispatch actions and roughly 800 predefined re-routings to select from in case of disruptions.
This preparedness means that despite operating on some of Europe’s most congested roads, VBZ has an excellent on-time performance record and reputation for reliability.
Ensure your organisation has a comprehensive set of pre-planned responses and actions codified into your central control centre system. This ensures that your staff know exactly what they need to do to rectify the situation and eliminates any panicked decision-making or delays while people discuss how to resolve the issue. It also ensures that no key steps are forgotten.
If you do this well enough, most of the time the passenger will never even know that their trip was in peril!
Step 3: Communicate Effectively
Of course, sometimes things cannot be fixed behind the scenes and services are impacted. To prevent a mildly annoyed passenger from becoming completely irate, you need to deliver information about the delay to them quickly.
The power of real-time passenger information should not be underestimated. 85% of passengers said they would find waiting more acceptable if they knew when their bus would arrive; over 70% perceive performance more positively once passenger information is made available – even if performance has not actually improved.
If you have a cancellation or delay, it is vital to update your customers instead of leaving them in the dark. This helps passengers feel like they have some control over the situation: they can choose to adjust their plans, advise those waiting for them to arrive to take alternative actions or make a conscious decision to wait.
Do your best to strive for ubiquitous passenger information: in their hands, at their stops and on-board the vehicles.
Your operations control system should be able to integrate to your mobile app, website, in-vehicle displays and physical signage at stations or stops so that real-time data can be transmitted quickly without any manual double-handling. This ensures that all passenger information comes from a single source of the truth and is displayed in a consistent manner (regardless of device or mode of transport) for easy consumption.
Don’t forget verbal announcements as well – it can be comforting for passengers to hear an update from another human being.
Advanced transport authorities will also be thinking of out-of-the-box ways to communicate. For example, Transport for London and Transport for New South Wales are trialling AI-powered chatbots on Facebook Messenger to answer customer queries. These chatbots could potentially ‘learn’ each individual user’s regular routes and pre-emptively warn them if there are any changes to those services.
Keeping Every Ball in the Air
The above three steps are a simple summary of what needs to happen – from the passenger’s point of view – to keep a transport network running smoothly and to provide a high quality customer experience.
For transport authorities and operators, executing this in real life requires a veritable juggling act that would be near-impossible without the right systems.
The data and real-time feedback from an ITS can help those in the control centre assess the cause of disruptions, provide options to work around or fix these issues and keep drivers and passengers updated. It should also seamlessly integrate to your communication channels so passenger information can be distributed with little to no effort by your staff.
Keeping customers satisfied is an ever-more demanding task. However, as leading transport agencies like VBZ show, you can rise to the challenge and exceed expectations with the right processes, systems and procedures in place.