Are You Paying Attention to Your Customer Service? Are Operators in Touch?
SAN FRANCISCO — Laura Maki wanted to hire a motorcoach to pick up and drop off her wedding party at a local hotel for the rehearsal dinner, the wedding, and sightseeing trips.
Simple enough, she thought. Talk to a few companies, get a few quotes, make a decision.
What she experienced, however, was weeks of frustration because coach companies would not return her calls or provide quotes over the phone or by e-mail. In the end, she would rent vans and ask many of her guests to drive their own vehicles.
“I did always hate that about my wedding — that I made people drive around in a strange city,” says Maki, is lives in Louisville, Ky., and is a server in a barbeque restaurant.
Is Maki’s story an isolated example of bad service, or an indication of an industry that somehow has lost touch with its customers?
It depends on who you ask.
Most industry executives, when informed of Maki’s tale, expressed disappointed that a potential client didn’t get the help she needed.
“I don’t think much of that,” said Gale Ellsworth, president and CEO of Trailways Transportation System. “That’s the best way to lose future business. … I think it’s rude and a great way to lose business.”
“That frustrates me,” added Steve Klika. He’s president of International Motor Coach Group Inc.
“(Customers) have got to struggle through the system to get through to a human being. The first person is the one they connect with. Your level of frustration gets so high because the human factor is not there.
“You have fewer owners who have personal engagement, (and) a newer generation (focused) on technology and efficiency. People in sales can’t shoot down calls. … That is so sad. I just cringe when I hear that.
“It’s just that the motorcoach system has broken down. There’s probably a lot more out there than we would like to think. Owners may think it’s going well, but if they’re not hearing about it, sales is in a total disconnect.”
On being responsive
Many factors come into play when a potential client calls, say industry executives. Is it a busy season? Are there special events that weekend? But: “It’s still no excuse that people didn’t call (her back),” says Ellsworth.
You can’t commit a year out, or even eight months out, but “what they should be doing is giving an estimate,” insists Ellsworth. “What we have to encourage the operator to do is to give the client an estimate for today.”
The whole story?
One official wondered aloud if Maki gave enough information for a quote.
“I think the specificity is important,” said Victor Parra, president and CEO of the United Motorcoach Association, of the information given by Maki. “It’s surprising to me they wouldn’t give her quotes. (But) the customer needs to look at the value of the sale and not the price of the sale.”
Brian Crow, president and CEO of Motor Coach Canada, points out that bus service isn’t a commodity; it can’t be sold like bushels of wheat. There are so many factors in deciding if a company is the right choice. Prices in the motorcoach industry are more complex than the price of gasoline at the pump.
“It’s many factors. Were you safe on the trip; were your expectations met, if not exceeded? Not getting a telephone call back, that’s not meeting her expectations,” says Crow.
“You’re always going to get people who want to get a price; they’re going to try to get the lowest price, but if you get engaged in the community, price isn’t a big issue. It’s: ‘I know them,'” says Klika.
Klika points out that paying for a bus is so much more than the best price you can get. You have to look at safety, the human connection, high standards in general. “Am I giving up safety, or am I giving up peanuts on the bus?”
“I’m very disappointed that she couldn’t get people to even respond. The quote is a different issue,” says Crow, who also heads Ontario Motor Coach Association. Companies may say: “I’d love your business but I need more information,” or the company is booked. “I guess the problem is that if the bus companies didn’t even respond to the call, they couldn’t even address her questions.” But he wondered about the nature of the exchange – why didn’t the companies respond?
Still, he stressed he didn’t want to give the impression the industry couldn’t improve.
Defining customer service
So, what is customer service?
It’s multifaceted, says Ellsworth. “Customer service is everything from how you reply to the request, to how you treat them during the journey, to how you treat them afterwards. It’s public relations. Period.”
“In general, I would say if the customer says at the end of the day, ‘That was great,’ then that’s customer service,” says Crow.
From time to time, the industry has looked at different ways to self-monitor its customers service — a star system or a quality standard program.
“It concerns me for the industry, when we don’t have our own systems in place to deal with (cases like Maki),” says Klika.
But such programs would have to address complex issues in the industry.
Steve Kirchner, president of National Motorcoach Network, wonders if an already highly regulated industry is going to embrace more regulation.
“I don’t think I’m opposed to it, I just don’t see how it works,” says Crow. “You can have a 20-year-old coach that’s in top condition. … What about customer service? How do you rate the company, the sales people, the vehicle…How could (a rating system) be set up?”
A rating system would be difficult to establish, agrees Parra. “You need to look at everything about the company — is it financially sound, customer service, the safety record.” Also, the equipment is not all the same — coaches may have a galley or plush seats, for example, all deserving of a higher rating.
“This has been one of those projects we’d like to get to, but our plate is pretty full. It’s not really in the works right now, but it’s something we’d like to look at,” says Parra.
What to do?
So what should companies do to offer better initial customer service?
Word of mouth and leads are the best ways to get business, say executives.
Trailways has a new employee on board who works with drivers, agents and other employees on how to improve public relations. And the system also has a customer-service manual for operators that guides employees through such issues as handling phone calls.
“You have to think of the motorcoach industry like the hospitality industry, and if you don’t get word of mouth back, then you’re going to lose business in the long run,” says Ellsworth.
Mark Greer, owner of BusRates.com, stresses that the phone and Internet are critical to today’s businesses. “Inbound calls are more productive than returning calls in terms of a sales call,” he says. When the customers call, they’re ready, in a buying mode.
He stressed that promptly responding to calls and e-mails is an easy way to make business. He has found that professionally written e-mails, answered quickly, get the job.
“I always tell bus companies that if you respond with just a price, you are throwing away your lead,” says Greer.
“Our members (need to) re-engage back into our communities the way their dad, granddads and great-granddads did,” says Klika. “The general public doesn’t have a strong relationship with the operators the way they used to.
“If we don’t admit to the challenges we deal with, how do we fix it?”