Tech companies like Uber are setting the bar across the whole transport sector. Customers now expect seamless experiences at every touchpoint. This rising focus on innovation has led to the emergence of a new competitive battleground – one where digital fluency and a focus on the customer experience (CX) will determine who gets a bigger slice of the market. Coach travel is one vertical that may have lagged behind – at least in the mind of the general public, even if not in reality. So for coach providers, which areas present the biggest opportunities for innovating the customer experience and winning hearts and minds?
Adding value with smarter and more flexible ways of travel
The Sna-ap technology platform is already finding an audience for on-demand coach travel. Launched two years ago by a former National Express and Chiltern Railways executive Thomas Ableman, Sna-ap is set to shake up the intercity travel with a coach services that only operate when there’s a certain level of demand. Efficient and cost-effective, this strategy shows high market feasibility for big incumbents – if used correctly, it could help to save costs and boost convenience for passengers.
Flexing the journey route can potentially show even higher market potential for big coach brands. Arriva has recently launched ArrivaClick – a new on-demand public transport service that puts control of the route in the hands of passengers. With no fixed routes, Arriva’s flexible minibuses collect multiple passengers that want to travel in the same direction. The passengers select their pick up and drop off points on the phone and pay via app once the ride is confirmed. But flexible travel is just one of the perks. They ensure that customer experience basics are delivered for every journey – comfortable seats, WiFi, charging points, quick painless payment, the ability to reserve the seat on the app, and no printed ticket necessary to board the minibus. This flexible form of bus travel is currently being trialled on a limited number of areas in Liverpool and Sittingbourne, and showing a great uptake already. The ArrivaClick trial in Kent reported that half its passengers had switched from private cars and 43% uses it for their daily commute.
Such Uber-like service has a massive potential on longer routes as well as for short city travel. Intercity and airport-city coaches often struggle to differentiate their offering from rail providers, despite the significant price advantage. But a global research study shows that the majority of passengers would swap their preferred transportation to get access to smart digital services. An extra layer of flexibility could help coach brands add value that can’t be met by trains and deliver a service that doesn’t fall far from taxi operators and private cars – but at a fraction of the cost.
Better booking experiences delivered by digital
Customers now demand frictionless omnichannel experiences at every stage of their journey. Seamless one-click search and purchase, without a lengthy login process for every new booking, are critical to match the best-in-class CX seen in other sectors. This ease of use before the trip will set up the basics like USB chargers, reliable WiFi, an entertainment programme, and seat comfort that customers now expect on their journey.
Contactless travel first entered the UK’s bus transport sector a few years back, but the majority of coach providers still used printed tickets until recently. A mobile-enabled ticket, saved in Apple Wallet or Google Pay with one touch, should now be commonplace, but companies can go a step further.
Last year, The West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Transdev subsidiary The Keighley Bus Company trialled beacon technology to enable touchless app payments on their buses. With beacons installed at nearly 200 bus stops along the route and on the buses, passengers could start their journey with a touch of the (in-app) button and show their pass to the driver. The app communicates with the beacons to collect location data and automatically calculates the right fee for the route. It’s similar to the system used by the London Underground, but without the costly infrastructure. A large number of coach customers will already have a pre-purchased ticket, but such payment options could help to speed up boarding times and save time for passengers who book intercity or airport transfer tickets on the go.
More tools to help passengers with their journeys
There are a number of other ways to boost the customer experience in coach travel. A GPS-enabled in-app compass to help find the right bus stop, real-time coach tracking, baggage tracking to minimise the possibility of luggage being lost / stolen, location-based updates to keep passengers informed if there are delays, and real-time journey time / arrival time estimation will ensure passengers feel in control and be more confident about using coach travel. An omnichannel issue resolution and a solid internal-comms platform should also be in place, enabling companies to immediately know when things go wrong and address any occurring issues proactively, before passengers feel the impact.
How we built a more positive outlook for the future of Greyhound Lines
BIO has some experience in this area. Established over 100 years ago, Greyhound Lines is the largest provider of intercity bus transportation across North America, serving nearly 18 million passengers per year. But despite the company’s long tradition, their NPS score and customer satisfaction level had declined rapidly in recent years, leading to Greyhound's position in the market dropping from‘’Aspirational Travel’ to ‘Travel of Last Resort’. The nature of the damage meant a simple website update would not create the desired change. So, we worked with Greyhound to shift their organisational focus to customer experience-led innovation across all touchpoints, both physical and digital. Using service design principles, we conducted a wealth of employee and passenger qualitative and quantitative research to determine the key passenger pain points. This enabled us to frame the potential change opportunities within a structure that allowed for innovation. They’re now on the road to build a more positive future – not only for staff and the business, but most importantly – for passengers.
We’re seeing an increased focus on innovation and customer experience in the transport sector. The big coach brands already have the basics done – now it’s time to boost their offering to add value and create a clear point of differentiation from other transport providers. To deliver real value and increase their competitive advantage, coach organisations need to design services that transform them from functional companies to CX-led omnichannel brands that carry meaning and deliver effortless and immersive service that other transport providers simply can’t meet. And with increasingly crowded conditions on Britain’s trains, not to mention the expense, maybe one day taking the coach will always be considered the most desirable option.
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