Trentbarton, Derbyshire, East Midlands
A pioneering, no-quibble, money-back guarantee is helping a transport company drive up customer satisfaction and transform perceptions of bus travel.
Derbyshire-based trentbarton launched its “money back” promise 22-years ago. Today, with the refund guarantee advertised on its buses alongside its “really good bus company” slogan, the firm is still the only European transport provider offering full, on-the-spot refunds to dissatisfied passengers. The policy contrasts starkly with the general perception of passenger compensation. Indeed, earlier this year, the regulator, the Office for Rail and Road, called for improvements, to help people obtain compensation for train delays after it was found that around 80% of passengers do not claim.
Last year, trentbarton, which has a £50m turnover, refunded less than £3,000 to customers as a part of the money-back promise. The policy seems to be paying dividends, according to the most recent findings from Transport Focus, the independent transport user watchdog. Indeed, trentbarton’s overall customer satisfaction rate for 2015 was 96% – a 4% increase since 2014.
The money back promise
Encouraging complaints is vital, says trentbarton managing director Jeff Counsell, especially because the British are generally unassertive when it comes to confronting anyone about poor service. Using the analogy of a disappointing restaurant visit, he explains: “We don’t complain to the restaurant staff. Instead, we complain to each other, and we go home and tell all our friends and family what a horrible experience it was, never to go there. That doesn’t do anything to improve the service quality of the restaurant. On the contrary, it means that we will never return to that rest
aurant and others, having been dissuaded through word of mouth, will avoid it.”
The bus company, which employs 1,000 people, runs 45 routes and has around 40m customers a year, actively seeks feedback on problems so it can fix them. Jeff explains: “We want people to complain and tell us what they don’t like so that we can improve it.” The unique money-back guarantee is offered to dissatisfied customers immediately, without any need to fill out forms, send emails or make phone calls, unless the passenger prefers to do so.
A focus on encouraging complaints
The company, originally founded over a hundred years ago, introduced the refund offer in 1994 on a single service connecting the village of Spondon to Derby city centre. It was subsequently rolled out across the firm’s operating region, alongside other initiatives to improve customer service, boost punctuality, improve the cleanliness of vehicles and increase passenger comfort.
Jeff says the money back-guarantee was introduced because the firm wanted people to try the service and route, and discover where improvements could be made. He adds: “Even today, we still want to know the main reasons people get upset about public transport, and what people think about buses, public transport and travel in general.”
Soon after the guarantee launched, the firm received comments on services being late, not being very good, or general feedback about public transport not being good value for money. Jeff says that even now the most common complaint relates to punctuality, caused, for example, by road works and road network disruptions.
Such concerns drove trentbarton to develop a customer-centric approach to decision-making. Changes implemented as a result include more frequent buses and more comfortable bus designs. In addition, such issues have been incorporated into the company’s customer charter. Jeff stresses the importance of providing different channels for customers to get their money back – a direct request to the driver, for example, or the free hotline to the Company’s customer services department, or social media.
A focus on employees
Drivers themselves are regarded as the Company’s most valuable asset. They are recruited using psychometric testing, so the objective of better customer care is incorporated into the recruitment process. Once employed, drivers are treated as brand ambassadors. As Jeff puts it, “customer satisfaction is based on the quality of our drivers”.
Staff training, therefore, covers not just lessons in how to drive buses, but how to see from the customer’s perspective. All training, says Jeff, “starts off with the customer; what the customer wants… and how to deliver that great customer service”. Understanding the trip from the passenger’s viewpoint means issues such as helping a disabled passenger become second nature to a driver. Employees are also trained not to take complaints personally: “It’s not their fault and that’s the first thing we tell them, it’s not their fault, nor the customer’s fault either.”
Giving more autonomy to drivers supports trentbarton’s service culture. “We are very frugal in terms of management, which comes down to trust and empowering our frontline people, the drivers,” says Jeff. “At the end of the day, if something goes wrong, customers want someone to put it right… This is also a part of the psychometric test, the ability to bend the rules if it serves the interest of the customer, and that includes giving people free rides”. If the driver is running late, for example, because of traffic or engine failure, drivers can take the initiative to let passengers travel free “because it takes away the whole ‘value for money’ issue”, says Jeff.
The firm also celebrates staff who have gone the extra mile in customer service with an online “wall of fame” and annual customer service awards (trentbarton’s driver of the year wins a £1,000 prize and an extra day’s holiday). Last year’s trentbarton driver of the year, Carole Hind, went on to win a national industry accolade, UK Bus Driver of the Year.
Innovation supports service culture
Jeff says that the fact the bus sector is deregulated forces companies like his to be innovative, take risks and invest in customer growth. He says that while regulated operators get paid to run a certain level of service with little incentive to improve, “if we get better at what we do, we attract more and more customers which means that we generate more revenue.”
Learning lessons from other sectors
Constantly looking at service best practice in other sectors is important at trentbarton. Inspiration from the success of five-star venues in the hotel and hospitality trade, for instance, is a useful comparison, although, as Jeff stresses, “not every customer is inspired by that, especially in terms of cost”. Perhaps more useful lessons come from the retail industry, with its standard practice of refunding unhappy customers. Jeff also points to market disrupters like Uber, the fleetless taxi firm, which has radically changed not only how the public uses transport, but how they perceive it.
There is, says the trentbarton boss, a crucial link between service culture and developing new business methods. Jeff concludes: “It always comes down to innovation, we constantly think, ‘what if those innovations could be implemented in our business? And how?’. It’s always about the benefit for the customer, that is the absolute starting point.”
Key messages from Trentbarton:
- a passenger-centric approach can change perceptions of travel
- a focus on customers can drive decision-making
- empowering staff supports the growth of a strong service culture