High-end bus service boosts passenger growth and satisfaction
Posted: 30 April 2014 | Duncan Cameron, Director & General Manager, First Aberdeen | No comments yet
On 18 November 2013, First Aberdeen launched its brand new Platinum Service; described as the ‘future of bus travel’ and that it would ‘revolutionise’ local bus services. For Intelligent Transport, Duncan Cameron, Director and General Manager at First Aberdeen covers the benefits of operating a high-end bus service, details the changes that the vehicles were put through, and highlights the success so far of the new service…
Duncan Cameron, Director and General Manager at First Aberdeen
At the time of writing this article, Platinum is three months into its journey and we could not be more pleased with its performance.
The vision for Platinum began 18 months ago with the specific aim of encouraging more people to use the bus. We pulled a project team together and began to consider what the future of bus travel should look like in the city.
At the outset, all involved agreed that the aim should be to deliver a bus service that was so customer focused that passengers would feel as if they were receiving VIP treatment. The team considered and identified ways in which almost every aspect of using the bus could be improved. ‘Platinum’ had taken its first formative steps.
The project team agreed that every detail of Platinum should be looked at in minute detail – every aspect of vehicle maintenance right through to every aspect of the comfort, feel and appearance of the bus. The strapline, ‘On Platinum every journey is a special journey’ was agreed. One of the benefits of introducing a high-end product with such a focus on customer service, as highlighted by the strapline, is the extra pride that it fosters amongst the workforce. Every single member of staff that touches Platinum handles it with extra care and attention.
So fast forwarding about six months, plans were finalised, budgets approved, and all agreed to give Service 19 (which links Tillydrone with Aberdeen City Centre and Culter) the ‘Platinum’ treatment and it was close to becoming a reality.
In September 2013, the 12 buses (11 double-deckers and one single-deck) which were used on Service 19 were taken out-of-service and dispatched for transformation. They arrived back in the depot in stages, but in order to maximise the impact of the launch, we kept the buses in a secure location, hidden from public view, until launch day.
When launch day finally arrived there was much anticipation and a real buzz amongst staff. A high profile media launch attracted MPs, MSPs, councillors, the city’s media and other stakeholders. Fireworks, Top Gun themed drivers and of course the Platinum buses were a fitting way to launch what we described as ‘the most radical and innovative set of improvements to a local bus service ever witnessed in Scotland’.
What has changed?
We have completely refurbished the exterior and interior of these 12 buses and improved almost every other aspect associated with the journey.
The buses now feature a stunning, sleek exterior with Platinum branding. Inside, customers benefit from two TV screens featuring 24-hour news updates, leather seats with embroidered headrests (fitted as standard), and free Wi-Fi is also available.
First Aberdeen became the first bus company in the world to bring seatbacks to life. Using ‘augmented reality’ technology, customers using smartphones or tablets can scan vinyls on the backs of Platinum seats to view interviews with First Aberdeen staff, learn more about services or even book tickets for the theatre.
Other new interior vinyls placed behind the driver’s cab and on the stairwell provide improved service information for passengers.
Crucial to the success of Platinum are the drivers. Fifty of First Aberdeen’s best drivers received enhanced customer service training and now operate on the Service 19 route. Staff engagement and training has been absolutely critical in operating Platinum. First’s drivers are its ambassadors – the public face of the company – and each Platinum driver proudly represents the brand. Smartly dressed in dedicated Platinum uniforms, drivers are happy to help customers get the best value fares as well as helping anyone that’s new to bus travel.
In addition, First Aberdeen has invested in a dedicated cleaner who is positioned at the service terminus point to ensure that all buses are given regular cleans whilst in service.
Giving the drivers, engineers, mechanics and cleaners more responsibility and ownership of Platinum has been important. Indeed, the pride with which staff at First Aberdeen treat Platinum is exceptional. For example, just a week after launch, some bus seats on one vehicle were vandalised. The reaction from staff – drivers, engineers and cleaners – was one of uproar – they treated the act of vandalism personally. Fortunately the culprit has since been apprehended and charged by the police.
Finally, First introduced a ‘no quibble guarantee’ which enables customers to claim a free journey should they be unhappy with any aspect of the service. After all, why wouldn’t they do this? Every single aspect of a Platinum bus journey is all about high quality and delivering the highest possible standards for its customers. Since launch, only a handful of customers per week claim free travel vouchers.
Following the launch, First Aberdeen undertook its biggest marketing campaign ever to support the service through its first few months. This included:
- The launch of a Where Else? campaign that involved sacrificing commercial external advertising across the service in favour of First’s bespoke Platinum messaging
- The development and launch of a dedicated Platinum microsite1
- A social media campaign
- A significant leaflet drop was mailed to households along the route of Platinum, giving people the opportunity to try the service using money-off vouchers. Redemption rates encouragingly show a high level of infrequent, irregular and non-bus users redeeming these vouchers.
First Aberdeen is the first company in the bus industry to significantly refurbish mid-life vehicles and transform them into a bespoke customer-focused service. We invested some £300,000 in the transformation, including the marketing spend.
As you would expect with such an investment, we set ourselves some demanding targets in terms of passenger growth and return on investment. Since our launch, Platinum has witnessed extraordinary passenger growth figures. In two short months the service was delivering 5% year-on-year passenger growth – that’s well in excess of First’s projections.
Feedback from customers has also been excellent. Complaints are few and far between and the number of commendations has increased. Feedback from staff has been great. Drivers enjoy giving customers the VIP treatment and many have said they feel more like chauffeurs than bus drivers. Engineers and mechanics are working harder than ever to keep Platinum vehicles well maintained – it’s crucial that customers on Service 19 enjoy Platinum buses each and every journey – we do not want to put any other vehicle on that route.
Such has been Platinum’s overwhelming success that First Aberdeen has ambitious plans to transform another of its services to Platinum. I have no doubt that our competitors too are watching Platinum closely.
Platinum is a trailblazing concept and without doubt the most exciting thing that we have done to encourage more people to use our buses and to use them more often. The launch created a real buzz about buses in the city and it’s encouraging and heartening to see really good passenger growth.
I’m incredibly proud of my team – they’ve designed, implemented and delivered a successful, industry leading product which is producing fantastic passenger growth and customer satisfaction.
After graduating from Robert Gordon University, Duncan Cameron began his career at First as a Senior Management Trainee in 2001. Throughout the next six years he gained a broad range of experience working in three separate subsidiaries, including the regulated London bus market. In 2007, Duncan was promoted to Operations Director of First’s bus business in Essex, becoming one of the company’s youngest ever directors. He returned to Aberdeen in 2009 becoming First Aberdeen’s Operations Director and was appointed Director and General Manager in 2012.