Don’t get lost in technology; balance it with humanity

I got lost on an elevator once. Stupid thing wouldn’t stop at my floor, leaving me stuck on a lengthy tour of a high rise.

Not much to see from inside an elevator tummy. Finally I got off, and used the stairs.

Dave Millhouser

Elevators were one of the earliest applications of mechanization in travel. Betcha most of you can’t remember riding one controlled by a person.

“Operators” were replaced by a glom of buttons, relays and sensors (which have now been replaced by computers).

The elevator industry boasts that it moves more people greater distances than any other form of ground transportation. It manages to do it without a “driver.”

With all the hullabaloo about driverless cars and trucks, there is a measure of excitement in the transportation business about eliminating drivers.

Advocates point out that, once the bugs are squashed, both safety and efficiency will be enhanced. Betcha it’s gonna be exciting watching them exorcise those demons, but it is also important to look at what happens after the technologies have matured.

In our society pendulums seem to swing pretty far before they settle down, and we often leap full tilt into behaviors and technologies because they’re possible (but not necessarily wise). After a while we sort out what works, as opposed to things that just looked flashy.

It’s tough, in advance, to figure out what is a technological fad as opposed to concepts that genuinely improve things. (And a bit of humility may be in order — one person’s fad may be another’s “solution.”)

As we stumble forward on the technology trail, remember that ours is an industry based on relationships. The truth is that most industries are, but it’s more visible in buses.

Near where I live we have two Dunkin’ Donuts shops. One has a drive-thru and great parking, the other a cramped lot with no drive-thru.

I almost always go to the small one because I like the kids who work there. Even the purchase of something as minor as a coffee is influenced by relationships.

That being the case, imagine the real-world impact of both your drivers and staff. Your office folks are helping arrange an experience/adventure for customers, and your drivers are the ones who make it happen. There are parts of that equation that can be solved by machines. As time passes, there will be even greater opportunities to mechanize.

The question is, where’s the tipping point? How far can you go with technology before it begins interfering with the relationships that make your customers love you?

Voicemail has become generally accepted, but 10 layers of digital speech with no option for human contact — not so much. You’ve probably never had a customer request for that automated voice, but you do have clients requesting specific drivers, often through office folks they’ve come to trust.

If you’re selling service based only on price, perhaps a giant bussy vending machine would be appropriate, but that’s not a fit for most of us. You can be so efficient that you have no customers.

A certain level of technology is both good, and inevitable, but there’s a line where efficiency squashes relationships.

To be fair, that line is in a different place for a scheduled carrier than for a retail tour company. It’s also a moving target because technology and the public’s expectations are constantly changing.

Recognize the importance of both relationships and technology, and give thought as to the proper mix. Companies that get it right (and KEEP getting it right) are the winners.

There is some danger involved in trusting technology too much. There needs to be room for common sense and human intervention.

A line carrier once introduced poorly conceived software that committed seats to online customers with no way of knowing if those passengers had actually turned up. The computer wouldn’t allow downstream agents to sell empty spots because the computer thought the bus was full. This route led to Chapter 11.

Years ago a coach company “chartered” about 50 percent of a hated competitor’s fleet, getting them to deadhead a hundred miles to pick up non-existent passengers. In a fictional name they’d paid a small deposit. It created a shortage of buses in the market on a big NFL weekend, and the company cleaned up while its rival turned wheels for the minimal deposit (and its drivers weren’t tipped).

If they could do that with an anonymous voice on a pay phone, imagine what a sophisticated modern hacker could do to a coach operator totally dependent on computers, without options for common sense or human participation.

There’s an optimal balancing point between technology and humanity, and it’s important to find where that spot is for your business. I’d tell you how, but you’re reading a column written by a guy who got lost on an elevator.

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at


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