A focus on relationships might be key to surviving crisis

“Swinging over Hell on a rotten vine” seems an accurate description of the bus industry’s current situation. The best thing to do right now might be to hold on tight and pray for the vine.

As Darwin stomps through our sandbox, he doesn’t know which companies are weak because of poor business practices, and which are simply victims of bad luck. Further, he doesn’t care. When the economy recovers from the pandemic, some operators (and vendors) are no longer going to be with us.

Everyone’s hurting, but best guess is that the survivors will have a couple of traits in common. Relatively low debt, rational fleet size, diversified business … my gift has always been telling you things you know (and looking clever doing it).

That ship has sailed. If you were on board, great. If not, a lesson learned for the future. The question is … what can we do now?

Every industry struggling

Currently, virtually every industry is struggling, and vying for lawmakers’ attention, demanding help. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re a minuscule portion of the economy, and are not the only seasonal business with lots of debt. We’re no more, nor less, entitled to help than they are. 

We’ve never excelled at injecting our story into national awareness. We’re safe, efficient, green, available in emergencies, but are not the public’s first choice in transportation. It’s fun to fault the national and state organizations, but what more could they have done with the resources we provided?

Our struggle in the perception arena is not the fault of the hundreds of other industries that are currently competing for aid. 

Name a business that doesn’t think THEY are special. Call me cynical (probably nicer than what you’re thinking), but best guess is that the politicians are going to promise everyone help, but dole it out based on size and perceived influence of an industry.

Enlarge the choir

While the recent rally demonstrated unity, helped morale, and reminded us of what makes us special, we’re largely preaching to the choir. The trick is to enlarge the choir. 

An awareness campaign sounds good (and a year from now might be a great idea). Sadly the costs are huge, and we may not have the ability or willingness to pull it off financially. 

Digital seems simple … but it’s a tool, not a goal. It often attracts business based on pricing. Our objective should be to get to know customers well enough to build a relationship and tell our story.

Think about what we’re good at … relationships. Most operators have friendly office folks and affable drivers. 

Drivers and ‘their’ customers

Drivers spend hours, sometimes days, with clients. The best are repeatedly requested by customers, and all are willing to accept tips. 

If you’re keeping them on as part of the Payroll Protection Program, why not have them calling “their” customers? Not to solicit business, but to maintain relationships. Remind clients they like them even when they aren’t on their bus.

No one wants to be loved JUST for their business, so staying in touch reinforces the fact that the friendship is real.

Do it now and it’s building authentic relationships … do it later and it’s just another sales call.

Be a joiner

As the dust settles, it might be good for owners and management to build (then maintain) friendships with local politicians, leaders and businesses. Join local organizations, do stuff with them.

School bus operators know this, and the rest of us can learn from them.

Pay special attention to groups who went to venues less affected by the coronavirus. They’re likely to fire up quicker.

Some of your internet videos are terrific, but perhaps not getting to the folks we need … yet. 

Keep that stuff up; we probably should have been doing it for years. The best ones show folks what we do. Unfortunately, the ones discussing our plight likely fall on deaf ears. Everyone has problems right now.

Sadly, I have no short-term solutions … grab whatever aid is available, keep talking to vendors. Dodge Darwin.

Hanging on

On a bluff above the Ichetucknee River is a tree with a rope on it. We used to swing out over the water and drop in. One moron (who looks like me) clung to the rope too long, looped back smacked into the tree, then dropped ignominiously into the mud.

Hanging on to things whose time is past … can plant you in the muck.

The seasonal/high debt business model has been visibly coasting slowly downhill for decades, as the industry has shrunk. No one saw the cliff coming, accelerating the descent. 

We need to look carefully at what we’re clinging to, and turn loose things that aren’t working. If we don’t learn from this, we’re doomed to a repeat.

You’d a thunk a 35-year-old woulda been smart enough to let go of that rope in time.

Dave Millhouser is chief columnist for Bus & Motorcoach News. He isn’t afraid to make fun of himself in the pursuit of the truth and humor. You can reach him at davemillhouser@icloud.com and see his collection of columns and photos at millhouser.net


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