I was living the dream. I was standing in the aisle of a northbound Brill on Interstate 83 as it chugged up a long grade, and there was no traffic.
My boss sidestepped out of the driver’s seat with his foot planted on the throttle. I slid in behind him and grabbed the steering wheel, replaced his foot on the gas pedal, and I was a bus driver.
Staying on the road was tricky until I figured out that when a sticker on the bottom of the windshield was aligned with the stripe on the road, we were centered in the lane.
Truth be told, there’s a big difference between being a driver and a “wheel holder.”
My sketchy ability to keep the coach centered on a wide highway was not the only skill involved in driving. Double clutching, braking and turning corners needed to be mastered. I’m still working on some of that stuff.
Sometimes, in our industry, we use a similar method to train salespeople. We stick them in a seat with a telephone and computer and show them to how to price tickets, charters and tours. Then we turn them loose in the marketplace.
We call them salespeople, but sometimes they’re the marketing version of a wheel holder — an order taker.
During the regulated era (when you sorta owned your market) some Northeastern operators answered the phone by saying, “bus company,” based on the assumption that the customer knew who they’d called and had no other choices.
With deregulation came new entries, some of which turned out to be great at marketing but stumbled on the operating end. The pendulum seems to have settled more in the middle, and surviving companies have learned to walk and chew gum simultaneously.
We’ve taken some giant technological leaps forward. Coaches offer amenities that were inconceivable years ago and we are able to use buses more efficiently and safely than ever before.
That’s a great thing, but it brings to mind a couple of caveats (not Latin for a dental thing).
First, why haven’t we been better at convincing the public of that? With too few exceptions, we are generally people’s last choice when it comes to how they get somewhere.
Other than airlines’ raw speed, what do trains, planes and automobiles offer that we don’t? Wi-Fi? Entertainment systems? Power outlets? A comfortable ride?
Wait, we’re heavily invested in that stuff.
Second, would it make sense to be as diligent in teaching our staff sales skills as we’ve been at training employees in using new technology?
Part of the deal, in good companies, is for every worker who has even remote contact with the public to understand that they are salespeople. Heck, you knew that, but it never hurts to remind employees that without happy customers none of us have jobs. (Have I thanked you lately for reading my column?)
The other part might be some sort of sales training for your folks. If your forte is operations or maintenance, there are consultants (some who specialize in the motorcoach industry) you can engage.
If you, or others on your management team, are good at selling, you can do it yourself. Recognize that sales, like every other important discipline, needs to be learned.
Some employees are naturals, engaging customers easily. For others, that may require effort.
In ye olden days, I returned from a week of trying to sell bus parts and my boss asked me how things had gone. I told him the customers seemed to like me. He pointed out that the goal was selling parts, not being liked.
Engaging customers is just the first step, and it offers the opportunity to identify what they want and need from the relationship. It’s critical to know how to take the next steps, and that’s where training helps.
“Do you want fries with that?” is a punch line, but it is also marketing genius. It’s important to try and add flavor and value to your customer’s experience, and that involves building a relationship in an effort to understand how you can help.
There also needs to be a sense of urgency. A quick response does two things: it keeps competitors out of the equation and signals to your clients that their business is important. Trained salespeople don’t have to stall while waiting for clarification from above.
Selling “value” requires training in what you do better than competitors. It also involves follow-up. The backs of school bus seats have twice as much padding as the fronts for safety. Good salespeople spend extra time after the sales making sure customers are happy.
If we work at training sales people, the perception of our industry as a whole will likely improve.
Now, if I could just master right turns, I’d be a driver instead of a wheel holder, but they keep making the darn buses longer.
Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at Davemillhouser@gmail.com.