Moving People, not Buses

Public buses are often thought of as the transportation mode of last resort. However, transport operator Tower Transit challenges this perception with their unique approach to customer engagement and satisfaction. As winner in the Customer Engagement category at BritCham's 18th Annual Business Awards, their ever-developing success story is one we want to hear, tell... and even smell! Glenn lets us in on what makes their customer engagement approach so special.

This article was first published in the Orient magazine #64, 13th December 2017.
By Glenn Lim, Group Communications Director, Tower Transit Group
Public buses are often thought of as the transportation mode of last resort. And perhaps fairly so. Poorly maintained buses, unreliable arrival schedules, grimy seats and a complex olfactory cocktail of sweat and body odour are common complaints about public buses in cities around the world. In the UK, outside London, bus ridership has seen a decline through the years because people have come to expect the worst of public buses.
One UK-based bus operating company aims to change that perception right here in Singapore. On 28th February 2017, Tower Transit Singapore borrowed a leaf from the retail industry and rolled out the world’s first scented buses, perfumed with its signature scent – a mix of fresh grass, citrus and peppermint. Created by the same engineers of ION Orchard’s and Changi Airport’s scents, the Tower Transit signature scent was designed to bring a sense of freshness to its buses. 
The idea was to revive the travel-weary passenger as he or she steps out of the humidity and onto a bus operated by Tower Transit. And you know what Singapore’s humidity does to people. At some point in time, we’ve all been transformed from the perfect gentleman and lady into irritable troglodytes by the eternal Singapore summer. 
The story of the scented bus caught the attention of press around the world, and as Tower Transit’s Group Communications Director who also oversees customer experience, I was asked by the BBC, “Why?” Why spend all that money to put a scent on a bus? Passengers choose bus services based on where they go, not how they smell. And since fares are set by and go to the transport authority, a scent on a bus does not bring an extra cent in fare revenue.
“To elevate the customer experience for our passengers,” I replied. Who could blame the reporter for rolling her eyes? Reporters have to deal with PR-types and their perfectly rehearsed platitudes all the time, and my response seemed to her just that – PR speak. Naturally, she pressed me on for the ‘real reason’ behind introducing scented buses.
It mystified her that there was not only no return on investment other than the potential for some branding, but that some very real costs were involved in installing buses with scent delivery systems. It just made no business sense to her. 
So why did we create a unique scent? Or give out National Day-themed stickers on board our buses in August? Or curate themed trails along our bus routes called Discovery Journeys? Or host over 2,000 members of the public at a depot open day? 
It’s because we see ourselves as being in the business of moving people, not buses (talk about a platitude!). That means everything we do from running reliable, timely services, and keeping our buses well maintained, to customer engagement on board and online, is revolved around the passenger. We don’t always get it right, but it is an aspiration that supplies each employee at Tower Transit Singapore with the “why” of what they do.
Even employees who are not customer-facing have a stake in the customer experience. A vehicle technician who pulls their weight, provides a road-worthy ride for the passenger, while a service controller directs bus drivers from our control centre to ensure that buses don’t bunch, but arrive at reliable, consistent intervals.
The Bus Captain – as the title implies – is more than just a driver. He or she is also often a concierge, providing directions and hospitality – a tough job if you know the Singaporean commuter. A recent survey on passenger satisfaction in Singapore found that most people sited friendliness of their Bus Captain as the reason they had a pleasant experience on the bus. Not surprisingly, the lack of hospitality is a major factor for complaints.
At Tower Transit, Bus Captains are aided in providing a good customer experience. They get customer service training, rewards and recognition for good service, as well as instant feedback on his or her driving standards from an on-board device to ensure they provide passengers with a safe and smooth ride. 
But the customer journey often starts before you even board – especially online and at passenger boarding areas like bus stops and interchanges. We’ve designed our service brochures to be more visual, easier to read and friendly to the colour-blind. Where operators have kept passengers at a safe distance, we’ve opened channels of communication and engaged heavily with the public through social media. We’ve even been deliberate about creating a brand personality that is personable and accessible by using visuals of our people, not infrastructure or vehicles. 
Why do we do all this? Because it is people that we move, not buses. And while that may sound like word play, it is in fact a fundamental difference in the way we think about bus services. Not as a way to get from point A to B, but as a journey. 


About the author:

Glenn Lim is Tower Transit’s Group Communications Director. He oversees customer experience in Singapore and corporate communications across the group’s business units in the UK, Singapore and South America.


About the company:

Tower Transit is a young and innovative transport operator. We work with governments to bring world-class bus services to the world’s top cities. Established in 2013, Tower Transit operates some of the busiest bus services in central London and was awarded Singapore’s first competitively-tendered bus operations contract in 2015.