Naru R Narayanan

Naru R Narayanan is President at The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE), Chennai

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No More Sweating: Technology will Finally Make Customer King of Bus Travel

“…the “Indian customer” has been abused for a long time and the Government has been party to creating artificial shortages”

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With a market of 1.2 billion consumers of which a large percent of consumers largely depend on road transportation to travel within the country, India requires an efficient transportation industry. However the “Indian customer” has been abused for a long time and the Government has been party to creating artificial shortages. Most markets have been distorted and the concept of business has pushed customer friendliness to the minimal level necessary.

Historically, India has seen several bottlenecks in the bus travel industry – constant delays, cancellations, long ticket booking queues are some common problems that are faced on a daily basis. Moreover, another impending issue is the unfriendly, disrespectful attitude towards the customer which has become synonymous with bus travel. In fact, we have been through several cycles of being fleeced by passenger travel companies from the likes of The Aviation Express, FastTrack to the auto drivers who charge based on their whims and fancies.

Until recently, the domestic taxi industry thought they were immune to technological advancements. The entry of Uber and Ola transformed the passenger travel industry with the availability of cabs/ autos almost instantly by means of GPS location tracking.

Going back to the bus travel industry, the bus operators do face a threat of extinction if they do not take measures to alter their behavioural attitude and step up their game to improve customer experience. Maybe Government intervention would help if they would re-examine current laws, licenses and permits issues, rents that are sought by several intermediaries. That will help the passenger bus industry to move up to the forefront.

In the Indian bus travel industry, there is no single operator who has a market share exceeding 1 percent of the national market. So for a considerable change to be enforced, there is significantly low incentive to alter the current conditions in the industry and even if a single operator did take the initiative, it cannot be a differentiator for very long. But operators must feel that they need to provide the customer with quality service and they feel unable to do so, given the poor industry economics that they believe they are faced with. This calls for an attitudinal change on the part of the operators. Admittedly, in a country where customer always comes last (look at how our mobile service providers treat us), it is difficult for the operator to see how bad a deal the customer is getting.

Technology intervention

Punctuality is one of the main reasons people abstain from travelling by bus. The constant delay of buses, inability to track real-time bus locations are some of the primary reasons why the bus travel industry is currently at an inflection point. Better time management by means of GPS enabled tracking devices will definitely help the bus travel industry to grow more successful. Similarly off-board services like providing customers with bus schedules, timings, routes, duration, timely ticket booking options would reduce a great deal of effort on the traveller’s part and make it a smooth travelling experience. Technology enabling in all these functions will definitely give rise to smart bus travel.

The bus industry requires an “Amadeus” who will publish pricing that players can adopt. Lop sided usage today results in capacity utilization being skewed in one direction, and buses going near empty shortly after that. Route planning is not following any scientific basis, and once again models can be presented to the industry for optimization of routes, both from demand and supply point of view. The current supply/demand equation is also suspect, since bus is not the preferred means of transport and is opted for only if train tickets are not available. With train services adopting surge pricing recently, perhaps the bus industry will wake up.

Of course, the state governments believe that this is their turf, and we find indiscriminate law enforcers acting arbitrarily and promising refunds wherever customers complain that they have been overcharged. Ironically, customers who have been overcharged are reluctant to complain even when accosted by the law, largely because of the fear that the law will act in an arbitrary manner and the vehicle itself will become unavailable and the customer will be the one who is stranded.

It’s time for the bus operators to act as one single entity and seek a place at the table alongside the rail industry, the taxi industry and the airlines industry. As a first step, the bus operators themselves need to desire to change and become more customer friendly.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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