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Is customer service the key to better school transportation?

While K-12 schools throughout the U.S. continue to struggle with teacher recruitment and retention, another concerning personnel shortage is quickly emerging.

More than half of school transportation leaders said school bus driver shortages were their No. 1 problem or concern according to a 2016 survey of school transportation directors and managers by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT). Alarmingly, nearly 60 percent of respondents said driver shortages are getting worse.

Ensuring that students get to school safely and on time is one of the most important responsibilities for school districts. That responsibility becomes exponentially more difficult when your team is short on qualified, well-trained drivers.

First-impression specialists

The role of school bus drivers extends beyond safely transporting students. In most school communities, school buses are often the first and last daily touchpoint that the school has with families. That means school bus drivers are also responsible for helping to shape the perception, culture, and brand of your school.

As school districts look for ways to grow and empower their driver corps, many are also implementing new strategies to turn school transportation into a vehicle for strong customer service and community engagement. That means giving bus drivers the tools and support they need to ensure a safe, knowledgeable, and responsive experience, end to end.

Changing perceptions in Richmond County (Ga.)

Richmond County SS Let's Talk!Things couldn’t haven’t gone any worse for Kaden Jacobs, director of communications for Georgia’s Richmond County School System, and his team, than it did on the first day of school nearly three years ago.

It was “an awful first day,” remembers Jacobs. The district faced more than 1,000 inquiries from parents and community members about transportation-related issues, and administrators struggled to keep up. The local news eventually caught wind of the problem, and negative headlines only served to make the jobs of Jacobs and the transportation department harder.

The district knew it had to do something to help school transportation leaders improve communication and customer service. So they turned to Let’s Talk!, from K12 Insight.

Now, a custom button and form on the transportation department’s website enables community members to send inquiries directly to transportation officials. On the backend, the technology immediately logs the feedback and routes it to the right person to respond or to collaborate with other team members on a more timely and accurate response.

“In the past, if parents weren’t happy with an answer they received from district staff, they’d go to the deputy superintendent or the superintendent and say, ‘No one ever talked to me. No one ever called me back,” says Jacobs. Since implementing Let’s Talk! and putting the focus on customer service communication, things have changed. “I don’t think we’ve had one negative transportation story or even a story about transportation,” he says.

Reducing response times in Douglas County (Colo.)

In the first few weeks of the school year, transportation officials for Colorado’s Douglas County School District field anywhere from 800 to 1,000 parent and student inquires. The sheer volume of feedback made it hard—if not, impossible—to respond in a timely manner.

In years past, transportation officials used a patchwork of sticky notes, emails, and notepads to manage inbound calls. With no formal process or centralized system for fielding and tracking these conversations across the department, it proved difficult, if not impossible, to ensure a quality customer experience. And that was becoming a problem.

“It was very cumbersome,” says Transportation Director Donna Grattino of the department’s communication process. “Notoriously, we always had that parent who calls district leadership and says, ‘Nobody in transportation ever calls me back.’”

With an eye toward improving the customer experience in its transportation department, administrators also turned to Let’s Talk!. Unlike email, where messages filter to a single person, K12 Insight’s cloud-based platform filters all communications into a single universal inbox, where specific questions are instantly routed to the right team members for more accurate and timely responses.

In 2016, on average, it took the transportation department four days to respond to parents or students. In 2017, after Let’s Talk! launched, the transportation department’s average response time dropped to less than a day. In most cases, community members could expect to receive a response from the department in under four hours.

Everyone owns customer service in Harrison County (Colo.)

Harrison Transportation Customer Service Training
Harrison County School District 2 transportation staff take part in K12 Insight’s customer service training workshops.

At Harrison County School District 2 in Colorado, administrators are working hard to equip transportation leaders with face-to-face customer service training and skills.

The district recently held a series of customer service workshops led by K12 Insight to help team members understand best practices and customer service approaches to common scenarios.

From transportation leaders to school bus drivers to dispatchers to mechanics, the district emphasizes a full team effort to improving community perceptions around school transportation.

“Taking time!” was a key takeaway from the trainings, according to one participant. “Slowing down and taking a moment to understand where my ‘customer’ is coming from during my interactions so that I can be a service hero for them to and from school.”

As we continue to honor the vital role of school bus drivers in keeping students safe and engaged, it’s important to remember that timely and safe school transportation is a team effort–one that can be enhanced by a strong focus on customer service.

What steps is your school or district taking to recruit and train exceptional school transportation personnel? Are you training your drivers and transportation teams to make customer service a priority? Tell us in the comments.

To learn more about how K12 Insight can help your transportation efforts, sign up for a free consult here. Already a K12 Insight client? Reach out to you strategic account executive for more on these and other stories.