HomeSpecial ReportsAs Supply Chains Crawl, Vendor-Customer Relationships Pick Up Pace

As Supply Chains Crawl, Vendor-Customer Relationships Pick Up Pace

Customer expectations are among the many things that changed over the past two years amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite resulting disruptive supply chain shortages, customers expect vendors to respond quicker to inquiries and be more resourceful when troubleshooting problems.

The fast shift to digital services created a new dynamic known as “micro moments” in the customer journey. To maintain high customer satisfaction, companies are capturing intent-rich micro moments when a customer turns to a device to learn about something, complete a task, make a purchase, or go somewhere.

Companies seized these opportunities by augmenting technologies, such as digital banking, on demand home deliveries, virtual meetings, remote learning, and spontaneous school bus routing. Even though supply chains slowed down, communications got faster.

School Transportation News surveyed its readers to learn how customer-vendor trends evolved during the pandemic and supply chain shortages. Nearly a quarter of the respondents say that 12 hours or less is their new expectation for a vendor to return a phone call or online inquiry, even though 24 hours is usually the acceptable standard. Survey respondents also expressed their appreciation for the extra time and care their vendors took to resolve a problem directly associated with supply shortages

Benefits of Close Customer-Vendor Ties

It comes as no surprise that the already-tight relationships existing in school transportation only deepened during the pandemic Close relationships paid off for the Wa-Nee Community Schools in Nappanee, Indiana. The School Transportation Association of Indiana brings together transportation directors, bus contractors and dealers. During the pandemic, the organization collaborated remotely through video conferencing to solve urgent issues across the state. Those relationships are credited for faster communications about vendor services as well as quick responses to deliver spare parts, masks and sanitizers to districts.

“Vendors in our area were great,” said Amy Rosa, transportation director for Wa-Nee, which depends on 55 school buses and outsourced vehicle maintenance. “Our best vendors do a periodic status check. They ask how we use their products or software. They want to ensure we aren’t overpaying or missing any new items or technology that would improve our operation.”

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Resolving the parts-shortage issue took more than an instant in another case, but it was the extra customer care in the moment that mattered most to the Reardan-Edwall School District in Washington state. The transportation department had trouble finding replacement parts for its 20 IC Bus models. RWC Group, a bus sales vendor in Spokane, went out of its way to deliver replacement parts by finding other sources or trading a favor with a competitor.

“It is true that getting parts has been challenging in this pandemic. It is a common thing nowadays to hear, ‘Sorry I’ll have to order it,’ or ‘It’s on national backorder,’” said Mike McCain, director of transportation for the Washington district. “Every one of the employees at RWC Group is always willing to help. It doesn’t matter what it is.”

Technology Serving School Transportation Customers

Technology vendors also found innovative ways to support school transportation customers in micro moments of learning, tasking, purchasing and transporting. The past two years have given companies several opportunities to showcase flexibility built into applications or add resources to address unique student transportation issues associated with the pandemic. In the process, customer-vendor relationships certainly strengthened.

“We routinely said that you cannot overcommunicate during these times. We were all trying to figure it out together,” said Rick D’Errico, director of public relations at Transfinder, which serves 2,000-plus clients in the U.S. and Canada. “The goal is to always meet every client where they are.”

For transportation customers who want to learn something, there are many service channels that can be easily accessed by devices. Some bus operators prefer talking on the phone, while others prefer video conferencing. Some prefer solving problems through online chats, while others prefer learning at their own pace through tutorial videos and how-to documents.

Transfinder Community is a type of self-help customer portal with how-to videos, documents, and tip sheets. The portal is continuously updated and emails remind customers to look for newly posted information. The company also turned its once in-person Transfinder University into a Transfinder University Livestream, where clients take online training courses.

The company also launched a series of webinars for national and state transportation organizations to inform participants about uncharted pandemic issues. The New York Association for Pupil Transportation recognized the software provider with an award for its industry webinars on requested topics, such as the driver shortage and improving staff morale.

Tyler Technologies added a COVID Toolkit to the dashboard of Student Transportation, powered by Traversa. The toolkit includes videos and information on how to navigate software features, such as planning for school openings or creating alternative routing scenarios. The company also provides support through a portal for documenting incidents, remote assistance via GoToAssist, a chat tool, and more traditional phone and email assistance.

“There’s no expectation that our staff should close out a case and move on quickly. We want our team to spend time resolving clients’ questions when they first contact us, so that they can move on with the rest of their busy day,” said Matt Baltich, director of Software Support at Tyler Technologies, which serves more than 2,300 clients using its student transportation management solutions.

For customers who want to complete a task, technology vendors customized applications to keep fleets moving during the pandemic. For example, Tyler Technologies’ Bus Attendance Mobile App helped bus operators create seating charts for social distancing on any type of bus. The company’s transportation management solution also has a contact tracing feature that builds an exhaustive list of anyone who rode on any bus on any day. If a rider encountered a COVID positive- tested person, bus operators could detect if that rider came close to others on the bus and alert them.

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Response-Driven Upgrades

At the start of the pandemic, Transfinder made its parent application, Stopfinder Communication, free to any North American district that needs to improve communication with the community it serves. The app allowed school administrators to provide updates and allow anyone in the community to directly contact transportation offices with any question.

With the launch of Routefinder PLUS in April 2020, Transfinder provided a solution for anyone to work from home using a browser. Routefinder PLUS helps customers consolidate trips amid the driver shortage or on a particular day when many drivers call in sick. Other technologies were used to pick the best spot to park buses that provided Wi-Fi access for remote learners without internet connections at home.

For customers who want to go somewhere, technology providers still have more applications for satisfying micro moments.

Transfinder’s driver application, called Wayfinder, grew in popularity as schools needed to quickly assign drivers to a route, take attendance and for contact tracing. Districts also used Transfinder routing applications for delivering food to families when schools were closed or remote.

Tyler Technologies also provided customers with similar support through its Auto-Route feature to build runs for students returning to schools. Its routing software also helped develop meal deliveries to families. And a custom reporting function allowed transportation departments to track anyone not meeting current mask requirements.

TripSpark, a hardware and software integrator division of Trapeze Group, works through multi channels to serve customers wherever they want to meet. Its customer service strategy has been listening to better understand their needs. The company used customer surveys to detect situations where its transportation software could be used for challenges, such as social distance seating charts or route balancing when there were limited bus seats.

Additionally, TripSpark reduced its response time for assisting customer by increasing customer support staff during the pandemic.

“Until now, there hasn’t been a playbook created to accommodate all the changes in how school transportation departments have had to pivot to meet the changing requirements to transport students,” said Rich Papa, general manager at TripSpark. “Our strategy will continue to be getting close to our customers.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2022 issue of School Transportation News.

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