Identify Needs Before Changing School Bus Routing Procedures

Evolving technology makes it necessary for suppliers to make client support a key ingredient when selling bus routing software to school districts.

Jeff Wainwright, assistant transportation director, and Cheryl Dalton, director of transportation, review routes for Saratoga Springs City School District in New York. Photo courtesy of Tyler Technologies.
Jeff Wainwright, assistant transportation director, and Cheryl Dalton, director of transportation, review routes for Saratoga Springs City School District in New York. Photo courtesy of Tyler Technologies.

Superior-quality client support is a core strategy that vendors use to ease the potential trauma that school districts may experience after purchasing routing software, according to representatives of several technology providers.

After all, making bus routes safer and more efficient is a key part of every school transportation department. The level of support, in the form of training that is provided by vendors, determines how quickly and seamlessly school personnel become acclimated to new routing technologies.

First, however, vendors advise school districts to identify their needs before changing their routing procedures. Then, just as in the old light bulb joke, school district personnel need to want to change.

“It’s human nature to want to avoid change,” explained Ted Thien, vice president and general manager in charge of student transportation solutions at Tyler Technologies. “But change comes easier when the team has buy-in, understands the reasons for the change and the value it will bring to the district, as well as students and parents.”

Thien emphasized that from the outset, Tyler asks a prospective client to invite the right people to the initial briefing. “Not only will it get buy-in from a router to include them and ask their opinion, but they’ll ask questions that administrative staff wouldn’t think to ask. This open communication benefits everyone and mitigates concerns that could otherwise arise during training.”

Rich Papa, general manager of TripSpark Technologies, agreed that the biggest challenge that school districts face with new technology is change. “None of us really like it, but change is a constant in life,” Papa said. “With new technology, transportation departments have to work differently than they have in the last 20 years. But the benefits of the new technology will outweigh the initial efforts of change.”

Papa said clients who embraced the changes did so by being trained to better understand the technology. More often than not, they look back on what they went through, and they are grateful for the experience.

Transfinder spokesman Rick D’Errico said many transportation professionals wear many hats. “The biggest challenge we encounter is working with school districts to find the time they need to fully integrate their business into software solutions,” D’Errico observed. “To combat that, we have taken many strides over the past few years to reduce the amount of time it takes to implement Transfinder products. We’ve done everything, from presenting our training content in a variety of different and easily consumable formats to increasing our consulting services staff who assist school districts in the more time-consuming aspects of onboarding new software.”

Assessment and Training

Routing changes begin with solid assessments, which in most cases drive the type and frequency of the training that vendors provide to support their clients.

“Before we sell something, we work with customers to assess their needs,” shared Justin Malcolm, director of product management for Safe Fleet. “What are the rules they want in their plan?”

Malcolm explained that a school district must decide on what it needs. For instance:

  • Where does it want the bus to stop?
  • What side of the road does it want the bus to stop on?
  • Does it matter if the bus stops on busy roads?
  • Should it avoid U-turns?
  • Do registered sex offenders live in the area?

“I need to understand the rules of the vehicle,” he continued. “Do I have other places where I can’t pick up very young children or special needs students?”

Malcolm added that a plan that might work in smaller school districts may not be appropriate for larger school systems. “Instead of shying [away] from the complexity of the problem, you want to make sure you have a system that can reflect the complexity of the real world,” he stressed. “The program has to be as sophisticated as the problem we’re trying to solve,” Malcolm stressed.

Malcolm said Safe Fleet provides onsite support and tailors its training to the customer. The company also administers tests to make sure that transportation personnel understands the concepts. It gives them opportunities to demonstrate their skills. He commented that the training is practical, pragmatic and hands-on.

“Once the customer is up and running, we come back again, because no matter how well you conduct the first training, it’s important to come back and do it again,” Malcolm reported. “This really amplifies how successful the customer is. We pretty much insist they [complete] the two sets of training.”

Malcolm also recommended knowing if routing is the core responsibility of the staff members, or simply one of the many tasks they perform.

Papa said TripSpark recently shifted away from a “death by PowerPoint” approach to training because the process can be so dry and tedious that it stifles learning. “We partner with our school districts and learn what is important and challenging to them first,” he urged. “Then we provide customized training to meet their daily needs.”

Papa added that when talking with competitors at conferences, the ability to service their respective customers comes up as a “pretty routine” topic. “What we do differently, though, is one-on-one training, onsite,” he continued. “We prefer face-to-face training, because of the [human] interaction. We tailor our training to whatever the district needs.”

Thien at Tyler said technology moves fast and can be a lot to keep up with. That’s why Tyler developed its Everguide initiative that provides access to the latest software—without any relicensing fees. He said it represents Tyler’s responsibility to provide continuous opportunities for its customers to learn about new features, other products and materials to train new staff.

The company’s “tried and true” training method is to use the client’s map and data. “A client who is learning software in their own area with their students, buildings, employees, and vehicles, will pick it up much faster than if they trained in a specifically designed data set, and then had to figure out how to apply the software to their operations,” Thien explained. “They will also notice right away if something looks off, and they can fix it while they have a certified trainer on the line.”

D’Errico said Transfinder casts as wide a net as possible, to make sure everyone is comfortable using the company’s products. “Every single one of our products comes packaged with one-on-one training, which is then supplemented with pre-recorded webinars, online training content and roadshows that are available to school districts, as long as they are clients,” D’Errico said.

He added that the company is redesigning its online training to incorporate interactive content, course assessments and certifications.

“Edulog University” supplements classroom and one-to-one instruction and allows users to train at their own pace, said company consultant Derek Graham. Edulog also trains at its annual user conference.

Misconceptions

While routing software can make transportation supervisors’ lives easier, vendors said the technology should neither be viewed as a cure-all nor should it be feared.

Thien said that while routing software can accomplish key tasks, such as identifying efficiencies and making improvements like reducing the number of bus stops, it cannot completely replace the decisions a router makes every day.

“Routing software can automate many steps but can never replace the local knowledge and judgment of a well-trained routing specialist,” Thien said. “Tyler’s software has many tools for analyzing efficiency, but our goal is to have the software provide routers with good data, so they can make better decisions.”

D’Errico reported that another misconception is that users of the software must be highly technical to use the new technology.

“Modern product development principles are centered around intuitive design and accessibility,” D’Errico said. “In addition, our hands-on approach to implementing support services ensures an excellent end-user experience, no matter the level of technical acumen our end-users may have.”

Papa said the biggest misconception he has witnessed is school districts assuming that all software providers are the same and that price should drive the final decision. “They should consider the features, benefits, and solutions that are provided by each vendor, in comparison to their needs,” Papa urged.

“It’s not a one size fits all product or solution,” he noted. “Before deciding, they should ask other school districts about their experiences. They all have similar challenges, and the best way to learn about routing products is to ask other districts about their experiences,” he concluded.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the January issue of School Transportation News.