Keeping customers happy in the ferry business

Michael Grey explores how well-trained and friendly staff can help ferry lines drive customer loyalty
Keeping customers happy in the ferry business
(Image: Brittany Ferries)

By Guest |

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Recently, I was on a General Stevedoring Council visit to one of the UK’s major freight ferry ports that was expecting around six continental sailings in a few hours. These were cargo-handling experts from around the world and our tour took in the gatehouse area, where in a number of booths, the inbound drivers were processing their paperwork – one truck every couple of minutes.

In the booth we were watching, a young clerk was the first point of reference for the truckers and it was impressive to watch her cheerful professionalism. The tired truckers had been facing time constraints on busy roads, some delivering from the far side of the country. Some seemed to speak no known language, others had problems with their paperwork, and most needed to exchange loads and pick up in-bound trailers. A few were clearly unfamiliar with the terminal. The clerk dealt with all the drivers with a kind and pleasant competence and it was notable that even the customers who were clearly stressed climbed back into their cabs safe in the knowledge that she had sorted their problems. The manager who had shown us around the terminal said that the gate team “are worth their weight in gold” when it comes to keeping a complex operation running smoothly, and most importantly, the customers happy.

It is obvious how good customer relations can contribute to the success of any transport operation, but also how often it is neglected. In an era of online booking where the customer, rather than a skilled clerk, often has to do the donkey work and input all their data, the intervention of a friendly human face is ever more appreciated.

For example, one of my sons who travels regularly across the Irish Sea recently contrasted the treatment he received when he needed to change a booking on a low-cost airline, to the service he received when he had to change the vehicle he was travelling in on the eve of his ferry departure.

Time wasting, grief, very little help and a financial penalty for being such a nuisance, followed by subsequent delays and further interrogation at check-in summed up the airline experience. However, the ferry experience came with a helpful voice, immediate action and the assurance that the request was no trouble at all. Cheerful friendliness, my son noted, is always evident at the ferry terminal gates and check-in desks as he and his family reach the port, with all of his children invariably wanting to go to the lavatory at once.

In a business when a lot of effort and attention is paid to the heavy hardware of expensive ferries, the message has clearly been received that first impressions, from the earliest stage of booking, really do matter and can do a lot to promote repeat business. Who has not raged at unfriendly websites that don’t seem to offer the necessary information, are difficult to navigate and if a problem arises, make it deliberately hard to contact a human being? “Your call is being monitored for training purposes, but is important to us so please wait” – it’s a message which, like the ingestion of tobacco or excessive alcohol, has probably shortened countless lives.

In any ferry operation, whether it involves passengers hopping on a short-sea voyage with a car and the children, or the more complex exchange of international trailers at a freight ferry terminal, it is the human element that matters more than we sometimes give it credit. You cannot computerise a smile of reassurance, or expect robots to run a service moving around people who may not behave in the programmed way you desire. Reducing both the physical queues at the terminal booths and those formed by people trying to contact your business electronically or by telephone is every bit as important as keeping the ship operating on schedule or on smooth seas.

Sea travel ought to be the least stressful part of every journey and while there is no avoiding the occasional rough crossing in stormy latitudes, there is no problem that will not be mitigated by good customer service and friendly human intervention.

However, this has not always been the case. Regular travellers of a certain age will remember state-owned ferries that appeared to be run chiefly for the convenience of their crews. Who remembers the ferry facilities that seemed to only take the denomination of cash you didn’t have, and would then charge extortionate rate to exchange it, if the exchange was even open? There will be travellers who recall the terror of passenger car drivers being threatened by huge trucks in close proximity, or road haulage drivers being driven mad by pedestrians or lost car drivers, in confusing, mixed and undermanned terminals with insufficient human guidance.

Arguably, it was competition, along with the removal of the dead hand of the state, that has made the difference between then and now. Even before the advent of the Eurotunnel, interlopers from Scandinavia showed those on the Dover Straits that a ferry trip did not have to be endured like a visit to the dentist.

Of course, there’s a lot that ferry operators can’t control and it doesn’t help that governments refuse to improve road links to the ports. Clearly, it’s something of a disincentive if a ship technically misbehaves, or there are events like the problems unleashed by the migrants acting violently as they seek to stow away. But it is precisely when there are problems stressing the customers, that the helpful staff in terminal and onboard ships make the difference. There is just no alternative to good people.

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