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MegaBad, and Still Rockin'

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The asterisk on the $1 offer denotes questionable customer experience.
The asterisk on the $1 offer denotes questionable customer experience.

Soaking in a hot tub, head crowned with a shower cap, drummer Mick Shrimpton is asked by mockumentarian Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) about his philosophy of life in the film This is Spinal Tap.

“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” replies Shrimpton.

“What if there's no more rock and roll?” asks DiBergi.

“Well,” drawls Shrimpton, “As long as there's sex and drugs, I can do without rock and roll.”

And as long as there's a cheap, safe way to get from D.C. to Boston, thrifty travelers can do without a great customer experience. A story in the Philadelphia Inquirer last month chronicled the increasing popularity of bus travel linking Philly with other major destinations in the Northeast Corridor. Following a three-decade decline in bus travel, the city saw trips grow 7.5% between 2011 and 2012, and the paper noted that discount bus trips grew more than 30% nationwide during that time.

Carriers such as Greyhound's Bolt Bus and Coach USA's MegaBus have resurrected bus travel by wooing young professionals and college students with clean bathrooms, Wi-Fi, and low fares. Weekday trips from Philadelphia to New York can cost $10 and fares from New York to Boston on a Saturday rarely top $25. Add to that a noted dearth of ex-cons and screaming kids onboard, and today's bus experience is pleasantly bearable. As 20-year-old Brian Raczynski told the Inquirer: “Price is all. I'm not picky.”

I am a fairly frequent user of the new-age buses, though I don't fit the profile of the average customer. I am hardly young, but thoroughly cheap. (It now occurs to me that I may be one of the few riders suspected of recent residence in a correctional facility.) Like the average patron, I expect and accept shoddy treatment for my meager fare. Following a recent excursion to Providence with MegaBus, however, I was consternated by the carrier's superfluous dalliance with customer experience. What's the point?

It started weeks before the departure date. After purchasing my ticket online, I was presented with a reservation number and told to keep it in case I lost the ticket that would be emailed to me. I never got an email. I called customer service, was pleasantly surprised to be connected immediately to a polite agent, who emailed me a new ticket.

On the day of the trip—my annual pilgrimage to the Newport Jazz Festival outside Providence—I arrived early at MegaBus's outdoor embarkation point across the street from the Javits Center. It's a horrible ordeal, lined up against a chain link fence with no defined lines for any of eight buses. It can be hot or stormy, and you are advised to have a switchblade to ward off line-cutters. But I know the deal and I'm OK with it. It comes with my $40 round-trip ticket. On this day, lines come and go and ours doesn't move. The bus is running 40 minutes late, we're told. An hour elapses, a MegaBus employee says our bus is in Manhattan, but they've lost track of it somewhere around 57th Street. The hardy MegaBus travelers are mildly annoyed, but docile. Two hours after the scheduled departure time, we begin to board.

I hand the attendant my ticket and he hands it back. “This ticket's no good,” he says. “It's for Saturday. Today's Friday.” I check the ticket. It says Friday, Aug. 3, on it. Except that this is Friday, Aug. 2. The customer service agent emailed me my ticket from last year. I give the attendant my reservation number, but he says that's no good. I have to buy a new ticket for $35 to get on the bus, which I do. (Later, in Providence, I phone MegaBus and a new agent figures out the problem. I misspelled my email address when I purchased the ticket. She corrects it and emails me a new return ticket.)

MegaBus has a strict no-refund policy, but I think I have a case here, since the first agent didn't check the date of the ticket before sending it to me. I email customer service and ask them if they could waive the no-refund policy in this case, because the first agent couldn't figure out what the second agent quickly did. I received a reply stating “Thank you for your recent e-mail to megabus.com. We read all e-mails, however the current response time is approximately 5 days.”

Day 5 comes and no response. On Day 6, however, I get an email from MegaBus President and COO Dale Moser telling me I am an important member of the MegaBus family and that they want to get to know me better and how was my recent trip? Crappy, I indicate throughout the survey, giving them steady ones on their 1-5 scoring scale and writing in a comment box that it's Bolt bus for me from now on and that I would only refer them on pain of death. I figure that might raise a flag in their Voice of Customer platform that will cause them to engage me.

On Day 7, I get a response to my original email from a lady named Tiffany telling me to take a hike. I write back saying I just sunk their Net Promoter Score a couple of points on my survey and that a company so eager to include me in their family might find it cheaper and better for business to just shoot me a $25 voucher toward a future trip. Instead I get a response from “Natal” essentially telling me to make sure I enter my email right next time and to bugger off for now.

The thing is, they know I'll be back no matter what. Even with the extra $35 I had to dish out, my round-trip fare was less than half what I'd have paid on Amtrak. What I want to know, MegaBus, is why waste money playing at customer experience with staffs and surveys? Fire half the customer service staff, dump the VoC provider, and use the savings to give us even cheaper fares. As the young, but wise, Mr. Raczynski stated, “Price is all.”

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