First for fare frustration

Thursday 8th November 2018

There was a bit of unfinished business in my last blogpost about the Hayling Ferry; I thought I’d pursue the outstanding query of the cost of a return ticket on the First Bus route 15 between Portsmouth city centre and the Ferry. I’d bought a £3 single from the driver but forgot to ask if there was a return, and what the price is. I like to know these things.

In the old days it was easy to find information about bus fares; you’d ring the City of Portsmouth Transport Department who had access to a fare book “for staff use only” and someone would look it up and soon let you know the answer. You’d think in today’s data rich world of telephone helplines, 24/7 social media, transparency of facts and a world wide web of information, it would be even more simple to find out the price of a bus fare?

Spolier alert: it’s one big frustration. If you want to avoid wasting the next few miniutes reading what happened. Look away now.

I began my search online with the First Bus website. Not renowned for its user friendly layout, the obvious place to look, having narrowed my search down to the Portsmouth area page, was in Tickets.

‘Travelling with First around Hampshire has never been easier” the ticket blurb encouragingly begins. “We’ve got a wide range of First bus tickets available to suit your needs, whether you travel every day or only now and then, on your own or with the family, we have just the ticket for you.” Nice and friendly and localised too; but I’m not fooled. Guess what, it’s the same blurb for every area! Sadly no mentioned of return tickets but there is a ‘Ticket Prices’ tab to click on:

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Return tickets seem just not to be the done thing (which, actually is the case, if only they’d say so!).

There’s the usual ‘contact us’ option; as any customer facing business these days has to at least portray an impression of wanting to hear from customers, even if Finance Director exec types question the cost justification of such niceties, and First Group is no exception.

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As an aside, clicking on Lost Propery takes you to a few further options, the top one of which is “please use the contact form on our help and support page” which doesn’t take you to the “contact form” as you’d expect, but back to another menu that looks like this:

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And you end up in a perpetual loop of menus; still at least the glove and umbrella have been found, poor teddy though, still lost; and now a wallet too!

Also, as an aside, clicking on “Help with our apps’ takes you to a rather stark warning about problems with mTickets dated 7 September 2018 at 0830 – well at least it reassures us that “we are working …. to get normal service resumed as soon as possible”, so that’s alright then…. over two months later.

Back to my mission to find out the price of a return ticket, I obviously go for ‘Get in touch’ and my heart sinks as I find a form with lots of  ‘* Required’ fields needs completing; but then I discover if I click my way to the second menu with the ‘Get in touch’ icon on the left hand side (as opposed to the right hand side) it takes me to a ‘Help and support’ telephone number. Result! And what’s more, not only is it an 0345 number (included in my call plan), it’s impresively open at weekends. It’s Saturday afternoon and I give it a try.

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“Welcome to First Bus.  To put you through to the right advisor, please let us know why you are calling today.

If you’re are planning a journey with us and would like information on bus routes or times please press 1.

If you have lost an item on one of our buses please press 2.

If you would like to talk to us about mobile tickets please press 3.

IF you would like to talk us about your e-ticket please press 4.

If you’ve had an accident on one of our buses that you would like to report please press 5.

If you would like to provide feedback on one of our services or drivers please press 6.

If you are experiencing a delay with your journey with us please press 7.

If you’re a First Bus employee and you have recently received a letter from HMRC or other Government Departments regarding a change to your benefits and would like to discuss this further please press 8.

Alternatively you can also visit firstgroup.com or our social media team for information about our services.”

As there was no option: ‘if you want to find out the price of a bus fare’, I plumped for Option 1:

Inevitably another menu…..

“For Scotland please press 1

For England and Wales please press option 2”

I went for Option 2 …….

“Please visit www. traveline.co.uk and/or call 0871 200 2233; calls cost 12 pence per  minute plus your phone company’s access charge.”

Not only was I pretty sure Traveline don’t do fares and prices (that would be far too helpful) and as I’ve long objected to being forced to pay a premium telephone charge to a business to find out about a product I want to buy from that business I decided to redial and to go for option 6 (to provide feedback) thinking they might just be able to help.

After a five minute wait (the usual “we’re experiencing a high volume of calls”) a very pleasant sounding man answered and after establishing which part of the country I wanted fares information about asked me to hang on before coming back a minute later to explain he didn’t have the information but would put me through to the ticket department which would be able to help,

Woah, result (almost). After a few rings an auto announcement answered advising the department was closed at the weekend and would reopen on Monday. A close encounter with an answer, but not quite there.

Incidentally, as another aside; had I pressed Option 1 for Scotland, instead of Option 2 for England and Wales, I’d have got through to a First Bus telephone enquiry service for Scotland at no additional cost. Why the discrimination for those of us south of the border?

As I’d drawn a blank for now, I deciced to have a go at the online form. For a company displaying a distinct lack of interst in customers on-line, First Bus has a peculiar obsession at wanting full contact details including full name, postal address, telephone contact number, email address and confirmation I’m over 16 before giving a space to describe the query and the usual ‘submit’ button. Having duly volunteered all my details and submitted my fare query, up pops the auto acknowledgement that it’s been received and I can expect to hear back within fourteen days once investigations are complete.

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Obviously a fare query is not the simplest of matters to bottom out and as it’s only Thursday of week 1, no reply so far, but I live in hope something will turn up either in my in-box, on the phone, or even my postal address once all the investigations are complete.

Forward to Monday morning and my excitement is growing. I leave it until a decent 8.30 am and then redial the 0345 number; except I realise I’m not sure which Option I almost got to speak to on Saturday – I haven’t heard about e-tickets (Option 4) so plump for Option 3 identified as the mTicket helpline. Five minutes later a knowledgable woman answers except her knowledge turns out to be limited to any technical queries about mTickets and she can’t help with something complex like wanting to know a return ticket price, but she’s confident I need Option 1. When I point out that’s just telling me to redial the premium rate Traveline number she’s insistent that’s what I need and following my further protests she realises she’s got an awkward one here, so I back off and review tactics.

Reassuring myself the money wasted on a call to Traveline will be worth the investment in research for future experience I throw caution to the wind and dial up 0871 200 2233. A quick answer and I’m immediately told “we don’t hold fares information”. I protest I’d been directed to call for that very query by someone at First Bus’s call centre and am reassured they were wrong and I need to dial 0345 646 0707 and it’s Option 3. When I explain that’s where I’ve just come from and I’ll end up in a perpetual loop of redialling I’m told that’s definitely the number and option I need.

On the plus side that interlude in my life only took 90 seconds and cost me 37p.

I redialled 0345 646 0707 but decided to go for Option 4 as I was also intrigued what an e-ticket was. I forgot to time the hold time, but after the usual half a dozen or so auto encouragements to find out what I need to know from http://www.firstgroup.com (if only) I was through and began by asking what an e-ticket was? The gentleman answering was a bit taken aback and didn’t know either, and it dawned on me that perhaps I’d misheard that extra ‘e-” and I’d luckily got through to the ticket department after all.

It seemed the courteous gentleman was going to be able to help me too, and after a couple of minutes came back with a definitive answer that the cost of a return ticket is £4.20.

Not bad eh?

I wasn’t totally convinced, and decided to check that information via social media, tweeting First Portsmouth the next morning at 9am.

I had low expectations for an instant response, but just under 2 hours later back came a ‘sort of’ reply giving an ‘around £3.50’ answer which seems improbably low for a £3 single and almost certainly a guess, but a more helpful explanation about the definitive £4.20 answer on the telephone I’d received – the £4.20 as the day ticket price is obviously a maximum cut off for any return, if returns do exist anyway.

It’s a pity the day ticket wasn’t sold more positively for the great value it offers, rather than being the return price advised by the person in the ‘ticket department’. Up selling this wasn’t.

So that’s it. Job done. I’ll update this post if and when (if ever) I receive a reply back from the on-line form.

Just a few action points:-

1. Tell the mTicket department that Traveline don’t give out fares information.

2. Tell Traveline it’s Option 4 (not 3) for First Bus fares information.

3. Rerecord the answerphone message to make it more clear Option 4 is for ‘Ticket prices and fares’ so it can’t be misheard as ‘e-tickets’ – give the number a try and see what I mean – it definitely sounds like “if you would like to talk to us about your e-ticket”…. to me.

4. Tell the weekend team answering calls not to put callers through to departments that don’t work weekends. It just adds to the frustration.

5. Tell the social media team not to give responses like ‘around £3.50’ – it either is £3.50 or it isn’t.

6. Sort out the system for receipt and response of on-line forms with queries and review whether fourteen days really is an appropriate deadline for straight forward enquires.

7. Put fare tables on-line like other bus companies do. They might just be of help to people like me who like to know how much the product they’re buying costs.

8. Sort out the many inconsistencies on the First Bus website.

9. Take down the warning about mTicket problems dated 7 September assuming all is now fixed or change the wording about fixing it ‘as soon as possible’.

10. Reflect on whether it really should take me to point these ten things out?

Roger French

12 thoughts on “First for fare frustration

  1. Arriva’s website is just as bad…….after 17 minutes trying to find a fare, and awaiting my call to be answered, I gave up……as would any normal customer and call a cab. Our industry doesn’t help itself sometimes, although of the groups, Stagecoach isn’t that bad.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And apart from all that, whatever happened to Conduct of Drivers, Conductors etc Regulation that required the conductor to carry a copy of the faretable and to make it available for inspection by passengers at all times?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe that the current thinking is that the faretable carrying regulation is met by the ability of the driver’s ticket machine to look up any fare if a passenger asks for it

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not so sure that the situation was that much better in the earlier eras, at least, those that I can remember! That’s the early 1970’s onwards. My local municipal operator at that time, in Southampton, displayed a full set of faretables on the offside rear bulkhead adjacent to the bench seat over the rear axle – on rear entrance double deckers – so that was fine if you happened to sit there, but probably not very easy to use from anywhere else. As far as I recall, this feature disappeared on more modern buses.

    Other operators were rather coy about fares information, even in those days. One company I worked for would only give two fares over the phone – if you wanted to know any more, then you had to write a letter. The argument for this was a suspicion that such enquiries were being made to check expense claims, for which no ticket had been produced as evidence, because the “passenger” had actually used another means of transport, and the bus operator had no benefit from the enquiry. Understandable, but not particularly customer-friendly.

    Nowadays, it should not be difficult to simply publish the faretables on the web – in theory, at least. Some people may be “blinded with science”, but I would hazard a guess that many of those who really need to know in advance would be able to work out how a faretable should be read.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. First may even have got worse since you posted this, I have a colleague who phoned them to enquire about a fare just after you posted this and was told that this (option 4 on this number) wasn’t for fare enquiries, if she wanted to know the fare she should ask a bus driver and that she doesn’t need to know the fare as all their buses have contactless so just use that (and if you need to use cash just make sure you have more change). The closest you got to a answer to the question what is the fare is somewhere between £1.20 & £4.20 (their day ticket in the location in question). And this was all after being asked what region she was in (rather than the location requested) and yet when the person on the phone read out the region so the right region could be selected the location said first was on the list as a region.

    Arriva are possibly just as bad, I have known of someone being stuck on hold for an hour before getting their enquiry answered at which point the Arriva representative couldn’t find the location asked for (I know they have a centralised call centre for most of their operations but in this case it was even an enquiry about the town the call centre was based in as far as I knew) and gave out inconsistent and even incorrect information after repeated long holds to check information after each aspect of the query (single, return etc).

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    1. Sadly your descriptions of experiences are typical of the poor customer service being delivered by First Bus and Arriva through telephone enquiring. Interestingly I did receive a call back from someone at First who gave me the number of their fares enquiry line – 0113 381 5070 – but I haven’t tried it yet!

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    2. I would have thought that the natural reaction to being told that the fare was ‘somewhere between £1.20 and £4.20’ would be to tender a £5 note. Such actions both deplete the driver of his float and delay the bus while the driver gives out change. Surely it is in the best interests of First (and other companies) to ensure that potential passengers can find out the fare before travelling (although I appreciate that not many will). Not all of us travel on the same journey each day, and those that do will usually have a season ticket.

      I have also found that Arriva customer service to be unhelpful. I contact them (by e-mail) to tell them that one of their on-line timetables was missing a section. It took several attempts and an escalation to get it changed. This may well have been down to lack of local knowledge and/ or being over worked, and difficult problems take too long to solve.

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  5. It’s not obvious why a tweeted enquiry should earn a reply within hours (or less), but an online form-based enquiry should demand a fortnight. And if businesses insist on using online forms (and therefore conceal an email address), the least they can do is to include the details previously entered into the form in the acknowledgement email. As it is, when using such forms, I have to copy my keyed text into a document so that I have a record of what was said.

    Liked by 1 person

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