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May 22 2019
By Jessamy Chapman

National Express training: Masters of the road

National Express’s industry-leading Master Driver training programme has improved staff engagement, customer satisfaction and the firm’s bottom line – and will continue to grow

Master Drivers in their distinctive blue ties and white shirts

National Express has the best drivers not just in the UK, but in the world.

That's the sincere opinion of Steve Mattu, manager of the group's award-winning Master Driver training programme.

The programme has seen 607 drivers so far across the company's coach and bus operations trained to an industry-leading standard that encompasses not only a high standard of customer service, but the kind of advanced driving skills usually learned by police officers.

The investment in the programme has reaped vast rewards for the company in the five years since it was started, with better driving across the board, fewer accidents, more satisfied customers, and more engaged staff.

Last year saw record profit and turnover for the business, with another record breaker expected this year, and the training has been recognised with two recent awards – the routeone Awards in 2016, and last month, the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Awards. It was also shortlisted for Excellence in Employee Engagement at last week's BQF Excellence Awards.

Pushing up standards

The programme is the brainchild of National Express's CEO Dean Finch, who saw it as a way to push standards up and differentiate the business from others. Steve Mattu got involved during its pilot at the Bordesley Green depot in Birmingham, starting in October 2013, when 124 drivers entered into the scheme. The first lot of drivers qualified exactly five years ago, in May 2014.

From there, feedback was taken from drivers, managers and the unions, and the process was refined ready to be rolled out to the next depot.

The Master Driver programme is now operational at all of National Express's West Midlands bus depots, plus four National Express coach depots in the south east, and has gone from strength to strength.

Receiving the Chamber of Commerce award: Steve Mattu, third from left, and Darren Dunbar, third from right

Now, every driver working for National Express is entered into the Master Driver scheme, with the option of opting out if they want to.

“The utopia would be to have all of our drivers accredited as Master Drivers. But there's always going to be challenges,” says Steve, adding that not everyone can make the standard, and some drivers don't want to do it. “They have to commit their own time, their energy and their passion. We try to make it that inspirational that people want to do it of their own volition.”

In the future, the business also hopes to roll out Master Driver to its partner operators that hold National Express coach contracts.

Opening up

The process starts with a performance review between the driver and their manager.

That sounds simple enough, but both Steve and his colleague Darren Dunbar, Master Driver Manager at the Acocks Green and Coventry depots, talk about this initial meeting with real emotion.

Darren had worked as a driver for National Express for 18 years when he was invited to do the Master Driver training in 2015. Until that point, he says, he had been one of the cynical drivers. At first he thought of Master Driver as “just another gimmick”.

And then he was invited to the initial performance review, with Steve.

“That discussion completely changed me, overnight,” says Darren. “For the first time in over 15 years, it felt like someone was listening to me.”

For over an hour, Darren and Steve talked about the role, Darren's happiness with it, problems he had in the job, and what changes the company could make. Darren went away with a new perspective.

“We do get cynical drivers, and they'll tell you 'this company doesn't care about me',” he says. “We'll have a good discussion, and hopefully they do go away thinking 'this isn't such a bad company after all'.”

Master Drivers Janice Bahia and Rekha Sehdeva from West Bromwich, and Diane Reid from Perry Barr

Now that Darren is a trainer and conducts performance reviews with other drivers, he says they are often emotional, when drivers – many of them men, who aren’t used to opening up, especially at work – find the opportunity to divulge personal problems. These discussions are partly what have changed the business culture.

“People have shed tears,” says Darren. “Some due to family issues.” He mentions drivers who have lost loved ones or whose children have serious illnesses.

“We can’t ask them to leave their problems at home. They’re not computers. But they’ve come to work with these issues, and delivered high standards – it’s phenomenal.

“I’ve also had drivers get emotional about the fact that they're developing, and the fact that they don’t often hear they’re good at their job.

“I could write a book. If I did, it wouldn't be about me – it'd be about those inspirational talks the drivers give to us.”

Picking up a pen

Moving forwards from the performance review, the driver has to meet certain criteria: They have to have had no preventable accidents or complaints in the last three years, and their scores on National Express’s fleet-wide in-cab telematics, provided by DriveCam, have to be at a certain threshold.

Once they’re on the programme, they have to achieve certain evaluation targets, have a psychometric analysis, and finally, go on two courses – one for customer service, and one for advanced driving, accredited by IAM RoadSmart. Through the programme, they are supported by the team of seven Master Driver trainers, headed by Steve.

The customer service training is coursework-based, and it’s this element that many drivers struggle the most with, says Steve.

“Some of the guys haven't picked up a pen for 30 or 40 years,” he says. “We always say to them – we're not asking you to relay the Theory of Relativity. All you're being asked is stuff that you already know, and they feel reassured about that.

“The course forces them to think about the customer in a different way, not just as a fare they have to pick up and drop off.”

If there’s an elderly passenger with a shopping trolley, for example, drivers are expected to go the extra mile to help them board and disembark. If a passenger wants to know where something is, the driver should be able to tell them.

Feedback is delivered to the training school, which makes tweaks in the programme. “We’re continually refining it,” says Steve.

Master Driver has changed the management culture, too: Drivers have constant access to the management team for support and feedback, and are not left to get on with it.

Blue tie, white shirt

The benefits to the business are obvious. In the last year the company has seen 13% fewer driver conduct complaints and 4% fewer driving standard complaints in Master Driver garages, plus 11% fewer passenger injuries.

Steve, who has been with the business for 31 years, has noticed a great shift in the overall culture. “When I was a minibus driver in 1987, the important thing was that the buses ran to time, end of story. Now, the ethos is that they run safely, end of story.”

New Master Drivers with their families at a presentation ceremony

He talks about how the business works from the back office to deliver safety on the road, through technology, telematics and on-board safety systems. “That way more of the onus on safety is taken away from the driver, so they can concentrate on customer service.”

Staff engagement is the most noticeable change in the business. National Express’s usual driver uniform is a grey shirt with a red tie; Master Drivers wear a white shirt and a blue tie.

The pride with which Master Drivers wear their blue tie is clear to see, says Darren.

“Yes, they get a financial award, we give them the presentation – but it's the white shirt and the blue tie that seems to make the most difference,” he says.

The company’s uniform policy allows drivers to not wear ties in hot weather – “but the number of drivers who'll continue to wear their ties through the year has increased exponentially,” says Darren. “The way they sit in the cab is different. The way they hold themselves is different. They feel empowered.”

“It becomes infectious,” says Steve. “Everyone wants to be part of it.”

The presentation

On average, 70-80 drivers are now going through the programme every year. The training process takes place over several months, with three or four presentation ceremonies every year, usually attended by at least one of National Express's directors, plus external stakeholders, including local MPs and councillors.

As well as rewarding the drivers, these events are a great opportunity for two-way communication between on-the-ground staff and directors, says Steve.

“At an event a driver from one of our depots can have ready access to Dean Finch or [MD for UK and Germany] Tom Stables,” he says. “They can talk about our product on the road and how they're being dealt with as staff and as people.

“It gives the director real feedback on what we're doing, and that’s invaluable for directors and for the drivers themselves.”

Dead-end job no more

Over five years, National Express has seen a shift in the perception of bus driving to a real career, not a stopgap.

And it hopes to inspire younger people to look at it as a career too, deliberately holding the Master Driver presentation ceremonies in the school holidays so drivers can bring their families.

Steve recalls a driver’s nine-year-old son attending his dad’s presentation.

“I was watching him,” he says. “His jaw was open, his eyes were like saucers, he was gobsmacked to see his dad get an award.

“Hopefully it inspires kids – to respect their parents, to learn what their parents do, and perhaps do something like it themselves.”

“I always remember a comment a Master Driver made to me,” adds Darren. “‘Bus driving was once seen as a dead-end job – it's a dead-end job no more’.”

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