School Bus Contractors

Using Harley Davidson as a Benchmark for School Transportation

O. Shelley Kemp
Posted on July 11, 2016
School bus driver recruiter O. Shelley Kemp says that Harley-Davidson’s positive branding stems from advocating for employee kinship, insisting on impeccable customer service, and providing safe driving techniques and skill refreshers for drivers. iStock photo Mercedes Rancano Otero
School bus driver recruiter O. Shelley Kemp says that Harley-Davidson’s positive branding stems from advocating for employee kinship, insisting on impeccable customer service, and providing safe driving techniques and skill refreshers for drivers. iStock photo Mercedes Rancano Otero

I recently thought about trading in my Toyota Highlander. I have bought and paid off five Toyotas from the same dealership. I was thinking it was time for me to branch out and try a new brand. My husband stays loyal to Fords, and we also have a Harley-Davidson for recreation, but perhaps it was time for me to try something new for my day-to-day transportation needs — maybe a Honda, Saab, or even that dream Audi.

In my search for something new, I tried to think about what quality was really important to have in my new vehicle. Was it safety? Did I want luxury, utility, or sport? Does synthetic oil or regular oil matter in my next vehicle? Did the brand really matter? And if the brand did matter, why? Was the brand important because of what others may think of me when I drive that new car, or was the brand important because of how that company treats me as their customer? Would a 10-year warranty with all the bells and whistles be all that different from a five-year warranty for a better brand?

All this contemplation made me more aware of what my own company’s brand is within the school transportation industry. So, my mind went to: “Is our company a Harley-Davidson, or are they a Saturn?”

Is your transportation service a Harley or a Saturn?
How is your company brand perceived amongst your customers? Do they know you as the “Harley-Davidson” of school transportation, or are you the forgotten “Saturn” cars of General Motors? (No offense, GM. I actually liked those Saturns!)

My husband and I have had a Harley for four years now, and I should tell you: Harleys command respect on the road.

For those who don’t ride, you may not understand why they have that loud engine growl (to some, the undeniable sound can be annoying, I’ll admit), but I can now tell you that the louder the hog, the better. It’s a safety issue that allows motorists to hear the hog, even if they cannot see it.

Harley also has impeccable customer service standards. They treat their customers as if their Harley is the cleanest, most tricked-out hog on the road. They advocate for safe rides, providing both rookies and veterans with riding lessons that require weeks or months of practice rides, culminating in another certified and confident Harley rider.

We can offer the intrinsic things that people get from a business like Harley-Davidson. Safe buses, certified and confident drivers, opportunities to gather and share stories and learn from one another — these are commonalities we can offer in our business.

Finding the kinship among drivers
Harley-Davidson has community events, bike rallies, and country tours, and it provides weekly opportunities for Harley riders to gather over drinks and tell stories about bike tours, places they’ve explored on the road, and which hog they’re going to invest in next. It’s easy for a new rider like me to get sucked into Harley’s culture. It’s an environment that makes one feel safe; it’s extremely internally focused, where each rider feels a kinship with the next Harley rider.

Simply put: Harley-Davidson provides a culture for all its customers that makes them feel a part of something safe, dependable, bigger than themselves, and exciting.  

Creating a checklist for positive branding
That is the kind of internal branding (leadership calls this “corporate culture”) I think many people would want to be a part of. As managers, making employees feel important, as if they are family, and ensuring the safety of both employees and customers are the keys to gaining the confidence of our customers as well as retaining that loyalty.

Like Harley-Davidson, we need to offer impeccable customer service. We need to offer school bus transportation services for our communities that ensure the safety of our kids as well as other drivers on the road; we need to advocate for constant skills refreshers for our drivers and not be afraid of those indirect costs associated with safety training. Safety training can never be an issue of compromise, and our drivers should all feel confident when they’re on the road, whether they are behind the wheel of a conventional school bus or a transit-style school bus.

As professionals in the student transportation industry, we may not be able to trick out our buses or attach a safety growl to our engines, and we may not have many bus rallies that show off our fast engines, but we can offer the intrinsic things that people get from a business like Harley-Davidson. Safe buses, certified and confident drivers, opportunities to gather and share stories and learn from one another — these are commonalities we can offer in our business. Whether you work for Durham School Services, First Student, or another school transportation provider, your corporate culture should always move your brand forward in this industry. And if your brand is one that commands respect because of its positive culture — retaining employees, adding new customers, and maintaining a positive corporate image and legacy, much like Harley-Davidson — then it will become the go-to brand for those seeking out transportation services.

As for my search for a new vehicle, I’m sticking with my Toyota.

O. Shelley Kemp is a regional recruiting specialist for Durham School Services.

Related Topics: Durham School Services

Comments ( 1 )
  • Charlie Hood

     | about 2 years ago

    Shelley, this was an engaging and well written read. Its message is one that the coalition known as the American School Bus Council has been promoting since it was formed. Thank you for articulating the importance of positive branding. Improving awareness of the value provided by yellow school buses and those who operate them is ASBC's reason for existence. For all the reasons that are well known to those of us in student transportation (safety, environmental benefits, and equitable access to education), we should all continue to promote the school bus brand. I have always said I could not be a salesperson for any less than excellent product or service. With school buses we are blessed with the luxury of selling the proven best way for students to get to school. Unlike Harley, though, our brand and its value are not always as well known, so we cannot assume that others automatically have a positive impression or are even aware of the role school buses play. ASBC is not an association or an independent entity, it is all of us, working with parents, policymakers, and others to ensure school bus service remains available to students in communities throughout the nation. Thank you again for reminding us about the importance of our shared mission.

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