The research was aimed at experimentally investigating the relationship between public transport service quality and customer satisfaction in order to inform the specification of customer satisfaction in the design of public transport service contracts. This is important for helping understand how public transport services, and associated contracts, can be systematically adapted to meet the ever-changing needs of customers, potentially leading to increased customer satisfaction or minimisation of dissatisfaction, especially where public transport is explicitly planned to serve as a travel demand management instrument. Furthermore, while the specification of service quality standards is a common practice in public transport contracts, the relationship between the specifications and customer satisfaction is often methodologically unclear.
The concept of customer satisfaction both qualitatively and quantitatively, including associated analytical models, was reviewed, which in turn informed the design, execution and interpretation of the empirical component of the investigation. The empirical component of the research was limited to a strategically important market segment comprising commuters who have access to personal cars but choose or are willing to use public transport. Based on the results of the qualitative and quantitative surveys, the research brought to light an improved understanding of this market segment, and benchmarked these against literature findings. Many of the theories in service research were confirmed, key among them being the important role of negative critical incidents in forming decisions, and also the importance of regarding a service as a package of attributes and not individual attributes. In the particular case of public transport, the entire journey comprises a service, and not just the in-vehicle component. It was also evident that even within this niche market segment, there are diverse needs, requirements and expectations of a public transport service, sometimes expressed incoherently.
The quantitative component of the research confirmed aspects of the qualitative study. Through a conjoint analysis modelling framework it was shown that, due to non-linear effect on customer satisfaction, not only attribute but attribute levels are critically important in customer service evaluations. In particular, the Kano model effects within customer satisfaction responses were confirmed. It was shown that once a service design has been decided upon, existing and prospective customers are able to consistently evaluate its performance. Existing customers tend to be more tolerant of less than ideal service delivery than prospective customers. Also, customers who have been using the service for a relatively limited period tend to have satisfaction thresholds higher than those who have been using the service for prolonged periods. A logit mode choice model that uses customer satisfaction as input was estimated and showed that retention of existing customers and attraction of new customers are strongly associated with satisfaction. The public transport subsidy implications of this behaviour within the South African context were shown, using subsidised bus services as a case study.
Based on the findings of the research, practical recommendations relating to the incorporation of customer satisfaction, and the manner of doing so, in public transport contracts were made. Key among these are: (i) The need to create, for service evaluation reference purposes, an agreed to service definition formulated by a tripartite arrangement comprising prospective operators, contracting authorities and prospective customers; (ii) Making contract provisions in respect of budgeting for service quality functions such as marketing and monitoring that is explicitly linked to service context, and (iii) Calibrating service performance monitoring instruments on the basis of empirical relationship between customer satisfaction and retention or attraction probabilities.
This research contributes to the state of knowledge in three ways: (i) It empirically informs the design of public transport contracts through linkage with the concept of travel demand management where the current approaches emphasise contractor-authority relationship; (ii) The study brings together various disciplines, particularly service research and transportation sciences, to illustrate how they can be fused for social welfare benefits even for conventionally inert documents such as contracts, and (iii) It provides methodological insights and a method, based on a conjoint experiment and Kano model theory, for the treatment of service attributes in public transport service design, through which it was shown that public transport service attributes can be functionally classified on the basis of customer needs. This might in turn be helpful in setting priorities for service improvements and appropriate benchmarks.