Insights with Karen Tan, on the Ambition of Volvo Buses Malaysia

After almost a decade in Volvo Trucks, Karen Tan took a new step and moved to Volvo Buses as the new General Manager for the Malaysian market. In an exclusive interview with Asian Buses, we learn about the similarities and differences between buses and trucks business and gain insights into the plans that she has for Malaysia’s bus customers in her new role moving forward.

Volvo B8L Euro 6 Double Deck Buses

Karen Tan in front of the Volvo B8L Euro 6 Double Deck Buses, operated by Rapid Bus Sdn Bhd a subsidiary of Prasarana Bhd, one of Volvo Buses’ clients in Malaysia

Commercial vehicles cover a vast spectrum of applications. While some have a lot in common, the difference between trucks and buses is obvious. Even if Karen Tan, General Manager, Volvo Buses Malaysia, is very familiar with the brand, her foray into the world of buses may see her discover many unchartered territories. Her move came on the backend of a restructuring that Volvo Trucks has undergone recently and she took the opportunity to change her career path slightly. “I would like to challenge myself with more involvement into commercial activities and operations and get closer to the customers. I am indeed excited about the new role, which also requires experience managing tenders and projects and that is exactly where my passion lies.”

The “Not so NEW”
It is a little bit like the fabled T-Shirt with the “Same, But Different” print. According to Karen, corporate culture, business strategy, industry structure and key stakeholders remain the same to what she knows from the truck side of life. “Being able to master the system, the way of working and processes definitely helps. The two things that I need to get a grip on are the product knowledge and understanding the bus customers’ requirements. Being part of the Volvo Group, our core values of safety, quality and environmental care do not change, which also makes it easy for me to take over and lead in the new role.”

Beyond the ever-important safety aspects of the vehicles, another very important aspect that affects the customers purchasing decisions that Karen has identified is comfort. The design of a truck concerns one, or maximum two persons inside the cab, while buses carry dozens of people and all expect to ride in style and comfort. “Being in the premium segment, the experience we provide throughout all our interactions with customers is highly important.” This extends to the sales of trucks, buses, after sales service as well as the provision of trainings to drivers and operators.

Express vs. stage buses
Whilst a lot of values are transferrable, for instance the notion of uptime, there are still crucial differences, as Karen observed. The segmentation of the bus market is vastly different, but less complex. While trucks have applications for many missions, buses provided by Volvo broadly fall into two segments: coaches and city buses. “What is interesting here is that coaches are like trucks, whereby one would be dealing with one customer account at a time, to define his or her exact needs and fleets are relatively small. In the city bus segment, it is about tender and project management, which is an entirely different approach, and here we are talking about bigger fleet deliveries within stipulated timeframes, costs and the approved specifications,” Karen elaborates.

Documentation and structural approach are crucial for stage buses delivery; stakes are high with sometimes hundreds of vehicles to deliver in a tender. Apart from passenger safety, reliability is top on the agenda to ensure that the bus can service the public for at least 15 years. According to Karen, part of her job is to manage projects and having done so before allows for a fast immersion into the new subject matter.

Marketing and breaking through
With the pandemic and movement restrictions in place in Malaysia, coaches businesses are mostly standing still. However, this does not mean that Volvo is at a standstill. “Customer relationship management (CRM) is a long-term journey to foster good business partnerships. While tour buses and express buses are not actively operating, the company’s support to the customers continue to roll. Simply put, Volvo’s support to the customers does not stop at the point of handing over the key. The company constantly engages with customers to hear out how their need evolves with the current situation and how the company can support them to improve their productivity and uptime. For instance, the express segment is shifting towards the double-deck solution, which yields a better revenue per trip and faster return on investment vs. a single deck solution.   “We need to be versatile and quick enough to respond to the ever-changing demands and provide products that meet the customers’ needs and generate business benefits.”

Training and competency development is a continuous effort, not just to Volvo’s technicians, but also to the drivers. Technical training and driver training, no matter how sophisticated our technology in the home office may be, cannot completely replace the real feel for parts and carts. Despite there being a slowdown of trainings conducted due to the pandemic, various training modules are in the pipeline to refresh on product features and driving skills. Bite-size driver guides, online driver training videos are easily available to support the drivers’ learning. The driver trainer is still actively supporting queries through calls or online meetings. Learning is a non-stop journey, and Volvo is always committed to stay innovative, creative and ahead of the league to provide the best possible support to all our customers at all times.

When it comes to her overall role managing the bus business across all of Malaysia, Karen shared the importance of value based selling. Providing a solution should not be price-oriented, but look at the total cost of ownership over the life span of the vehicle, which may see a higher upfront investment but in return for a reliable solution that can last for years. “Each player has his own market penetration strategy; in terms of hard product pricing, most of the players in our segment are more or less on the level-playing-field. Here again, I understand that it takes skills, such as interpersonal relationships, consistent service quality and ability to showcase the savings in long term and to gain in the business.”

Powering Forward
Electrification has been on the agenda for some time and Karen notices that there is a lot of interest for the green technology in Malaysia, from hybrid to fully electric vehicles. “Sweden is usually ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability.” Karen expects that city buses will be the first to see an upgrade in the driveline technology.

Malaysia’s bus market faces specific challenges, as Karen identified very early. In her view, the coach segment will continue to juggle to find a balance when it comes to the implementation of new technology that requires higher investments, given the regulated bus fares. In her view, innovation adoption might impact the operators’ bottom line in the short term.” Innovation costs could be high at initial stages, as the overall market volume in Malaysia is small. One way to reduce the cost of new technology would be for coach and body builders to venture into export markets for bigger volumes and justify investments. Domestically, the Pan Borneo highway could be a boon to foster more buses volume in East Malaysia.

Driven by Appreciation
Talking about bus drivers, Karen acknowledged that bus captains are well appreciated by their employers. The bus captains have a huge load to carry on their shoulders by being responsible for the many lives they transport every day. “There are less forums and platforms for bus drivers compare to the truck driving brethren. Interestingly, we realize  that there are more female bus drivers especially in the city bus segment, probably due to the predictable working hours and fixed routes in that can be relatively easy to suit the personal and family commitments.” Karen sees an opportunity to offer training, platforms to exchange ideas and upskilling to bus drivers.

Within the South East Asia context, Karen opines that there is a lot of potential in export markets and that Malaysian business in this sphere could tap into this. “Beyond that, we will continue to support our customers with our knowledge to build high quality buses and provide the best possible transport solutions. Meanwhile, we believe that our government is also trying their best to aid the coach segment, especially during the difficult times to fight the pandemic,” Karen concluded.

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