Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Customer Service


What should be in Metro's customer pledge?

What should riders expect from Metro? And what can Metro actually deliver? For the past several months, the Metro Riders' Advisory Council has been working on a customer pledge that can set high expectations for WMATA while acknowledging its operational limitations.

Photo by nj dodge on Flickr.

Most transit agencies do not have customer pledges, but the ones that exist are often vague, lack concrete benchmarks, or talk about goals rather than promises. The RAC wants a pledge that is easy to understand and meaningful to Metro riders, but one that Metro can actually deliver on. We want something better.

As the RAC has quickly discovered, creating something better is not an easy task. Metro's broad range of transit services, amazingly diverse clientele, and tight operational margins make the creation of a meaningful pledge a complicated proposition. It will be impossible to satisfy everyone.

With this in mind, the RAC is attempting to focus on the most important things that Metro riders need and want. After that comes the much harder task of attaching concrete metrics that riders will accept and Metro can adhere to. Finally, the RAC is also trying to create a pledge that is easily digestible and understandable to non-wonks.

Several common themes are emerging, and a consensus seems to be forming around use of these themes in the draft pledge. Here they are, in no particular order:

Safety. Safety has to be everyone's number one priority. A well-maintained system is the basic threshold for any mode of transit. Metro's historical track record here is not inspiring, and an ongoing string of breakdowns and derailments isn't helping to restore anyone's confidence.

A customer pledge can only go so far in bridging that credibility gap, but it can be a first step. The problem is attaching a metric. The only real acceptable metric, of course, is no accidents or incidents. Pledging that Metro will be 99% accident free is not reassuring at all. Perhaps this is why Metro's own scorecard measures injury rates rather than trying to quantify equipment safety standards.

Frequency and Reliability. Riders depend on Metro to offer service that is convenient and dependable, but is there a system-wide standard that customers will accept and that Metro can actually deliver? Frequency of service varies widely, from two-minute breaks between rush hour trains to hour-long gaps between airport-bound buses.

A one size fits all solution seems impossible. An additional complicating factor comes with track work and other scheduled delays. This point needs to be as concrete as possible, but formulating a realistic standard that everyone can understand is difficult.

Incident Management. When things fall apart (as they inevitably do), riders need Metro to provide timely and useful information, even when that information is incomplete or preliminary. Despite the many avenues for informing its customers about what's going on, Metro fails to consistently deliver.

Metro has the capability to release information almost instantaneously to a broad spectrum of riders. It's just a matter of calculating the minimum amount of time between the outbreak of a problem and when customers expect to be told what's going on. My personal break point is two minutes, with updates every five minutes afterward, but some people are more patient than others.

Security. Despite the fact that crime rates on Metro are often lower than those in the communities it serves, riders have heightened expectations of what Metro can and should do to keep them safe. Metro can realistically pledge to be vigilant and responsive to crime, but it cannot pledge to eliminate crime or even keep it at a certain level. The most realistic pledge may be for Metro to respond quickly and deal with victims courteously and respectfully.

Customer Service. Riders want to be heard, and even more they want Metro to respond and act. Metro's current "customer comment rate" metric is an inadequate standard, as it excludes social media and interactions with Metro employees in the field. Even more, it fails to track response times and satisfaction with those responses.

A pledge item here should focus on responding quickly, effectively, and with courtesy. "We got your message" isn't enough. Customers need something more concrete than that. Squaring responses to official inquiries versus tweets or other indirect ways of communication may be hard to compress into a single standard, but it can be done.

We have also looked at other themes, like transparency, stewardship of public resources, and use of data. However, many of these have less to do with the direct rider experience and more with how Metro is run. While these are important public interests, they do not directly relate to the rider experience and therefore have made the RAC's shortlist so far. The RAC's focus is on what riders expect when they get on a bus, train, or MetroAccess vehicle.

Knowing the limitations of what Metro can deliver and the high expectations of riders, how would you formulate a customer pledge on these themes?


Be civil toward your government employees

Please, offer your nearest local government employee a hug or at least a handshake. Repeat often.

Photo by seanbjack on Flickr.

I recently took a job in the nonprofit sector after eight years of working in our local government. First as a Council staffer, then a mayoral aide, then an agency spokesperson and senior manager, I have worked with hundreds of my fellow District residents in resolving their issues big and small.

I've been involved with everything from purchase orders to potholes, legislation to liquor licenses and most recently, DC Water's massive engineering solution to the flooding problems that have plagued Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park for generations.

In doing this work, I've met plenty of incredibly kind and supportive people both inside and outside the government. Some have even become lifelong friends. But like many of my colleagues, I've also taken a beating from plenty of constituents or customers.

Especially when hidden behind a keyboard, some people apparently feel free to unload their frustrations in ways that far overshoot the bounds of civility.

Over just the past several months, my agency and I have been called insulting, negligent, cowardly, incompetent, inadequate, frustrating, cheap, clueless, mouthpieces, cowardly, villains, obstructionist, inferior, demeaning, unwilling, empty and inconsequential. My boss, a member of my staff and I were told repeatedly and publicly that we should resign or be fired. Note that all of this came from a single customer.

My message to those who say things like this is simple: knock it off. Government isn't something that happens to people without their active involvement, and government employees are not the help. When they fail you or give you an answer you don't like, they're not working to make your life less pleasant on purpose.

At their best, I believe this is a group of people called to serve a greater good. Even at their worst, even if only motivated by a desire to earn a paycheck at a steady and stable job, they deserve no more ire or disrespect than any other professional in a different line of work. Would you direct words like these at a doctor, a grocery cashier or a dog walker? Hardly.

The other problem with this uncivil discourse is that it tends to be aimed squarely at people who either didn't cause the problem or are actively trying to fix it. Taking the present management of an agency to task for something their predecessors didn't do decades ago is neither fair nor wiseespecially when they are doing it now.

It is not the DMV clerk's fault that the law requires a certain type of document to prove your identity. And the workers standing calf-deep in cold water to fix the pipe outside your house didn't cause it to break and interrupt your water service. Yelling at them not only demoralizes people who are working to help, but distracts them from doing the actual helping. Folks, it's really time to stop berating the surgical team while they're standing over the bleeding patient.

What if we instead approached our public servants with kindness, patience and gratitude? My suspicion is that we'd end up with happier people, less burnout and better government as a result.

It has been nearly 8 years, but I will always remember the words of one particularly grateful constituent in Columbia Heights long after I forget her name or the service I performed on her behalf. She wrote, "You have single-handedly restored my faith in the institution of government."

At the time, I took great comfort in her words and hung them on my cubicle wall as a shining example of what I wished I heard more often. Today, I realize that if one's faithor lack of faithin the institution of government depends on the actions of a single person, government's relationship to its constituents is precarious at best. Even though improving that relationship isn't my job as an employee anymore, it will always be my job as a private citizen.

And I owe those on the other side of the service window, the phone line or the email inbox the same courtesy I hope they will extend to me.

Public Spaces

DC DPR wants feedback on parks. Give them yours

Do you use your local park, rec center or pool? Have you encountered any problems? If you don't use them, why not? The Department of Parks and Recreation needs to hear from you to make its facilities better.

Rosedale Pool. Photo from DCDPR.

Most complaints I hear about DPR facilities concern upkeep or the attitude of park employees. But there are a lot of parks and a lot of staff, many short-term, running many programs across the city.

Without our eyes and ears, the central park staff can't respond to issues quickly. I had a frustrating experience at a local park one recent Saturday, but when I sent DPR a comment they responded very quickly.

I took my 3-year-old to Rosedale Pool, a brand new pool that opened in May, ideal for kids. My son and I arrived to find all three water slides closed. While playing in the pool for 2 hours, my little guy kept asking why the fun water-slides were closed, when they would re-open, and if we could come back when they did. Other toddlers were trying to climb onto the water slides only to have their parents pull them off.

When I asked the lifeguards why the water slides were closed, they said there weren't enough lifeguards to watch the pool and the slides. But I saw 5 lifeguards either working or sitting in their break room, rotating every hour so that only 2 were on-guard at a time. When I asked the park staff at the entrance, they said it was because the slides were broken. Something didn't seem right.

Perhaps more frustrating, though, was the apathy of the other families at the pool whose kids were just as disappointed as mine, yet who did nothing. I asked some other parents in the pool about the slides, and got one of two answers.

Some parents said the slides must be broken. When I asked if it seemed likely that all 3 slides were broken, a mere 2 months after the pool was built, they agreed but didn't know what to do. The other parents actually said outright, in a shrugging way, "what are you gonna do"?

Such apathy and defeatism doesn't do anyone any good. Sure, government can seem callous or unresponsive at times, but most often it's just that, a perception.

DPR Director Jesus Aguirre, for one, wants to change the entrenched system at DPR, but needs our eyes and ears. So I emailed, and received an apologetic reply within 15 minutes on a Saturday night. The slides were reopened, except for 1 of the 3 that was actually broken.

How can you quickly let the city know about issues at your local park and get a reply?

  • Email them directly at or, if it is aquatics-related,
  • Call them at 202-673-7647.
  • Tweet them at @DCDPR.
  • Create a 311 request on the 311 web site or using the 311 mobile app. From the list of Service Types, select "Parks and Recreation."
If the city is responsive to your request, compliment them at the new Grade.DC website. If they are not responsive, make sure to explain how they fell short.

Director Aguirre has demonstrated his commitment to creating a responsive, service-oriented culture at DPR. And now they've put the tools in place to submit questions and issues. The ball is now in our court, to quickly let DPR staff know of all issues in local parks.

It actually takes more time to complain to your neighbors about your local park than to fill out the online 311 form. We have to get into the habit of channeling our frustration about issues with local parks into the feedback system DPR has provided. Only then can DPR staff to respond to issues, and only then will Director Aguirre be able to hold his staff accountable for responsiveness.

So the next time you have an issue with the District's parks and recreational facilities, don't let it fester. Tell DPR, and give them a chance to rectify the situation.


New Metro fare table may confuse new riders

Metro fares rose on Sunday, and the surcharge for a paper farecard increased to $1 per trip. Metro chose to list the SmarTrip fares, not the paper farecard fares, on the fare tables, along with a separate note about the surcharge. This could create significant confusion for the riders most likely to consult the tables: tourists using paper cards.

Photo by the author.

Metro could, instead, have shown both the SmarTrip and paper farecard fare for peak and off-peak trips, but this would show a lot of information and would likely be too cluttered. Or, they could show the paper farecard prices with a note that SmarTrip users save $1 per trip.

Vistors and infrequent riders, who need to look up their fare for a specific trip, are the ones most likely to use the tables. Since these riders are more likely to use a paper farecard, it makes more sense to list the paper farecard fares and have a note that you save $1 by using a SmarTrip card.

With the fare table Metro chose, a customer that doesn't notice the note would buy a card with the fare listed on the table, get to the destination, then get frustrated when they realize their farecard doesn't have enough to pay for the trip. The exit fare machines don't take credit cards, so customers that don't carry cash could end up stuck (or station agents will let them out without paying).

If Metro instead listed the paper farecard prices and stated there was a Smartrip discount, the worst case is that a SmarTrip customer would end up with an extra dollar per trip on the card. SmarTrip customers are more likely to load a larger amount regardless of the price of an individual trip, so this is not likely to be a huge problem.

Further, Metro's latest improvements to SmarTrip allow you to add fare online or have your account automatically topped off when your balance gets low, so SmarTrip rail customers are not as likely to need to use the fare vending machines or the fare tables.

New fare table. Photo by the author.

Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel defended the move. He wrote in an email:

Today, roughly 80 percent of Metrorail trips are taken with SmarTrip cards. We wanted to show what the vast majority of customers would be paying as clearly as possible.

It is not correct to assume that the majority of people using the fare machines are paper transactions. Already, SmarTrip transactions exceed paper farecard transactions at the machinesand the share of ST vs. paper will only increase over the next several months due to the surcharge.

Speaking of "surcharge," that's what we're calling it. It's not a "discount" for using SmarTrip, but rather a "surcharge" for using paper. So, the fare charts display the fares as they are, and there's a big bold box that says add $1 if you're using paper.

This is all technically correct, but ignores the key difference between different types of customers that use the vending machines. Many customers that use the fare vending machines don't look at the table at all, such as Smartrip customers topping off a card by adding a fairly large amount of money that they plan to use on multiple trips.

The customers that want to look up the fare for a specific trip or a round trip are more likely to be infrequent riders or visitors, are less likely to know the fare system well, and are less likely to be using SmarTrip.

Metro's leadership seems to feel that increasing surcharges on paper farecards will eliminate their use entirely, or reduce it to the point that the customer experience with paper farecards no longer matters. I disagree. Metro should make the system as simple as possible (though more expensive) for paper farecard customers.


Metro closing Red Line for 8 months to accelerate repairs

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Metro will suspend all service on the Red Line for the next 8 months to allow repair crews to finish work on the line more quickly. Shuttle buses will replace trains between Shady Grove and Glenmont.

Photo by ElvertBarnes on Flickr.

According to Metro spokesman Stan Dessel, Metro is tired of the constant weekend track work. "Frankly, we're just as sick of the slow trickle of repairs as the customers are. We decided it would simply be faster to just fix everything at once," Dessel said.

Dessel said customers should also consider alternative commuting methods, like driving. Customers who drive or take the shuttle buses should expect to add an additional 60-120 minutes to their travel time.

Riders from Shady Grove can also drive to Vienna and take the Orange Line.

Governors Bob McDonnell and Martin O'Malley announced plans to spend $10 billion to build a new freeway across the Potomac River in order to accommodate the Metro riders, but added that funding is too scarce to contribute more to speed up the Metro repairs. "We think this is the best way to use our state transportation dollars to help commuters," said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Proaughton.

In addition, MARC will add new service on the Brunswick Line. CSX announced that it would allow MARC to run more trains and actually tell its dispatchers to give priority to passenger trains on the line, as opposed to previous times when they claimed to have done so but dispatchers did not actually follow through.

Metro is launching a new public relations campaign around the closure, called "Red Line: Deal With It." Customers will see construction walls at Red Line station entrances with slogans like, "8 Months Isn't So Bad, Is It?" and "No More Delays. No More Red Line."

Organizers of large national events are also being informed. A national tea party convention has already modified its website to inform attendees driving to the region from points north on I-95 to take the Beltway to Vienna instead of driving to Glenmont or using any other station.

Metro will suspend all work on other lines, including Silver Line construction, in order to complete the work in 8 months. "We hope that by the time the Red Line reopens, we'll only have to single-track twice a month," said WMATA CEO Richard Snarles.

Dessel said Metro is working with Mayor Gray to hire thousands of unemployed District residents to help with the 24-hour repairs. The program is part of a new employment program called "One City, One Line."

A social media component of the program, called "Metro Fast Forward," will equip track workers with helmet video cameras and editing software so that they can produce videos of the work in real time.

This concept has actually been in the works for over a year. Previous WMATA spokesperson Lisa Dystone planned not to tell riders about the closure, arguing that nobody would notice. However, Michael Perkins noticed an obscure footnote in a WMATA Board presentation and encouraged officials to mount a larger campaign to inform riders.

Some have already criticized Metro's plan. The critical blog DeCrapify DC Metro said 8 months is far longer than needed to finish the work. Another blog and popular Twitter account, WTF WMATA, wrote that customers deserve better treatment and vowed to hold Metro accountable.

How will you adjust to the Red Line closing? Let us know in the comments.


Metro opens doors, closes data

Metro used to publish lists of service disruptions online, but soon after I published a post analyzing the data, Metro stopped posting new reports and eventually removed the entire archive. Is this good customer relations?

Photo by Marcin Wichary on Flickr.

Metro officials say that the reports require a lot of staff time, but they already have internal reports that show the same information, just in a more technical way. Metro could, and should, still release those reports to interested members of the press or transit aficionados who can interpret them for the public.

If Metro's performance is getting better, then posting these reports would help advocates write reports or articles about that fact, and boost public confidence in the work CEO Richard Sarles and his team are doing. If the performance is not getting better, then we should be having a public conversation with WMATA officials about what it would take to get improvements, or when the current repair schedule will start to bear fruit.

Here's an example service disruption from a report I received from a WMATA insider:

Other reports are a little simpler to understand:
A lot of this message wouldn't make sense to the vast majority of commuters. WMATA could still post these with a glossary that helps decode even this cryptic report, though there is the possibility that customers would see them and be confused, or call in to customer service about it.

Instead of posting these, WMATA created a "Vital Signs" report, which lists a few high-level metrics like overall rail on-time performance. But one number for rail on-time performance hides a lot of important information. A train can be late up to half the headway and still count as on time, meaning that when trains run every 20 minutes, trains could still be 10 minutes late or early. It doesn't include performance during planned track work, and other factors.

Today, WMATA's approach to public information seems to be to release only a few conclusions, not any deeper information. When the Riders' Advisory Council or others have asked for more, they've been told that it's the job of staff, and nobody else, to analyze data and tell the public and press what to believe about the issues.

But to many riders, this isn't satisfying. WMATA officials say they're aggressively fixing problems, but will those fixes actually lead to better performance, and when? So far, the agency has just cut the on-time performance target from 95% to 90%. It's never met its goal for the frequency equipment breaks down ("mean time before failure") since the data have been reported, and does not appear to be improving.

It's no secret that WMATA's reputation as a reliable transit service is tarnished by frequent service delays and offloads. If Metro begins to publish these reports again, customers could decipher the differences in service disruptions that are the fault of customer behavior like blocking doors, sick passengers, or police activity, and those that are due to maintenance issues like brake, track control circuit, or door problems.

Compare this to San Francisco and Chicago, two transit agencies that have longer histories of reporting service data.

Chicago reports number of rail delays of 10 minutes or more, percentage of track that is affected by a slow zone restriction, miles between rail vehicle defects, percentage of the rail fleet unavailable for service, and percentage of customer complaints not closed out within 14 days.

San Francisco reports how closely they're meeting the schedule (similar to WMATA), how the headways match up against the plan (more useful to customers for frequent routes), the amount of service, late pull-outs, overcrowded vehicles, the number of unexcused absences, mean distance between failures for trains, vacancy rates for service-critical positions, and the complaint resolution rate within 14 days.

San Francisco and Chicago implemented better performance reporting as part of an effort to regain the public trust after a long decline in service. Metro should do the same in a concerted effort to truly move Metro Forward.


New WMATA Board members listening on communication

New Board members might be less quick to push back on the suggestion of service cuts, but they also are raising the quality of recommendations on technology, customer outreach, and performance metrics.

Mary Hynes, having noted the common complaint that Metro Tweets @metroopensdoors but doesn't follow anyone or reply to tweets, made the radical suggestion that Metro "[think] about tweeting back."

DC's Tom Downs said that years ago, Metro had a big electronic sign in the lobby showing performance metrics. As those metrics deteriorated, first the sign stopped getting updated, then disappeared completely.

Jeff McKay warned against letting metrics drive personnel. The metrics, he said, are tools for improving service, not ways to get a "gotcha" on a particular staff member. That's right, and if someone misses a goal a few times, it shouldn't necessarily warrant punishment. Perhaps it's the goal that's wrong.

Also, a good organization wants to encourage people to set ambitious goals, it shouldn't punish people for missing some of them. However, management should take a closer look at people who constantly don't make real progress toward goals, to decide if either they're setting unreasonable goals or aren't doing good work.

Downs and others also pushed hard on better communication as well as better processes on escalator and elevator outages. Downs said that WMATA "did a lot of stupid things" which got the agency into its current escalator mess, adding, "Admitting we bought some junk and are replacing it is an important part of the story."

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