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June 22, 2009

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APTA RAIL CONFERENCE COVERAGE

How to Win Over Riders—and Keep Them: Tips for Enhancing the Customer Experience
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor

What changes a choice rider into a “regular” rider? All the speakers at the June 15 “Service to Rail Customers—From Good to Great” workshop offered a range of answers and suggestions for other agencies to follow.

Metra
John Milano, senior director and senior associate general counsel, real estate and revenue development for Chicago’s Metra commuter rail system, cited the top two survey results that answered the question, “What keeps our people riding?” The answers: safe, on-time dependable performance, and value for money.

He also spoke of the importance of monthly labor/management meetings and “8:15” morning meetings, when all operations personnel convene to review the last 24 hours.

Metra’s biggest gain in customer satisfaction, the survey showed, was in its communications efforts during delays. “We spent a lot of money in customer-focused technology,” Milano said, citing the new public address systems in downtown stations, automated on-board announcements, and the Global Positioning Satellite system that sends automated messages back to the trains explaining delays. Metra also uses push/talk Nextel technology that provides conductors with up-to-the minute information they can deliver directly to the passengers.

“We are in the people-moving business, not the widget-moving business,” Milano said, noting how “you can’t beat face-to-face customer service.” For that reason, Metra has personnel in its stations, and has developed a Customer Assistance Team of rapidly deployable trained management officials who can assist with extraordinary events. The agency also has focused on weekend riders and recreational users, developing weekend pricing and easy-to-read travel guides mailed directly to likely drivers.

According to Metra’s last survey, 92 percent of riders would recommend the service to others. “That’s a pretty good number,” said Milano, “that gives us some room for improvement.”

BART
Aaron Weinstein, vice chair of the APTA Marketing and Communications Committee and marketing and research department manager for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART), gave a presentation on “Demonstrating the Benefits of Reinvestment.”

BART was brand new in the 1970s, but by the early 1990s, it had done something “unexpected,” said Weinstein: “It got older.” The rail system showed its age with long lines, escalators frequently out of service, aging rolling stock, and worn-out seats. In 1998, he said, it hit a new ratings low—74 percent—and “people were beginning to abandon BART.”

In response, the agency launched a $1.2 billion reinvestment program that resulted in continued growth in satisfaction, peaking at 86 percent in 2004 and staying fairly stable in the last four years. The top gains in the past 10 years were reliability of ticket vending machines, 38.4 percent, and reliability of faregates, 26 percent.

Weinstein’s suggestions to other agencies included:

* Invest for success. “It takes a lot of money; you can’t do it incrementally. You really need to make a big push to replace equipment.”
* Start at the bottom. “The best time to start a customer satisfaction survey is when you’re limping along and it’s time to invest.”
* Use sound methodology. Make sure your sample is representative of your riders.
* Put your satisfaction to work. Every two years, “we time our surveys to coincide with our budget process, using it to inform spending priorities.”
* Celebrate success. “When your satisfaction survey has demonstrated positive results among your customers, engage your marketing professionals and communicators to reinforce your success. Reinforce your capital campaign, citing ‘your fare/tax dollars at work’—so they’ll know they’ve invested and there will be improvements coming.”

AMT Montreal
Joel Gauthier, president and chief executive officer of Montreal’s AMT (Agence Metropolitaine de transport), noted that, for a time, the system—with packed trains and “good press”—found it difficult to convince the government to invest. AMT was created in 1996 to respond to decreased transit ridership; since its creation, it has shown growth. This was achieved, Gauthier said, by creating three more commuter trains and taking into account suburban sprawl, where riders would tire of congestion and opt to use the less expensive and more reliable public transit.

However, last summer, he said: “We were leaving people on the platform every morning when gas was $4 a gallon—and that became a nightmare.” So the system switched from single-level to double-decker rolling stock, increasing its capacity.

“We were creative,” he said. Being mindful of the environment, AMT invested in dual-mode electric/diesel locomotives.

The service has fare integration, which allows passengers to use a single ticket or monthly pass on any mode. It instituted an annual pass system with the “reward” of one free month, and added heated shelters.

Because the key to dealing effectively with customer satisfaction is providing information, Gauthier said, AMT sends out text messages when there is a delay, and answers all e-mail within 48 hours. The system uses direct mail whenever it introduces new services or changes the schedule, and staff members meet with customers at designated stations twice a year.

Initially, the top staff at AMT was composed primarily of financial or operations people, Gauthier observed, so “we shifted the culture of the enterprise to make it customer-oriented.”

CTA
Jeffrey Busby, the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) general manager of strategic planning, said his agency has been measuring the customer experience since 1997, and its revised 2008 survey provides additional insights into the question: Who takes the El every day?

Busby noted that the composition of ridership had changed: “We are no longer just carrying people to and from work,” and the use of the system for non-commute trips “is a clear trend over time, speaking both to the vibrancy of the city and the relevance of CTA to people who are not ordinarily transit customers.”

The economic motivators he cited include gas and parking prices (greatest impact on infrequent customers) and a change in job situation and general cost of living increases (for commuters). “One of our successes,” said Busby, “is that we’re motivating people to leave their cars behind.”

Q&A
During the Q&A portion of the workshop (for which there was plenty of time because of the “crisp presentations,” commented moderator Neil Peterson, executive advisor, Booz Allen Hamilton), one person asked: “How do you keep customers happy when some projects might take years to complete?” Gauthier’s response was that AMT does not announce a project until it is nearly finished, so the agency can say that “within a span of 90 days, you can expect to see ‘x’ improvements.”

Another participant asked the speakers what “two things” they would implement to improve ridership. Milano said Metra’s most important attribute is on-time
performance and reliability, so the system is in the very early stages of rolling out “next train arrival.” The second thing would be continued infrastructure upgrades.

Gauthier responded by saying: “Invest for reliability, invest for comfort. Second, be very aggressive in informing your customers, as in, what time will you arrive.”

Weinstein called BART’s 78 percent of choice riders a “mixed blessing,” so his system’s “two things” would be on-time performance and service frequency, along with delay advisories.

In response to the question of steps an agency can take not to lose customers during massive rehabilitation projects, Peterson’s immediate response was: “Kill ’em with kindness. Put people on the platforms. Distribute special fare coupons. Suggest they take a bus or a taxi. Go way overboard.” Busby added: “Make sure people know there will be no service prior to their buying their tickets. Put signs at fare machines, but make sure the first thing riders read is ‘Service is disrupted.’”

One of the last suggestions by the panelists was to become comfortable with sharing information with outside parties, such as Google Transit. Said Gauthier: “As long as you get information to your customer, you’ll see satisfaction go up.”

Weinstein added that using other concerns can be a cost-saving strategy. “In many cases, other parties have built platforms we wouldn’t have been able to build ourselves,” he said. Further, he noted that BART held its first bloggers breakfast two weeks ago. “That’s the kind of transparency we’re moving toward,” he said.

 

Speakers at the “Service to Rail Customers—From Good to Great” session are, from left, John Milano, moderator Neil Peterson, Aaron Weinstein, Joel Gauthier, and Jeffrey Busby.
Photo by Brian Oh



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