The Bus Stops Here: Customer service is about being part of a community

--The Bus Stops Here is produced monthly by members of the Madison Area Bus Advocates

Metro's website is helpful for riders, but Metro should always be looking for ways to improve customer service.Metro's website is helpful for riders, but Metro should always be looking for ways to improve customer service.Metro’s number one priority is and should be to continually improve the customer experience to keep current customers and increase their usage. (From page 9 of the Final Report of the City of Madison LONG-RANGE METRO TRANSIT PLANNING Ad Hoc Committee June 2008)

When people think about a bus system, it is common for them to focus on brick and mortar items such as vehicles and maybe bus operators and mechanics.  They may even think about routing and scheduling if they want to figure out how to ride the bus from Point A to Point B.  Less appreciated and sometimes even forgotten is the fact that a public agency is part of a community, needs to be in constant two-way communication with it, and needs to keep reminding the community and its own staff that it performs a vital function “by and for the people.”  We focus here on customer service, next month on community involvement.

Metro Transit appears to understand the importance of customer service, at least to a point.  Its phone lines are open seven days a week; schedules are posted at all the bus stops; printed flyers, “Ride Guides,” schedules and maps routinely appear in buses; in-bus placards inform riders of etiquette and rules.  Metro sends out email or text alerts and updates; its website is crammed full with all kinds of useful information ranging from recent news and announcements to route and scheduling information, detour information, fare information, “how to ride” tips, paratransit information, contact information and more.

The website’s Google Trip Planner lays out your route trip on a map; its Transit Tracker updates the progress of your bus so you can have a good idea of when it will arrive at your stop; the website provides a feedback form where people can register comments, suggestions, complaints or questions.  Metro’s website even takes you to a program that will help you find an apartment near a bus line. 

Finally, the website encourages and facilitates the downloading of smartphone apps that provide constantly (every few minutes) updated arrival time and other information that can be referred to even as one is waiting at a bus stop. In fact, many credit the apps for the fact that Madison’s Metro Transit ridership continues to grow even as state aid for local transit systems erodes, and ridership has declined in most other places in Wisconsin.

Yet it is still unnecessarily difficult to navigate Madison’s bus system.  Whether for reasons of insufficient resources, lack of employee morale or something else, customer service is not as good as it should be. Why, if the use of flyers were done adequately, would bus riders be unaware that their bus stop would be eliminated soon?  Why, if bus stops were adequately labeled, would a rider not know that a bus would not stop there for hours or even until the next day?  Unfortunately, the appearance of flyers is often sporadic, in the wrong buses or even out of date by the time riders see them. Often, detour decisions never even make it onto a flyer that a patron might or might not see. Non-functioning bus stops are not flagged; patrons are not directed to wait at a nearby bus stop.

Nor is it just a matter of providing information as communication goes both ways.  Metro Transit needs to hear from its riders, and people like being asked to comment. It helps them feel connected to their transit agency.  Thus while at present, placards inside buses may provide information on Metro’s fare structure or rider etiquette (“stand behind the yellow line”) there should also be ones that ask for feedback (“How are we doing?  Send your suggestions”) 

A favorite item of mine on Metro’s website is the already mentioned “feedback form.” On a number of occasions ranging from a malfunctioning apparatus, to unexpected driver helpfulness, driver inattention or having an idea of how to deal with a possibly recurring problem, I have used the feedback form and typically received a response within a week’s time. 

However, few people appear to know it exists nor use the phone to provide feedback. I have stopped counting the number of times someone on the bus tells me a story or has a good idea that Metro should hear.  Because when asked, they invariably tell me that they never told Metro. They do not think it would do any good.  But how can Metro fix a problem that it does not even know exists?  How can it deny having heard the suggestion if there is a record that the suggestion were made?

Additionally, it has become fairly straightforward to link a website to a program such as Survey Monkey that, using both closed-ended and open-ended questions, can find out more about people’s thoughts on some issue such as increasing fares in order to have Wi-Fi in buses.  The Mayor’s office has started using a computer facility called “IdeaScale” to solicit budget ideas in addition to holding meetings around the city.  Metro could do that too as bus riders in particular are often limited in their ability to participate in face-to-face meetings. 

It may be nice to elicit feedback, but for it to mean anything it has to be processed.   Processing feedback requires staff time. Is it worth expanding what there is at present?  Yes.  Riders should participate in the design of their own transit system (what a concept!).   Otherwise, how can one honestly say that, as a public agency, Metro Transit is “by and for the people?”   Providing information is important but so is listening (really listening).