Can the TTC create a culture of customer service?
The long awaited report from the TTC Customer Service Advisory Panel was recently released and as could have been predicted, the general public sentiment appears to be that the report doesn’t go far enough in addressing the serious nature of the problem -- "poor customer service."
The report, available on line http://ttcpanel.ca/report/, is organized in eight sections with a series of 78 observations and corresponding recommendations. The volunteer Advisory Panel, TTC staff and others that supported the effort to research and prepare the report should be commended, and their work is an excellent beginning to what could be a long journey for the TTC in their quest to deliver superior customer service.
The first and presumably most important section entitled, "A renewed focus on customer service" seems misleading given it implies that at some point in the not too distant past the TTC did focus on customer service. The challenge is that public transit operators like the TTC don’t view and treat customers in the same way that a service industry such as a hotel or retail enterprise does since public transit operators face little or no competition.
Transit administrators refer to the people that use their services as passengers or riders, and given that the majority of their clients don’t have a choice in how they commute to work or travel around their communities these so-called customers are essentially held captive by an industry that in most cases isn’t compelled to practise superior customer service because of the monopoly they hold.
Nonetheless the report does highlight some important changes that once implemented should improve the overall experience for TTC employees and their passengers. Section six of the report "Fare media and payment systems" once resolved with ubiquitous smart card technology will overnight relieve TTC operators from the least desirable aspect of their jobs – policing the fare box.
My uncle drove a TTC bus for close to 30 years and in my youth I remember how he would lament about the people who refused to pay the fare and how this caused him and his fellow drivers’ considerable angst and aggravation. Most large-city transit systems solved this problem a while ago and as a consequence their operators can better concentrate on the most important aspect of their work – operating vehicles safely.
Other benefits of an automated fare payment system include faster board times since drivers don’t have to scrutinize transit passes and the fare box, transfers would no longer be required and who knows once this annoying duty is eliminated by the introduction of smart cards or a similar system, TTC operators might even have time to give customers directions or a smile.
The other recommendation worth mentioning is a need to focus on the youth market, and it’s important that the TTC does recognize how vital students are to their business, since on some routes they comprise most of the riders, and as these youth become adults it’s important to keep them as transit customers. The panel recommends the formation of a student advisory committee and an excellent example worth exploring is the Youth Onboard or YO program for short that York Region Transit (YRT) started a few years ago. In York Region each high school has a number of transit ambassadors that are recruited to help communicate to their classmates’ route changes or simply promote the use of transit to get to school. The YRT program seems to be working well and could be a model for the TTC to follow.
What remains to be seen is how the recommendations are received by the mayoral candidates and in what manner they might weave the panel’s findings into their own campaign platforms concerning transit. The quick hit ideas like improved communication through signs and display boards are tempting but a deep culture transformation is required if the TTC is to become truly customer service oriented.
As a start it might be useful if all elected officials and TTC brass were required to travel by transit at peak hours at least once a week, then they might begin to cultivate the empathy needed to understand their patrons concerns and in response create the "Culture of Customer Service" the panel recommends.