Metro rider proposes low-cost changes that put customers first

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 21, 2013

The Metro Riders’ Advisory Council is working on a customer service pledge, which it plans to send on to Metro’s board of directors for possible adoption this fall. I asked travelers to share their views on what the transit authority owes its riders.

This letter, from a daily commuter on Metrorail, makes suggestions that will resonate with many riders.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Dear Dr. Gridlock: Sometimes things go wrong. Every company and every customer has experienced this. The important point for businesses such as Metro is, what does the company do when mistakes happen. And this is where Metro can easily improve, if it wants to.

Although fiscal stability is a complicated and often costly endeavor, good customer service is cheap, and the rewards for both the company and the customer can be great. Here are some of the easy solutions that would gain customers’ loyalty and goodwill:

1. “I am Metro” campaign: One of the overriding problems many have encountered in the Metro system is the “It’s not my job” syndrome. So many times I have gone to the first worker I see to report a problem and their response is “I don’t have anything to do with that. Call XXX.”


Crowds line up for Farecards in Greenbelt. A rider has suggested ways to improve the Metro experience. (Mark Gail/Washington Post)

Everyone who works at Metro should be responsible for any customer complaint. It works this way: When someone comes to any employee to report a hot car or other issue, the worker might say ,“I don’t work in the area, but let me see what I can do.”

Each employee represents Metro, and each employee should be trained to make sure an issue gets passed on to the right person. Not only does this make sense, it breeds goodwill, something Metro needs desperately.

Don’t tell me to fill out a form. Don’t tell me, “They won’t listen to me; fill out this form instead,” which I’ve heard on numerous occasions. And please don’t tell me you have to get permission from the central office to make a change. As a customer, that translates as a dysfunctionality in the system.

Recently, I reported a hot car (with its number) to the station manager at the Ninth Street exit at Gallery Place. He told me I should have told the train operator and that he has nothing to do with it.

Well, as we all know, sometimes the intercoms don’t work, but in my case, I was in a crowded car during a morning commute, and there was no way I could even get to the intercom. I reported this incident to Metro’s phone customer service line, giving them my e-mail address and phone number, requesting a callback. This was almost two weeks ago, and I haven’t heard a thing. This happens regularly.

The investment to improve your customer service is minuscule compared with the rewards Metro and its customers would reap. The system is broken. Majorly. Each employee should wear a button that says “I am Metro. What can I do to help you?”

2. Put signs reading, “Don’t block the exit; move out to let people exit” on the plastic dividers that surround central car exits. The problem for exiting passengers is great. It slows down these transitions in and out of cars and makes the system less efficient.

Yes, people don’t think. But this can be a reminder that other customers can point to, and it can be part of a larger campaign to change riders’ habits.

3. Start telling people to stand on the right side of escalators and walk on the left. This is and has been the unwritten law for locals for years. With summer and the influx of tourists, we constantly have to either ask people to move to the right (with major apologies from our visitors who wish they had known) or stand there until we get to the end. This has created a huge wave of ill will among riders about Metro, and it’s time to fix it.

These relatively easy things should be part of the service pledge. They are inexpensive, and the goodwill generated by implementing them would greatly benefit the transit authority, as well as its customers.

Jeff Gates

Silver Spring

DG: The final version of Metro’s customer pledge should be a short statement that can be featured prominently on the transit Web site and made visible to bus and train riders. And it shouldn’t be any longer than the U.S. Bill of Rights.

But concerns such as those expressed by Gates should be channeled into the document. Often, Metrorail seems to be about moving trains rather than moving people. The trains need to have their doors, brakes and air conditioners fixed. But it’s also important that people know what’s going on with their rides. And when they experience a problem, they need to have two-way communication with the people who operate the system.

Metro has made strides. I’m particularly fond of the new, more customer-friendly way of organizing the weekend track work. Rather than having rail riders guess about how long a trip through a work zone will take, Metro spaces the trains so they shouldn’t need to queue up and take turns going through track-sharing zones. And Metrorail incorporates the real schedule into the online Trip Planner, at www.wmata.com.

On the other hand, riders have no clue when many of the projects that cause delays will be done. Seems like something a customer has a right to know.

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