I can't shake the feeling that public-service managers have grown overly fond of the complacent "here it is, take it or leave it" brand of salesmanship. Yet a creative marketing program to ensure a satisfied clientele - the source of life-giving income for private managers - should be an equally essential part of public-service agencies like Metro.
We can divide Metro's stages of development into four broad periods: an initial idea and planning phase (1960s and early 1970s); a wholly engineering and construction period (early 1970s); a mixed construction and initial operating period (1976 to mid or late 1980s); and, finally, a fully operational phase (expected to start in the mid to late 1980s). Metro is now in the third state, an awkward period full of challenges, opportunities and dangers - its adolescence.
During this transition period, Metro must shift its management focus from that of a builder to to that of a service provider. It is, after all, in that arena that Metro will eventually earn or lose its reputation.
Equipment installation, operation and maintenance is a relatively routine, technical and short-run task, and one that does not strive to change the customer's behavior. Service delivery, on the other hand, must pay particular attention to subtle, often uncertain, shifts in demand and long-range market trends. With stiff auto competition, Metro must alter the habits of thousands of commuters and other travelers if higher farebox receipts and lower operating subsidies are to be achieved.
Engineering tasks favor a more autocratic, technical management process. Successful service operations, however, require a more flexible, customer-sensitive management style.
Once Metro's construction program is ended, its basic rail configuration, unlike user needs, is no longer subject to major changes. Management must then rely on less technical, more people-serving tactics to satisfy shifting customer demands.
Riders take for granted those countless behind-the-scenes maintenance and engineering tasks that are part of the total Metro system. What they look for, as do restaurant and hotel patrons, is a service catering to their personally defined needs. Each rider is, in effect, a separate test of Metro's ability to satisfy those needs.
Richard Page, Metro's new general manager, apparently places a high priority on rider satisfaction and farebox-oriented marketing programs. His reported belief that a successful marketing program begins with top quality, courteous attendants and drivers - the rider's prime contact with Metro - is a giant step in the right direction.
Further down his list should also be attacks on these frequently heard user complaints: a cranky, surprise-filled Farecard network; lack of parking when and where the riders' need will be best met; busy Metro information phones; and a mind-numbing lack of wallet sized Metro maps for trip planning before arrival at the station.
Two longer-range steps will help keep Metro's management firmly fixed on service to the rider.
First, ridership figures and farebox receipts must remain the prime gauge of both customer satisfaction and of how well Metro is performing. If ridership levels drop, or remain steady, Metro must ask why and take steps to improve the situation. If a decrease in farebox receipts simply triggers a rise in Metro's subsidy, the underlying marketing problem will remain undiscovered and uncorrected.
Only a small share of Metro's current bus and rail subsidy formulas depend on ridership levels. Miles of bus routes, hours of service, the number of rail stations located in each political jurisdiction, and outright payments based on population per political service area - all poor measures of how well services are received - dominate the present subsidy calculations.
Second, Metro must shift away from its politically dominated board of directors, who are responsive first and foremost to their electorate, not Metro's riders, and move toward a more balanced structure with a fresh management perspective. While Metro was without the benefit of user feedback, elected officials from each political division to be served assumed a kind of proxy role and represented future patrons. With Metro now serving as many as 300,000 passengers a day, reliance on a rider proxy is both unnecessary and, if continued, indicative of an increasingly outdated management orientation. Metro's initial dependence on elected officials must now give way to a rider-responsible management with built-in performance incentives.