By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
When Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) General Manager Joseph Casey took over as chief in 2008, customer service became a top priority, as I reported in Progressive Railroading's May 2013 cover story, "Capital Pains." Since then, the agency has been working to implement and adhere to a customer-focused strategy that involves all departments and disciplines.
Leading the effort is Kim Scott Heinle, a 29-year SEPTA veteran who was named to the new post of assistant general manager of customer service and advocacy shortly after Casey took over as GM. Casey created the position because he wanted customer service represented at the senior management level, Heinle says.
"We've always had customer service, but it was buried in the organization," he says. "I not only manage the traditional customer service efforts, but I act as an internal catalyst to make sure everybody owns some aspect of customer service."
Although Heinle has spent most of his SEPTA career in operations, planning, training and administration positions, he knows how important good customer service is when it comes to attracting and retaining customers; he once was a manager in the California restaurant and entertainment business.
During the past four years, Heinle has focused on implementing a customer-service culture within the agency. Every department was instructed to come up with at least one "significant customer-focused goal," then ensure that every employee work to meet it, says Heinle. Every employee also was instructed to have one personal customer service goal.
"We knew that this had to be real, had to be engrained and everyone has to understand it from a cultural standpoint — it's something we eat, sleep, believe in and have a passion for," he says. "Nothing like this happens overnight, but we are taking a slow, consistent focus at all levels of the organization to demonstrate the commitment is not only spoken, but it's lived."
Customer service goals and priorities center around what SEPTA officials refer to as the 4 Cs: cleanliness, communication, convenience and courtesy.
For example, SEPTA's courtesy initiatives center around making sure all crews, managers and field personnel are aware of how they act, what they say and how they look at all times in order to make the best impression possible on a passengers, says Heinle.
The agency also made its food and drink policy — which used to prohibit all food and beverages onboard trains — more lenient.
"The more we looked at customers and their lifestyles, expectations and needs, the more we realized that … if we were trying to attract and retain customers, we shouldn't create rules that said you can't eat a banana or have a cup of coffee on the train," says Heinle. "The real issue is etiquette and whether or not you can do it in a mature and adult manner, and not infringe on others around you."
SEPTA has adapted its communication efforts to be more thoughtful of passengers and their needs, too. The agency has been working harder to give its riders a heads up on delays or potential service disruptions through Twitter alerts. About 30,000 people subscribe to the alerts and another 5,500 "like" the agency on Facebook. SEPTA also has a mobile app that tells users where the trains are and whether they are running on time.
"In this day of social media, real-time information is not an amenity — it is an absolute expectation," says Heinle. "We have to provide information to people on the move."
SEPTA is looking at amping up customer amenities, as well, such as by installing additional outlets or benches in stations, newspaper stands or bicycle racks.
Passengers have "responded favorably" to the customer service efforts, which SEPTA officials are gauging based on survey results and ridership, said Heinle. Since the agency began implementing a more customer-focused culture, rider satisfaction on a scale of one to 10 increased from 7.2 to 7.9 — a "pretty significant improvement," according to Casey. Meanwhile, ridership is at an all-time high of 340 million passengers.
That doesn't mean SEPTA workers will rest on their laurels.
"We're looking to keep our product fresh and determine how we stay relevant, how we anticipate our passengers' needs and become proactive in the way we view customer service, rather than reactive," says Heinle. "And that way, customer service is looked at as an opportunity to create loyalty and satisfaction rather than a depository for complaints."
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