Enhanced Customer Service Key to Improving Transit Systems

Posted on September 23, 2008 by Brendan B. Read

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 [IMAGE]njtransitbus.jpg[/IMAGE] Customer service is no longer just a public relations function. Instead, it is becoming a key tool to attract and retain customers, as well as a vital method of eliciting customer feedback and ideas that will ultimately be used to help improve transit systems.

Yet, providing quality customer service is not inexpensive. For example, it costs $5 to $7 for each interaction to be handled by an agent. With rising fuel costs and ridership demands for more service, agencies are juggling the needs for better customer service with better service to customers.

In response, customer service is becoming customer relationship management (CRM), which is the strategy of building and enhancing relationships with customers through meeting their needs while managing costs.

To that end, agencies have turned to Web and text messaging to reduce call volumes, while shortening hold times and the time taken to resolve issues. They have also deployed CRM software and workflow changes to respond more effectively to commendations, complaints and suggestions (CCS). These tools enhance customer service, while boosting productivity and reducing expenses.

With these methods in place, customers are now getting better service in more ways than one.

Cutting-edge management
In June 2008, New Jersey Transit (NJT), the U.S.’s third-largest transit system, discontinued its toll-free customer service number and replaced it with a regular phone line; toll-free access continues for hearing-impaired TTY users. The move will save the agency approximately $500,000 annually.

While at first glance NJT’s decision appears to be a move backward, it is actually the latest step forward in what may be the most cutting-edge CRM program of any North American transit agency.

NJT customers have an array of automated feature-rich information sources at their fingertips that reduce their need to call or to send e-mails.

These tools include a specialized Website, launched in 2006, that enables customers to check schedules, fares and scan up-to-the-minute information about system operations with their wireless devices. The site has recently been upgraded with a “Contact Us” Web form that permits patrons to provide feedback.

The methods include “My Transit,” a subscriber-based text message alert system, available on all NJT modes. Using this system, customers can receive up-to-the-minute travel information for their specific trip whenever there is a delay affecting their designated itinerary.

NJT’s switchover to the regular number generated minimal media comment and public reaction. “We also realized that most customers were making the calls at no additional charge anyway, either because they were using a cell phone, an unlimited home voice over Internet calling plan or calling from their workplace,” explains NJT spokesperson Dan Stessel.

The communications front end only tells part of NJT’s CRM story. The agency transformed its back-end CCS handling from a chaotic situation where issues would go unresolved, with no tracking and, in some cases, with multiple executives seeing and responding to the same inquiry to a streamlined, faster, more accurate and more efficient response system.

The key has been a hosted CRM system from that processes comments received by phone and online. Hosted software, also known as Software as a Service (SaaS), is less expensive, more flexible and quicker to implement than traditional software installations on clients’ computers. It avoids hardware investment that in turn also saves on internal IT costs.

To take full advantage of the software’s capabilities, NJT realigned its customer service department to make each member of the staff the expert for a specific customer service area, which decreased communications overhead and improved productivity.

The system provides workflow rules that routes incoming customer questions to the subject area expert. It also enabled customers and internal users the ability to ask questions and submit issues on the existing site via Web forms, which flow into the Salesforce central customer information warehouse. The system’s applications are linked to a data warehouse, employee information, an e-mail management system and a data quality system.

The initial application proved far more successful than what the transit agency had hoped. The same number of staff handled 42,323 inquiries in 2006, compared with 8,354 in 2004. During its use, the average response time to inquiries dropped by more than 35 percent and productivity increased by 31 percent. The Web forms cut down on the time spent handling free-form e-mail; nearly 50 percent of all CCS cases are captured via the forms.

NJT may be going to the next level of CRM by utilizing social networking. Earlier this year it piloted an online suggestions exchange using’s “Ideas” platform. Customers were able to post their thoughts, read what other customers were saying and vote on the proposals they liked best, which were reviewed by management.

The program pulled in 349 ideas over the pilot’s 30-day time span and netted several great suggestions.


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