Management & Operations

APTA focuses on customer service

Posted on May 1, 2006

The challenge of providing exceptional customer service was a key theme at this year’s APTA Bus and Paratransit Conference and International Bus Roadeo, held April 29 to May 3, in Anaheim, Calif. During the general forum, Doug Lipp, former head of employee training at Disney Studio’s Walt Disney University, provided amusing insights about his own customer-service experiences. Lipp emphasized the importance of understanding the value that an organization brings to its customers. “Ask customers what they want,” he said. “Is it good employees, friendliness, cleanliness?” Lipp added that companies need the courage to change, citing Disney’s unwillingness to break out of its comfort zone regarding movies. He said they passed over opportunities to produce Jaws and E.T., preferring to stick to the outdated Disney formula with films like The Black Hole and TRON. After Lipp’s presentation, four panelists provided their own perspectives about customer service — Rick Ruddell, president/executive director of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority; Joyce Olson, CEO of Snohomish County (Wash.) Public Transportation Benefit Area Corp.; Kim Green, president of GFI Genfare; and Art Leahy, CEO of the Orange County (Calif.) Transportation Authority (OCTA). Ruddell pointed out that customer service is not just an issue with riders. “Everybody has an opinion about your service, whether they’re political and community leaders or the general public,” he said. Olson says her operation serves a populace that holds high expectations. “I come from Seattle, the home of companies like Starbucks and Nordstrom,” she said. “People are used to exceptional service.” The attitude of your front-line employees, Olson said, is the most critical link to customer service. “You can have the best equipment, shortest headways, fastest service, but what’s going to give you quality service are employees with the right attitude,” she said. “Our mission is to provide a safe, reliable, enjoyable experience on every single run.” Green of GFI Genfare said customer service is becoming paramount now that fuel prices are rising again and some motorists are opting to use public transit. “We’ve never had such a great opportunity to steal market share,” he said, “and we need to capitalize on this.” OCTA’s Leahy said it’s important for transit managers to have empathy for both operators and passengers. “When I was an operator, I felt like I was alone,” he said. Dealing with difficult passengers is an occupational hazard for operators, which obligates managers to provide them with support and understanding. “In management, we sometimes get a little preachy.” The conference also featured an afternoon bus showcase. Sixteen vehicles were displayed, ranging from 60-foot articulated buses used in bus rapid transit service to cutaway buses for shuttle operations.

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