Management & Operations

Putting Customer Service at the Top of the List

Posted on August 13, 2007 by Heidi Nye

Driving a bus involves more than maneuvering through rush-hour traffic. Increasingly, it demands good people skills. Yet transit authorities across the U.S. and Canada struggle with hiring and training operators, who not only have the technical prowess to handle large vehicles, but also the interpersonal skills to deal effectively with all kinds of passengers.

The following incidents show that problems not only exist but receive unwanted media attention:

  • DiscoverVancouver.com’s bulletin board features a 20-month thread of comments about rude drivers from British Columbia to London. Some of the complaints include favoritism (allowing some passengers to ride for free or at reduced fares, while refusing to allow others who are short of change); closing the door and driving off before passengers could exit; refusing to answer schedule questions; and using abusive or offensive language.
  • A San Francisco TV station investigated driver complaints, finding that 25 drivers accounted for more than 1,000 complaints during a three-year period. This information came out only after KGO-TV went to court to obtain public records that union representatives for bus drivers had tried to block.
  • In a similar investigation, a San Diego TV reporter found that the city’s 25 worst drivers racked up 682 complaints in three years, including that of a blind woman who said drivers did not identify stops and that some attempted to rile her seeing-eye dog. According to the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, one-third of the system’s drivers have at one point or another been disciplined for unbecoming conduct.
  • In June, a Portland, Ore., driver called two 14-year-old girls “sickos” after he saw them kissing and then forced them to leave the bus.

    Such widely-reported incidents can adversely affect a transit system’s morale and public perception at a time when cities are seeing increased ridership, which is up 3% in the U.S. as a whole over last year. In some places, like Spokane, Wash., ridership has surged 15%, according to Spokane Transit Authority spokesman Chris Tohm. Helpful, happy drivers will help to keep those numbers up.

    METRO Magazine interviewed transit officials throughout North America to find out what they’re doing to ensure that they’re hiring drivers who project a pleasant, helpful attitude that keeps passengers satisfied and coming back. Hiring people-pleasers
    Ron Drolet, senior vice president of customer service at BC Transit, which provides public transportation in British Columbia outside the Vancouver area, says that customer expectations have increased in recent years.

    “Passengers don’t necessarily need to see happy faces, but they want to make sure that drivers are reliable, courteous and predictable,” Drolet says. “When hiring, we emphasize good people skills. Our training department says it can make a good driver out of almost anyone, but for the most part, people skills have to be preprogrammed. A blunt, black-and-white approach is not what we’re looking for. Those who enjoy dealing with people are valued well above those who come to us with good driving skills.”

    Jeffrey D. Webster, Fresno (Calif.) County Rural Transit Agency’s general manager, says that his 500,000-riders-per-annum system very seldom hires former truck drivers. “Over the 28 years that we’ve been in operation,” he says, “very few truck drivers have lasted through our training program. They’ve wanted to operate our buses like they were used to operating a truck — start in the morning at point A and go to point B. They’re not much interested in stopping.”

    Drolet concurs: “Someone can run a big rig down a back alley in New York City, but he can still be your worst employee if he doesn’t want to deal with people.”

    Monterey-Salinas (Calif.) Transit (MST) has been using the Bus Operator Survey and Selection program (BOSS) for the past five years. “It has been a very good indicator of those best suited for customer interaction,” says Lyn Owens, director of human resources, who points out that the system boasts more than 5 million riders but fewer than 90 driver complaints per year.

    The MST’s hiring process includes drug testing, a 10-year background check and a panel interview, while BC Transit’s pre-screening process entails both written and online assessments, as well as psychographic profiling and a series of in-depth interviews.

    Broad training needed
    BC Transit’s five-week, full-time training program initially focuses on driving some of its 227 coaches, double-deckers and minibuses, but then shifts to policies, safety and customer relations.

    South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) focuses on commuter rail, but contracts with a limousine company for shuttle services from its train stops. Marketing Director Bonnie Arnold reports only six driver-related complaints per year, despite 30,000 bus riders per month.

    Though SFRTA does not directly train drivers, Operations Manager Ed Byers is responsible for reviewing training materials to ensure that they adequately cover customer service and ADA mandates and equipment.

    MST’s Siemens Transitmaster advanced communication system calls out stops, but when the system is down, drivers must comply with ADA requirements. Prior to the installation of this communication system, “we did have a few disciplinary problems in this area,” says Owens. “In the most serious case, the driver underwent additional training with the ADA specialist and was required to write a two-page essay on why he needed to call out stops for his customers.”

    MST’s new drivers complete eight weeks of classroom and driving training. All Class B drivers are required to attend eight hours of additional training per year. Staff from all departments — including a customer service supervisor — conduct portions of the new-hire and annual training.

    Fresno Rural Transit requires 40 hours of training for new hires and conducts in-services every other month for the first three years, covering, among other issues, sensitivity training and effective one-on-one communications.

    Mystery riders, surveillance
    Fresno Rural Transit, like the SFRTA, uses mystery riders to keep tabs on its drivers. In contrast, Drolet says that BC Transit has not used mystery riders in more than five years, yet it has 23 million annual ridership and only receives a few dozen driver-related complaints per month. BC Transit conducts regular passenger surveys and routinely finds that driver courtesy and helpfulness are rated between 5.9 and 6 on a seven-point scale.

    Many of MST’s coaches are equipped with onboard cameras. If so, supervisors pull the DVR and review it in case of complaints filed against drivers. “As there is sound, we can hear what is being said,” Owens explains. “Many of these complaints are unfounded after investigation. If the customer wants a call back, we comply. All complaints receive a letter in response if the customer provides that information.”

    But MST does not simply let the cameras do the work. Supervisors ride along with each of the agency’s 126 full-time drivers at least twice a year.

    BC Transit conducts ride-alongs with trainers during the first year of service to reinforce good habits and point out habits that need adjustment.

    Keeping good drivers
    Fresno Rural Transit’s drivers “get to know their clients very well,” says Webster. “Occasionally, regular passengers get rides home, so drivers make a point of explaining that if that is the case, they need to let us know, so we don’t worry.” Webster says his drivers are so conscientious that three or four times they have checked a house or a trailer of a regular passenger to find that someone was in need of help and notified the authorities.

    “Most of our drivers are long-term,” says Ed Byers of SFRTA. “They tend to stay on the same route, so they know the people. I’ve been here eight years, and half the drivers are the same ones who were here when I started.”

    Drolet says that keeping front-line employees informed of policy changes and the reasoning behind fare increases helps prevent possible incidents with irate passengers.

    If drivers can calmly, quickly and effectively offer customers explanations, they can avoid temper flare-ups on both sides. “We want to give them good information so that they’re not in the dark,” Drolet says. “Not a lot of specifics, but enough information to do their jobs.”

    That kind of management keeps everyone smiling. And that means no one is going to complain.

    A frequent contributor to METRO Magazine, Heidi Nye lives in Long Beach, Calif.

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