SEPTA introduced online customer service on Twitter in 2010. The agency’s social media team includes (from L to R) Neftali Velez, Eileen Matos and Eric Negron.
A recent study
, “Planning and Social Media: A Case Study of Public Transit and the Stigma on Twitter,” which analyzed an estimated 64,000 tweets about public transit agencies, police departments, parks and airlines, found that Twitter has been less than favorable to public transportation systems.
When it comes to the content of tweets, the report found the nation’s top transit agencies are receiving the same sentiment as police departments and welfare programs. The most negative Twitter commentary among the 10 major public transit agencies studied was directed at the Washington, D.C. (Metro); Boston (MBTA); Philadelphia (SEPTA) and Chicago (CTA) public transit systems. The agencies with less criticism were Los Angeles (Metro) New York (MTA) and San Francisco (BART). The transit agencies faring the best were Vancouver’s Translink system and Portland, Ore.’s Trimet.
Although a good chunk of the negative comments are in regards to rider demographics, and not the transit systems themselves, this is not to say transit agencies have no control over what is being said. In fact, the level of interaction from transit agencies can influence the tone of discussion from patrons, according to Lisa Schweitzer, associate professor with the USC Price School of Public Policy and author of the study.
The most positively regarded agency of those studied, Translink, tweets 90 times a day to interact and answer its patrons questions, said Schweitzer. While at the other end of the spectrum, Washington , D.C. Metro’s one-way communication on Twitter has not been well received. Not only have D.C. riders tweeted at the transit agency, but two parody accounts with a growing followership (@unsuckdcmetro and @dcmetrosucks) have collected all the unfavorable tweets.
The study points out, “Transit agencies in the ‘high’ interaction group receive more favorable opinions about service timing, driver conduct, facilities and climate control than agencies that use their feeds solely for service and related announcements,” so running an automated feed of tweets isn’t the solution to angry riders.
“The expectation on Twitter is that if you’re on Twitter then you will talk back,” said Kim Scott Heinle, assistant GM, customer service and advocacy division, at SEPTA.
Celebrities and villains were used as controls on the most positive and negative ends of comments in Schweitzer's study: former Star Trek star William Shatner represented the most positive Twitter celebrity and, on the negative end of the scale, the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
SEPTA greatly improved the tone of content about the agency when it introduced online customer service on Twitter in 2010, said Schweitzer.
The @SEPTA_Social account addresses individual questions from riders. Heinle selected a team of four full-time employees to alternate monitoring and answering questions on this account. Although his team has customer service experience, Heinle made a point to differentiate between old-fashioned customer service versus social media customer service.
“When you’re in formal customer service you deal with letters and emails, and with Twitter you can’t be formal and it needs to be in the same vernacular as the person you are talking to,” said Heinle. “I had to coach them to be [themselves]. Make [the customer] feel comfortable so they don’t feel they are getting a corporate statement.”
The SEPTA Social team starts each shift by introducing themselves so riders know exactly who they are talking to. The study showed SEPTA’s social account had improved their opinion score by 70% since 2010.
Stephen Tu, manager, operations and service delivery, for L.A. Metro said Twitter is also a great resource for not just responding, but also listening.
“It’s a huge missed opportunity if we weren’t listening to our customers on social media,” said Tu.
Tu also added using Twitter can be the deciding factor for a customer to choose taking the Metro or finding alternative transportation.
“Simply put, we are in an instant gratification society and people do not have the patience to call or write in. If we cannot address their issue on social media, they’ll simply open up their phone and get an Uber or Lyft. And, we likely won’t see them as a return customer, nor will they recommend Metro to their friends or family,” he explained.
Heinle agreed that utilizing social media goes beyond the negative commentary and is a strategy on the long term scale.
“A lot of this is about growing ridership and being relevant. Knowing that if you need to get to us that we will get back to you,” he said.