The Washington, D.C.-based Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) plans to begin a “mystery rider” program, and the Board of Directors has approved awarding a five-year contract to a winning bidder.
WMATA will hire a company to evaluate the quality of service on Metrobus and Metrorail. Experienced staff will rate the service from the customer’s perspective. This practice is commonly used in the retail, restaurant and banking industries.
“We need to be able to see the riders’ experience through their eyes. We want to know what works and doesn’t work, and what can be made better. This is one way to gather that information,” said Christopher Zimmerman, WMATA board chairman. Zimmerman asked WMATA to implement the program as part of a series of goals to improve service. The program could start as early as August.
Customer service and market research programs currently in place, such as WMATA’s customer service office, public outreach forum, public hearings and comprehensive customer satisfaction telephone surveys stratified by rail customers vs. bus customers, will inform the criteria used in the “mystery rider” program. “What I hope to do with the ‘mystery riders’ is to use the information that we currently have from our wealth of resources that tells us what’s important to customers and their expectations, to build criteria,” said Donna Murray, WMATA consumer research manager. “If safety is the number one priority, then I want to know whether the pay phones were functional, if the lights were operational. If you were out at night, was it well lit?” she adds.
Customer perception will play an integral role in the feedback received, notes Murray. The mystery shoppers’ observations will be crucial to the transit authority’s effort to improve customer service, by reporting back with a reality measured against a checked set of criteria drawn from customer perception in the surveys. “When we give a customer satisfaction survey, we’re getting perception, which is absolutely reality to that customer. But if I send in a team of trained observers with a checklist…I can see what [will require] communications, what’s going to require a change in operation, more money or more effort. A lot of times it’s communications.”
Murray emphasizes that the information from the mystery riders will be used in addition to — not instead of — customer feedback. “It’s never that the customer’s perception is not valid. A customer that is complaining about something or giving negative scores, there’s a reason they’re doing it, but I need to get an accurate picture of [the situation].”
As mystery rider information is compiled, issues will be addressed as soon as possible, depending on the available resources. “If I get a phone call that there are four lights out in [a] stairwell, that should be responded to in 24 hours or less. If there are continual bunches on a street due to a detour…you might respond to that immediately with a street supervisor, but it’s going to involve a review of the schedule,” said Murray.
The transit authority has used similar “mystery riders” programs in the past, but has had to cut them due to financial constraints, according to Candace Smith, public affairs officer for WMATA.