Since 1954, the coat of arms of the Toronto Transit Commission has proclaimed the slogan “Service Courtesy Safety”. After the Russell Hill subway crash in 1995, safety and maintenance quality zoomed to the front of the pack. Years of neglect, of saying “we can get by” on inadequate budgets, finally took their toll.
Much work has been done to restore a safety culture at the TTC, to the point where other important aspects of the operation were eclipsed.
The TTC hasn’t had the best of times. Although last year’s civic workers strike was not a TTC affair, any municipal strike reminds voters of past job actions by transit workers. By late 2009. the media were in a feeding frenzy looking for any stories to discredit the Miller/Giambrone administration. The “sleeping collector” fell right into their laps, and became the lighting rod for a host of complaints about the TTC, its employees and its service.
In March 2010, the TTC created an independent “Customer Service Advisory Panel” to examine a range of issues, and that panel reported yesterday, August 23. The full report is available online.
Reading through it, I was struck by many quite reasonable items, but also by a sense that parts of the document were an attempt at face saving. Too many recommendations place the responsibility for change at the front line employee or even at the customer without acknowledging that the best employee cannot do a good job without proper support from the organization. Management must not regard good service (in many senses of that word) as something they can’t afford. Departments must not assume that “it’s someone else’s job” to deal with problems, or defend their turf against others while failing to provide good service.
To give TTC management credit, statements by Chief General Manager Gary Webster at the press conference, the Commission meeting and on an interview with CBC Radio were open in accepting the need for organizational change. Yes, there are some proposals with significant costs attached, but many structural and procedural problems require only the will to change how the TTC does business.
Early in the report, the panel tells us:
[W]e were pleasantly surprised to learn that all of the TTC stakeholders are passionate about their transit system. Everyone, from employees to management to customers, truly wants a TTC of which they can be proud. [p 2]
This should not be a surprise. The TTC was once (as they so often told us) the envy of transit systems world-wide, a system of which the city could justifiably be proud. But that was a long time ago. Years of mutual back-patting among the TTC brotherhood coupled with declining financial support from governments of all parties were a poisonous combination.
If you’re perfect, it’s hard to admit that some of the lights are burned out, that the stations are getting dirty, that the trains are not maintained to quite the standards of “the old days”. If you’re perfect, then your customer service must be ideal, a sterling example for others to follow. Pride in the system was replaced with self-congratulation, with a view bounded by the mirror on the wall.
That desire for pride is worth remembering through the entire process. We want to believe in the TTC, we want to show our friends (even those who think that the only way to get around is in a car) how good transit can be, we want people to say “have you heard what Toronto is doing”. We don’t want excuses.
Another surprise for the panel was the rider expectations for TTC frontline staff:
Operators are expected to act as a tour guide, policy enforcer, fare collector, and custodian, while providing information, directions, and special assistance. All of this and much more is expected while, at the same time, they are to operate the vehicle in a safe manner – Paying attention to the road at all times, adhere to the speed limit despite a tight schedule, and practice defensive driving. And, above all, they must ensure that passengers arrive at their final destination safe, and on time. [pp 2-3]
This is a surprise? The next paragraph gives a troubling clue about the underlying thoughts:
[I]t is apparent that customers do not often consider the complexity of the huge system that operates in the background, day in and day out, to keep the TTC running. [p 3]
Yes, the TTC is large and complex, but it is by no means the largest system on the planet. Many of them recognize the importance of good customer service despite their huge size. They don’t depend on customers cutting them slack because the transit system is so large. If anything, a big system should have a benefit of scale, of experience with complexity and change, that a small system might not encounter often.
Unfortunately, all the customers see is that the bus is late, or the operator did not effectively answer their questions. [p 3]
Exactly. It is the view from the customer that’s important. A guest in a hotel does not want to hear about the problems of repairing centuries-old plumbing, or of cooking huge dinner banquets, or of co-ordinating the unseen army of staff who keep the place running. They want a clean, well-maintained room, elevators that work and service that is almost magically there without being asked for.
The report’s 78 recommendations are divided into eight groups. A review of each of the 78 is not required to establish patterns, to see the underlying philosophy.
A Renewed Focus on Customer Service
This section includes the creation of a “Chief Customer Service Officer” position, a business plan and an advisory group. Alas, the advisory group is top heavy with management and a few outside customer service specialists. It “could” include TTC employees and members of the public.
The word “advisory” implies a function that is at least partly at arm’s length. If the TTC wants an internal co-ordinating committee to track progress on its initiatives, fine, but don’t call this an “advisory” committee. If employee and public input is sought, it must be meaningful, recommendations must be respected, not laundered to fit the corporate expectations, they should be published regularly and their status should be tracked. Management may not agree with a proposal, but they should say so and defend their position publicly.
The report asks whether the TTC’s structure prevents high quality service with departmental barriers blocking co-ordinated delivery of initiatives. Customers do not care which department carries responsibility for each facet of their experience, nor do they give gold stars to the department managers. They care about their rides on the TTC system, and bad experiences reflect on the whole organization.
I am disappointed in the proposal for an “Image/Brand Improvement Plan”. Parts of this are puff, while others are meaningful changes. If the TTC participates in or sponsors community events, this gives TTC a presence, but the Queen car will still short turn if it shows up at all. Public forums are useful only if the TTC listens rather than preaching about customer responsibilities.
The best public relations establishing the TTC system’s worthiness of public support is the provision of good service. When the horror stories among friends end, then the TTC will have a successful campaign. The TTC cannot be a bakery with spiffy, focus-group-tested graphics and menus, but mouldy day-old bread in the window. Don’t tell people how good you are. Just be good. No, be excellent.
Customer service techniques coupled with regular surveys of customer attitudes are worthwhile, but again these must feed into published recommendations for change. Just as there is a more-or-less annual “service plan” for route changes in which proposals are vetted against each other, any changes in the organization’s approach need to be seen together as a package, not as individual initiatives that could even work at cross-purpose. Another system may have a great idea, but don’t just start changing Toronto processes because someone went on a busman’s holiday or read a laudatory article in the trade press.
Day-to-day station operations require the co-ordination of many factors — cleanliness, security, accuracy and condition of any signage (especially temporary signs for events or diversions), escalator and elevator reliability, structural wear and damage. That’s just the facilities side of things, but also we have the riders who may ask questions, or simply appear lost. The proposed “Station Managers” are a good first step, but they must be supported by visible improvements in stations when they report issues and request changes.
For emergencies, the report suggests that the TTC maintain lists of nearby managers for both workday and off-hours assistance in stations. This will require a significant amount of training as many aspects of operations and emergency response procedures are not known to all management staff. Managers taking this role will need sensitivity to customers in the difficult situations where things go wrong, and good communication to those providing supervisory support so that they can intelligently work with situations as they evolve. This begs the question of whether qualifications for managers will now include the ability to support emergencies in the subway, and whether this could run counter to acquiring staff with skills needed for their official jobs.
Children and students are two special groups among TTC customers in that they represent the future riders of the transit system. The report suggests that child-specific initiatives could be used to make the system more attractive such as special transfers with additional information about using the transit system. Oddly enough, there is no reference here to either the overburdened operators who would issue such transfers, nor to the fact that transfers as we know them will disappear with self-service fare collection.
For students, the report suggests an advisory committee to give voice to special needs of students much as the advisory committee (ACAT) does for disabled riders. I’m all for public input, but it is odd to see a student committee but no formal role for regular adult riders. Moreover, with too many committees, they may not all speak with one voice, and a clearinghouse will be needed to co-ordinate their work.
This first set of recommendations has a scattershot nature. Many are well-meaning, but could fail in the details of the implementation.
In the next part of this series, I will turn to the broad subject of communications. How should the TTC talk to its customers? How should customers communicate with the TTC? How should the TTC staff and departments talk to each other?