As I wait on the dock for the boat ride from my hotel over to the Magic Kingdom to see Disney World for the first time, a grey-haired skipper happily greets me.
“This dock is for the Magic Kingdom and that dock for the Contemporary Resort. Where are you headed?”
“The Magic Kingdom”
“You know what they call this area? A paradox! And you know what they call us (motioning to him and his fellow crewmate)? A pair of dorks!”
And with that explosion of dad jokes and my wry smile at its delivery, I’ve started my descent into Walt Disney World’s famous customer service. Reputed to be one of the happiest places on Earth, my next few days gave me ample opportunity to get let down by dreary employees, poor service, or heat-lamped food, but I wasn’t. Sure, I was paying a premium for this privilege, but I’m not sure it mattered.
After dad-joke extraordinaire, the next day I got to take an inside look at just how the Magic Kingdom works on the “Keys to the Kingdom” tour. The title, Keys to the Kingdom, refers to the Four Keys that embody the Disney way: Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency. On the tour, our guide Alex expertly led us behind the scenes on amazing rides, to the warehouses where the famous parades get prepped, and into the underground “Utilidor” that allows Disney cast members to move themselves (and all that unsightly trash) underground without disturbing the magic going on above.
The customer service continued all the way to my Disney Magical Express driver who took me back to the airport who cleverly ensured that no one left their belongings on the bus and genuinely seemed like she was grateful for the opportunity to get us safely to the airport after making magical memories with our friends and family.
So with this happy transit experience fresh in my mind as I waited in the Orlando Airport lobby for my flight, it made me wonder what public transit could learn from my experience at Disney World.
Now it would be easy to dismiss my Disney World experience as fundamentally different than public transit. When I think of excellent customer service in transit, most thoughts immediately go to the news stories about the extraordinarily happy bus operator occasionally featured in the news. And while I’ve sometimes experienced poor customer experience with public transit, mostly my customer experience on transit just seems meh. Not bad, but also not great. As any of us who have ever seen those inspiration-type messages on corporate walls, there is a difference between believing in customer service and committing to customer service. It’s like the old story of the chicken and the pig at breakfast. The chicken producing the egg is involved but the pig contributing the bacon is committed.
So why is it so challenging to provide excellent and consistent customer service in public transit?
Could it be because safety considerations necessary in the public transit industry are incompatible with giving excellent customer service? I don’t think so. In one of the safest and most heavily regulated industries, Southwest Airlines somehow makes flying more personal and less stressful.
Perhaps the scale of the public transit workforce makes it difficult to provide customer service? Perhaps. But the largest transit agency in the US, New York City Transit, has to manage 50,000 workers, while Publix Supermarkets has to get 193,000 workers focused on executing on its slogan to make “shopping a pleasure.” And with an average grocery store transaction of $35 and revenues of $36 billion, that means Publix averages about 1 billion customer transactions a year, shy of New York City Transit’s 3.5 billion passengers, but at least double the number of any other US public transit agency.
Or perhaps it’s difficult to provide great customer service in the public sector? That doesn’t stop Orlando International Airport from innovating on how they can improve the customer experience by focusing on something as small as the cleanliness of the restrooms.
So why is it, then, that public transit isn’t known for customer service? I think it’s fundamentally because leaders haven’t chosen to invest in it. There are signs that the tide may be changing. Several public transit agencies--including in Toronto, Boston, and New York--have now started hiring Chief Customer Officers. And at least some transit agencies, like BART and King County Metro, monitor customer satisfaction as a key metric.
Customer service is worth investing in because of how a great customer experience makes customers feel. When I think about the companies I enjoy using or visiting on a regular basis, it’s often because of how they make me feel. For the same reason, I firmly believe that part of the reason that scooters and e-bikes have caught on like they have is that their whimsical nature and superpower torque, respectively, feels good. And while ignoring the negative externalities, Travis Kalanick undoubtedly tapped into a particular psychological appeal with Uber’s former tagline of “everyone’s private driver.”
But even more important than how customer service makes you feel, good customer experience is better for the employees. The consulting firm McKinsey has found this to be true, even in government environments.
Well-run customer-experience programs give employees a focus and a common, unifying purpose centered on customers. We’ve found that most employees, even those who appear to be underperforming, want to do well and deliver a great experience for the customer base, but many lack the tools or skills necessary to live up to expectations.
So I refuse to believe that better customer service in public transit can’t be done, only that until recently, most transit agencies haven’t chosen to invest in it. But I would wager if they did, they would have billions of transit riders and millions of transit employees who would stand and cheer. Not only that, investing in customer service with cultural reinforcement, better training, and appropriate tools would have positive impacts on employee job satisfaction, reduced turnover, and, eventually, ridership.
What would public transit with a focus on customer service look like?
It would put the needs of riders--especially vulnerable ones--above the wants of the employees. No more confusing signs or trash storage that diminish how riders feel using the transit system.
It would recognize that simple courtesy goes a long way. No more bus operators or station attendants who seem like they would rather be getting a root canal.
It would remove barriers that make transit more complex than it needs to be. No more penalizing commuters who have to transfer between different transit agencies or punishing riders who pay by the trip if they can’t afford a discounted monthly pass.
I know these things aren’t easy. I’ve never been a bus operator or transit administrator. I imagine there are considerations far beyond the scope of this essay. And yet, I’m still left with this: Even though great customer service is hard, it has to start with a choice and a commitment to achieve it. And once that choice is made, the results can be pretty fantastic.
Thinking back to my experience at Disney World, it was happy. And I was happy. And the throngs of people around me who paid gobs of money to enter the park where they continued to spend gobs of money were happy. And the employees who sold me the food and memorabilia were happy too.
And while a public transit trip on a random Tuesday afternoon won’t ever have the same feel as the Magic Kingdom, I don’t think it’s a fairy tale.
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