Web-based rider feedback
In the internet age, web-based feedback tools are becoming an increasingly important means of communication between transit agencies and their customers. Riders expect to be able to submit comments and complaints digitally and get prompt, helpful feedback. Transit agencies should be excited about the potential for increased customer interaction but acknowledge the difficulties facing implementation.
Web-Based Feedback Basics
Pros and Cons
Web-based feedback is immensely useful to transit agencies. In particular, it is well-suited to time-sensitive communications, increases public participation, and can improve an agency's image. In addition, some tools allow for easier generation of summary reports than traditional outreach methods. However, internet tools raise important questions about accessibility and equity and can encourage negative feedback. Online tools are also resource-intensive. Customers are used to 24-hour real-time support online, which is out of the capabilities of most agencies.
Types of Feedback
- Solicited feedback - Transit agencies can use these tools to solicit specific comments from customers as a way to get opinions on short- and long-range plans and assess travel behavior.
- Unsolicited feedback - When given the chance, riders will share all sorts of unsolicited comments. Frequent issues include service quality, personnel issues, safety, and general policy opinions. These comments can generally be sorted into two categories: time-sensitive concerns that should be addressed as quickly as possible (for example, information about malfunctioning equipment), or ongoing concerns about the service that may warrant further review.
The proliferation of the internet makes web-based feedback accessible to a large portion of the American population. As of 2014, 87% of adults in the country were online. People of color are somewhat less well-represented, but still have internet usage numbers in the 80% range. However, there are certain groups that should be specially considered in terms of the accessibility of web-based tools.
- Low-income communities - 23% of people with household incomes under $30,000 are offline, which is particularly concerning given that this demographic tends to be overrepresented in terms of transit ridership.
- Persons with disabilities - Web-based tools can be difficult for people with physical disabilities, specifically people with vision impairments. Tools need to have built-in accessibility features.
- Non-English speakers - In some communities, people with limited English proficiency are a significant part of transit ridership. While online translation tools are useful, something human translation is needed.
General internet usage does not necessarily imply mobile access or social media proficiency. Email and text messaging are a more reliable method for reaching a large audience than other digital tools.
Incorporating web-based feedback into an agency’s operations requires new models of staffing, training, customer response, and data analytics.
While some agencies let individual departments handle their own web presence, others find it easier to concentration online operations in one or several specific parts of the agency. The system an agency picks can depend on agency size, types of feedback tools, and union work rules.
The use of web-based feedback is still a relatively new part of transit agency operations, and it is vital that employees are properly trained in this difficult field. There are three specific areas in which employees must be trained:
- Technical Skills - Without training in the technical operation of various tools, employees will be unable to use them to their full potential.
- Policies and Procedures - While it is common for agencies to have established systems for dealing with public comments, employees at all levels must be trained in how these policies carry over into the world of web-based feedback.
- Messaging and Tone - Web-based tools can be a powerful tool for connecting with riders. This also means that they are dangerous - problematic messaging and tone can harm the agency’s image. Avoid using social media solely to convey negative information like service alerts - one study has shown that this can increase negative customer interaction on Twitter.
Before even considering the specifics of online customer interaction, it is important to establish response timeframes. When a customer submits a comment or question to a form-based tool they should get an automated message letting them know that the response has been received and giving them an idea of how long they should expect to wait for a response, as well as how to track the complaints. In the case of social media, it should be made clear when various accounts are staffed as well as what the general timeframe for response is.
Public forums, including Facebook, offer their own challenges and opportunities. One fundamental strategy is to let conversations progress naturally. Online communities often self-police negative or nonconstructive comments more effectively than the agency can. If this hands-off approach doesn’t work, posting restrictions and simply posting new content to progress the conversation can be effective.
Like with traditional public comments, an agency can procure a lot of valuable information through web-based feedback. But for this information to be useful, it needs to be processed effectively. Comments should be sorted by factors like time-sensitivity, what party they came from, and what departments can best handle them. Because the systems that most agencies use to process customer comments predate web-based feedback, new tools are necessary to integrate new feedback sources.
Picking the Right Tools
Figuring out what web-based feedback tools to use can be intimidating. Not only are there many categories of tools with different functions, but the rate at which technology changes makes it difficult to decide at what point to adopt a new tool. It’s impossible to cover all the options, so here we’ll focus on four broad categories of tools and some specific examples: issue reporting, online public comment forums, customer research, and feedback management.
- Issue Reporting - One of the most important functions of web-based feedback is to let customers communicate service problems. This has traditionally been done through email or dedicated forms on the agency's website. More recently social media and apps like GORequest Mobile have provided new channels for issue reporting.
- Online Public Comment Forums - These sorts of tools allow the agency to get feedback on specific issues in a structured form, much like they would at a normal public meeting. Examples include the map-based platform PlaceSpeak and idea management tool IdeaScale.
- Customer Research - The internet provides myriad opportunities for conducting customer research. Google Forms is an example of a survey tool. Some off-the-shelf tools allow for conducting screened feedback panels, though agencies like New Jersey Transit and TriMet have chosen to make their own in-house tools.
- Feedback Management - Besides customer-facing applications, agencies should consider internal tools to manage feedback. Apps like Hootsuite and TweetDeck help manage social media, while services like ZenDesk provide more comprehensive customer support tracking.
A lot of online customer interaction can be done with free social media platforms, but other tasks require specialized tools. Depending on budget and goals, agencies can either purchase licenses for existing tools or have ones custom-developed. Custom tools can be tailored to work with an agency’s existing systems, but they can also be costly to create and maintain. Off-the-shelf tools are cheaper, but can be more limited in functionality. Both options are worth pursuing; an agency should interrogate exactly what functionality they are looking for and how much they can realistically afford to spend on the technology.
Tool Selection Guide
The TCRP report includes a detailed guide for deciding what web-based tools to use. The guide helps an agency identify its needs, then narrows down the choices based on tool features, and finally uses additional detail to help make the final decision.
The TCRP consulted a number of agencies in putting together a report on web-based feedback. Looking at one small, medium-sized, and large transit agency illuminates a number of clear takeaways when it come to the implementation of web-based feedback systems.
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro)
Metro is a very large agency, with more than 1.4 million weekday trips across a variety of modes in FY2012. The agency uses web-based tools to supplement a robust system of traditional rider engagement.
- Social media policy - Metro had no social media policy when it joined Facebook in 2011, and quickly ran into trouble. The marketing department deleted derogatory content from the page and were criticized for silencing criticism. Metro responded with a comment policy that clearly delineated what was and was not appropriate.
- Picking tools - Metro will typically create websites and social media profiles for new projects, and uses cost-benefit analysis to decide when other tools are useful. In one instance, Metro was planning a corridor project that covered too large an area to make in-person meetings accessible to all stakeholders. Interactive project maps and real-time webcasts allowed the agency to reach a larger community than would have otherwise been feasible.
- Analytical tools - Early feedback management at Metro involved manually created summary reports. This was too resource intensive, and eventually the agency adopted a combination of free and paid tools to manage social media posts and make them accessible to employees in different departments.
Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet)
Moving to a mid-sized agency, TriMet averaged 328,400 unlinked weekday trips in the Portland area in FY2012. The agency uses online tools to build community support and is working on developing a new feedback management system.
- Social media planning - Starting to use social media is a major commitment. TriMet went in without a plan and couldn’t back out when they felt overwhelmed. The agency created a plan that focused all department’s on the mission to provide clear, easy customer support.
- Agency image - TriMet wanted to be known as a customer-oriented brand. While social media helped connect, it also presented challenges. Unable to take complaints over Twitter, TriMet directed Twitter queries to an online form not optimized for mobile. This inconvenient system is harmful to agency image.
- Internal communications - TriMet decided to create a new system for operators to report safety issues that worked over agency intranet. The reports are visible across the system and automatically inputted into the agency’s customer feedback database. The move was so popular that TriMet began moving legacy paper reports to a similar system.
Denton County Transportation Authority (DCTA)
DCTA is much smaller than the other two agencies, with just 11,400 unlinked weekday trips in FY2012. The agency works in a tech-savvy community with a large student population, and uses digital tools to maximize the power of its limited staff.
- Extending resources - Web-based feedback doesn’t just help riders with internet access. Using online forms and the issue-reporting app GORequest reduces the strain on the agency’s phone help line, letting them more quickly serve customers who need to make calls.
- Different platforms, different audiences - DCTA has found that different online services help it reach different groups of riders. Facebook tends to be popular with baby-boomers, while college students are very active on Twitter.
- Improving service - Due to limited resources, DCTA only ran commuter rail during rush hour and into the evening. They saw that there was much more demand for service midday than in the evening, so they proposed altering service to move the later service earlier. While opponents of the move used social media to try to garner support, they were unsuccessful and DCTA was confident that moving the service would be better for more riders.
- Watkins, K.E., Xu, Y., Bregma, S., & Coffel, K. "Use of Web-Based Rider Feedback to Improve Public Transit Services." Transit Cooperative Research Program Report 179, 2015.
- Antrim, A. "Getting real about the utility of social media for public transit." 2013.
- Schweitzer, L. "Planning and Social Media: A Case Study of Public Transit and Stigma on Twitter." Journal of the American Planning Association, volume 80, 2014.
- This paper takes an in-depth look into the use of social media at a transit agency.
- This paper looks at Twitter messaging and shows how negativity on the part of the agency can elicit negative responses from customers.
- This research provides a comprehensive guide to web-based feedback practices, including explanations of various types of services and a detailed tool to help agencies decide what technologies to pursue.