Communication, not technology, determines the satisfaction with transit systems
It is a rarity in the mass transit technology market when we strike up a conversation with a potential customer, and they sing the praises of their current ITS vendor. Let me say it another way—transit operators aren’t happy with their tech partners. According to our annual transit agency surveys, more than two-thirds are less than thrilled.
The oddest part of this conversation is just how seldom their complaints don’t center on the technology itself but rather the quality of the after-sales support they receive—or lack thereof. You read that right; their issues are seldom with the product. The technology, for the most part, works fine. It’s the relationship with their vendor that has them pursuing new systems.
So, what have transit operators so chaffed with the quality of their support? In general, the complaints we here typically fall into one of the following three categories:
- Time to resolution
- Frequency of interaction
It’s a shame when the reason for severing a relationship and introducing tumult to their operations, staff, and riders has nothing to do with the performance of the technology itself. After all, technology IS supposed to highlight the vendor/client relationship. Right?
What are the elements of a quality support experience?
Just as the technology on vehicles is a science, so is the art of supporting the client and product. ITS systems are complicated, with many moving parts, including hardware, software, configuration, and data components. As rigorously tested as these systems are, one errant setting or faulty component can kick off an intensive troubleshooting effort to narrow down the cause.
So how does one turn complexity into a recipe for success?
—A spirit of partnership
The first consideration we address is that both vendor and customer must dedicate themselves to the support process. It’s a two-way street, and the client needs to understand their role in the performance of their technology; this includes:
- Performing routine maintenance
- Providing detailed information for troubleshooting
- Being proactive and vocal about the issues they experience
Without that level of client-side participation, the support process can drag out far longer than anticipated and lead to frustration on both sides.
Similarly, the vendor must actively support their product, providing routine progress updates, delivering on all promises made, and keeping their customers well-educated and informed. When something goes wrong, customers want to know that their concern has been addressed. They don’t want to submit a support request or question only to have days or weeks pass before any sort of reply is received—or worse yet, no response at all.
Both sides must understand that the ownership experience requires that they join at the hip, with each entity supporting the other in as diligent and thorough a manner as possible.
—Training and education
ITS systems, like ETA’s SPOT™ platform, are complex. Though much of the intricacy takes place behind the scenes and is never exposed directly to the customer, the need for formalized and ritual training is essential.
Too often, the only training that a customer receives is at the launch of a new transit system. As the system evolves or employees transition to new opportunities, a gap between what was and what is forms, and the relevancy of that initial instruction become less relevant.
Vendors must bake supplemental education into every technology deployment, including identifying the right cadence for “booster” training or situational instruction for new hires or when new features join the ITS solution. An online, self-service database is helpful for self-guided learning, and a guided program must be part of the process to ensure effective instruction.
An additional consideration is to ensure that the training focuses on the systems relevant to the individual role or group function. To train the entire staff of a transit operation is pure folly if one expects employees to be able to identify which information is critical to the performance of their jobs. It’s normal for people to become inattentive, tired, and distracted when they feel disconnected from the source material.
Role-based instruction is hyper-focused, relevant education based on the needs of a specific subset of transit staffers, e.g., drivers, dispatchers, planners, etc. This education approach delivers only the materials needed for that group to perform their tasks effectively. The staff learns high-level concepts about how their role fits into the larger picture and takes a deep dive into the technology and features they will use in their day-to-day tasks. The result is a more relevant, more precise training that encourages participation and retention.
—Responsive input and feedback
The answer to this question is far more nuanced than one would think. Transit technology—especially software—are complicated. It can take time to research an issue before a solution presents itself. Responsiveness by the client can go a long way to speeding up the process, but it isn’t the only factor.
From a client’s standpoint, they want the system to work as designed. The “what and how” of the situation is often of little concern. They are, after all, transportation professionals—not software engineers. A client wants their vendor to be a partner in not only the performance of the system but the success it delivers to their operation.
From a vendor standpoint, a responsive customer takes an active interest in providing timely feedback to the original inquiry. Have they performed the troubleshooting steps? Is the information they provide to the original or follow-up communications detailed and complete—or is it highly generalized, like “the mobile data terminal doesn’t work.”
Both sides want a timely answer to the questions asked in most cases. It’s an observation that hardly falls within the realm of rocket science, but one that seems to be a common tripping point and trigger for a great deal of angst between agency and supplier.
This reality is often the source of a great deal of friction between customer and vendor, which makes responsiveness even more critical to communicating the status of the concern and setting realistic expectations for a resolution.
—Frequency of interaction
The human factor is an essential and often overlooked aspect of the client/customer relationship. Consider for a moment the procurement process. In the beginning, contact is frequent. Sales representatives are attentive and in constant contact while negotiating the sale. Once signed contracts exist, the communication escalates further as the implementation teams coordinate with agency teams to finalize system design, schedule implementation, and conduct training. Once the vendor turns over the golden keys to the new technology, the vendor turns their attention to the next opportunity, and the shock of silence settles in. The transit operator is left to use the system.
Speaking from the vendor viewpoint, this is the natural evolution of procurement. From the customer standpoint, however, the abrupt cessation of activity following the completion of a project can leave agencies feeling adrift; a “you got my money, and now you’re leaving?” situation.
It’s not uncommon for technology vendors to see “no news” as “good news” when past projects are concerned. A neglected customer risks becoming an unhappy client, so it is of little surprise that they pursue higher-quality relationships at the contract end. Keeping those relationships strong and proactive with customer communication long after that initial flurry of activity becomes vital.
Providing quality customer service isn’t some uncrackable mystery. It’s rooted in common sense. If you are a client unhappy with your vendor, it’s probably time to pick up that phone and let your vendor know. If you’re a supplier, you had better take that call—or better yet, run through your list of accounts and touch base with those customers you haven’t spoken to in a while. Run through the list of concerns. Clear the air. Compare expectations to performance and set goals for measurement. At some point, both sides were ecstatic about this joint project—and it’s possible to reclaim that excitement. Try again to find common ground where communication becomes the norm; not the exception that only happens when conflict drives the discussion. It changes the tone from “this isn’t working” to “how can we resolve this together.”