Transit Comfort Begins with Great Customer Service

There’s a story that’s popular in business schools.

A blizzard in the California Sierras had knocked out all communications and deliveries to customers of a California FedEx office. Unable to meet the company’s “absolutely, positively delivered overnight” guarantee, a junior FedEx staffer, without approval of his managers, rented a helicopter (charging it on his personal AmEx card) to get power restored to his office and package deliveries recommenced.

The story of this employee’s initiative spread throughout the company, the industry, and to potential customers. The FedEx employee’s efforts were rewarded by management, who saw his risk-taking as exactly the kind of culture the company was trying to instill in its employees. The story has now become business-school lore as an example of how to create a company culture that values initiative and customer service. It cemented FedEx’s reputation in the industry, and reaped long-term rewards far in excess of the short-term costs associated with this employee’s decisions.

Cut to: A different U.S. coast, years later. Arlington County Commuter Services (ACCS), the county bureau responsible for transportation demand management (TDM) in Arlington, Virginia, promotes a corporate culture that is similar to FedEx’s in many ways (as I’ve outlined in a previous story), including a commitment to customer service and a willingness to take risks and experiment.

CommuterDirect, the ACCS organization that sells transit tickets and passes online, recently had a customer-service story that seems right out the FedEx handbook.

I’ll let Todd Cowman, a manager at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, one of CommuterDirect’s customers, tell the story in his own words. This was an email he sent to Ron Ison, CommuterDirect’s manager.

“Mr. Ison, as a manager, I am fully aware of the often negative comments that are received regarding staff actions and performance. I want to make you aware of a very positive action I received from one of your employees, Denise Braxton. I recently arrived in Washington and applied for my first SmarTrip card. Last Monday, I received e-mail notification of the shipping notice and that is was being delivered priority mail so I should have it by Wednesday. When the card did not arrive by Thursday, I called your office.

During the conversation, Ms. Braxton provided me with the tracking number, then told me she would watch delivery notices. When I had not received it on Friday, I called her back and she said she would meet me to provide the card. Since I am not familiar with the transit system, I asked her to meet at L’ Enfant. While leaving work, she called to let me know she was on her way and gave me her cell number to ensure I knew who was calling. She arrived approximately 20 minutes later and provided the card. Not only was this accomplished on her own time, but on a Friday evening after work. I am certain she went out of her normal travel schedule just to ensure I received the card.

I am very thankful for what she did and hope you will recognize her efforts that are extremely above and beyond what almost any other staff member would consider. Thank you.”

Chris Hamilton, ACCS’s bureau chief, told me, “This is an example of the kind of service CommuterDirect is providing every day.” (Ison, it should be noted, has indicated that Braxton would probably be compensated for her efforts to make a customer happy on her own dime.)

When it comes to TDM, or really any endeavor focused on customer service, a powerful story like this can help create a culture in which employees feel empowered to deliver great and often unexpected results. More importantly, this kind of story can cement your organization’s reputation as a leader in its field.

As for CommuterDirect, it isn’t suffering. It sold $4.63 million in transit passes and fares in January 2015. Customer service, it seems, really does pay off.

Photo by the author.

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