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Texas Performance Review 
Capital Metro 
Chapter 8
 
Customer Service and Public Communications
In the 1990s, both the private and public sectors recognized the importance of focusing on the needs of the customer. In business, satisfied customers mean the difference between making a profit and closing the doors. Price, quality, selection, delivery time, and service are the factors that give one business the edge over another.

In the public sector, customers have fewer choices about who provides the services they need, and no choice about paying the bill in the form of taxes. In this environment, the quality of the governmental service must become the main focus.

Capital Metro's first job is to give its customers what they need-efficient, affordable, dependable transportation. The authority's efforts to provide high-quality customer service should extend beyond the Customer Service Section discussed in this chapter to every corner of the organization. This chapter discusses several ways in which the information developed from contacts with the public can be used to improve service for all of Capital Metro's customers.

In the past, the authority focused heavily on "image-building" (as evidenced by their former $1.8 million contract with a local public relations firm) and community relations, and much less on customer service. For fiscal 1998, however, the board cut the amount of money to be spent on public relations, and the interim general manager has shifted the authority's organizational structure to place the day-to-day needs and concerns of its customers first.

From summer 1997 through March 1998, Capital Metro's Communications Department administered the authority's government affairs, public information, community relations, and customer service functions through five sections: Government Affairs, Public Information, Community Involvement, Customer Service, and Advertising/Marketing.1 In March 1998, the general manager reorganized the department, retitling it Customer Service and Public Communications, and promoted the former manager of the Customer Service Section to manage the entire department. Government Affairs was raised to separate departmental status, reporting directly to the general manager, while Advertising/Marketing, which had managed the authority's contract with an advertising firm, was eliminated. Customer Service retained its status as a section, while the Public Information and Community Involvement sections now constitute the Public Communications Section.

The reorganization eliminated a total of five positions, including the positions of chief communications officer/director of Communications, an advertising promotion coordinator, a public relations specialist, and two community relations specialists. The department's budget was reduced by $451,079 to a combined fiscal 1998 budget of $1,465,526 ($572,406 for the Customer Service Section and $893,120 for the Public Communications Section).2

Staffing and functions-Customer Service

Customer Service responds to general inquiries regarding bus routes and schedules, performs customer trip planning, and accepts and disseminates customer comments. The section consists of 22 positions, including a customer service supervisor; two senior customer service representatives; 12 customer service representatives, including two part-time positions; a quality assurance representative; two customer service ticket/pass agents; a customer relations supervisor/technical support specialist; and three customer relations representatives.3 The ticket/pass agents sell transit bus tickets and passes to the general public from its Customer Service Center located in the downtown area; the customer service representatives answer general route and schedule information; and the customer relations representatives accept and disseminate customer comments, including complaints.

Staffing and functions-Public Communications

Public Communications' major responsibilities include community outreach initiatives and correspondence, media relations, press releases, newsletters, graphics, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, support of board advisory committees, maintenance of the authority's website, publication of the authority's schedule booklet, and transit advertising. The section has eight employees, including a senior community relations specialist, a community relations specialist, a public relations supervisor, a public information specialist, a graphics specialist, an accessible transportation specialist, an ADA transportation specialist, and an administrative secretary.4

TPR found that Capital Metro's response to customer complaints is unnecessarily slow, and that its tracking of consumer complaints does little to address or resolve the problems identified. TPR also learned that Capital Metro has attempted to build community support through the granting of donations and sponsorships to community organizations, a practice that is highly unusual for a transit authority and moreover is inadequately guided by written policies and procedures. Capital Metro has useful stores of data on its customers that could be used to improve its customer service, but these data are scattered among different departments and used ineffectively.

In this chapter, TPR makes recommendations that would improve Capital Metro's accountability to the public in handling complaints; suspend donations, sponsorships, and memberships to community and national organizations until and unless procedures are put in place to allocate them fairly; improve recordkeeping related to community contacts; and establish guidelines for all internal and external written communications.

In all, the recommendations in this chapter would save Capital Metro $20,000 in fiscal 1999 and $100,000 over the next five years.

PROPOSAL 40

Improve the authority's customer complaint responses and hold all department managers responsible for improved customer service.

Background

The Customer Service Section receives customer and public comments and complaints via telephone calls, mail or e-mail, and walk-ins. When a complaint is called into Customer Service, a customer relations representative attempts to resolve the customer's concern immediately.5 If this is not possible, the representative documents the customer's information in a Lotus Notes-based customer call report.6 The customer call report captures information such as the date of call or comment; the customer's name, address, and phone number; the date, time, and location of any incident described; and the actual comment or complaint.7 Complaints received via
e-mail are handled by the authority's website administrator who also is the senior community relations specialist.

After all of this information is entered, the customer relations representative determines which Capital Metro department is responsible for the incident that prompted the complaint or comment and routes the customer call report to that department's action officer.

Complaint responses

Every Capital Metro department delegates an action officer to respond to customer complaints concerning its operations.8 The action officer investigates the problem, takes appropriate action, and prepares a response. The response (a letter or telephone call) is entered into a computer and routed back to Customer Service. If the response is in the form of a letter, Customer Service edits and mails the letter to the customer.9 The customer service representative then performs a close-out of the customer call report, meaning the customer complaint has been resolved.

Often, the manner in which Customer Service receives a complaint determines how Capital Metro departments respond to it. TPR examined several customer call reports regarding complaints phoned into Customer Service. While these complaints were investigated and a response or "plan of action" was internally communicated via a form filled out by a supervisor, the complainant could not be informed of the response because he or she was not asked or did not choose to leave an address or telephone number. For example, one customer call report states that the caller "has been waiting for the Dillo to show up and it still is not there. Caller has waited since 1:20 p.m. and it is now 1:43 p.m. and still no Dillo. Caller stated that she has 3 classes of PRE-K children with her. Caller wants to know why this happened." This complaint was forwarded to the Dillo operator's supervisor who asked the operator about the incident and filled out a form accordingly. The operator commented that "he always leave[s] later than scheduled. He does not know how this passenger could have miss[ed] his bus if she was there." In the space for "plan of action/ recommendations," the supervisor wrote, "I will ask the...supervisor to monitor this location." The caller was not informed of this action since no contact information was captured.

Capital Metro's Purchased Transportation Department coordinates responses to complaints concerning contract transportation services such as DAVE Transportation, which provides UT shuttle services, and Greater Austin Transportation Company (GATC), which provides Teleride and certain van services.10 UT shuttle bus complaints are handled by the Customer Service Section first, distributed to DAVE for a response, and sent back to Customer Service for closeout. The contractor has access to Capital Metro's hardware and software to process complaints. Actual personal contact with customers is made by the contractor, however, and some customers who complain to Customer Service regarding purchased services are told to contact the contractor directly. 11

Other Texas transits have similar processes; the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Customer Service Department, for instance, has five customer response representatives who accept and disseminate complaints.12 These representatives, however, also mail out letters acknowledging receipt of complaints within two days.

The Houston Metro's Customer Service Section has a supervisor, four full-time customer service representatives, and one temporary employee.13 These representatives also receive and disseminate complaints to designated staff members in other departments. Responsibility for mailing out responses to customers, however, lies with the individual departments, rather than Customer Service. (Customer Service does, however, acknowledge receipt of customer e-mail.) Customer Service tracks responses by receiving all copies of letters sent to customers.

Customer comments

From October 1997 through March 1998, Capital Metro received 268 compliments from the public, an average of 44 per month. For the same period, Customer Service documented 2,777 complaints, an average of 462 per month. About 58 percent of those complaints (1,612) were about fixed-route service (regular bus lines); 16 percent concerned contract services such as DAVE and GATC; and 14 percent concerned the Special Transit Services (STS) Department, with the remainder divided among other services.14

Customer Service tracks and accounts for major categories of complaints, including discourteous behavior by bus drivers and administrators (the latter category work in STS only); hazardous bus operations; bus pass-bys (failures to pick up a rider at a designated stop); bus no-shows; dissatisfaction with the rules and procedures for riding the bus; and late buses. For October 1997 through March 1998, the most common fixed-route complaints were discourteous behavior by bus drivers (327); hazardous bus operation (196); and dissatisfaction with the rules and procedures for riding the bus (59). The top complaint categories for STS were scheduling (93), discourteous behavior by bus operators (45), and discourteous behavior by other staff members. GATC garnered 97 complaints for bus-no shows, 56 complaints for late buses, and 35 for discourteous behavior by bus operators.

Customer Service compiles all of these numbers into a monthly "Comment Analysis Report" that is distributed to department and project managers of Fixed Route, STS, and the GATC and DAVE contract transportation providers.15 TPR could find little evidence, however, that these reports are used to make substantive changes or improvements in its service.

Turnaround times

Capital Metro's customer complaint turnaround goal-the time in which a complaint must be answered and, if possible, rectified-is seven business days. The turnaround time for responding to complaints is calculated from the time the call is taken to the time the complaint is resolved.16 Houston Metro's turnaround goal, by contrast, is three to five working days, except for phone responses, which should be made within three working days; DART's turnaround goal is 10 days.17

In March 1998, complaint response turnaround time averaged six business days for fixed-route and STS complaints and two days for GATC-related complaints.18 Facilities Maintenance and DAVE Transportation (the UT shuttles) each averaged a four-day complaint turnaround. Capital Metro's overall turnaround time for complaints in March was five business days; its average turnaround time for October 1997 through March 1998, however, was 11 business days, with a high of 21 days in November and December 1997 and a low of three days in February 1998.

Capital Metro's seven-day complaint turnaround goal is sufficient, if somewhat lenient, given the average number of complaints per month. Some departments, however, consistently fail to meet even this generous goal. No incentives or penalties are attached to complaint resolution goals that would encourage and hold employees accountable for quality customer service.

Recommendations

A. The board should establish a policy mandating that complaints be processed and resolved within five business days.

The board should hold the general manager accountable for compliance with this policy. In turn, the general manager should evaluate all administrative managers and department directors against this standard. Requiring adherence to this policy would demonstrate a higher level of commitment to customer service. Department managers should document consistent noncompliance in employees' personnel files. This recommendation should be implemented no later than September 1, 1998.

B. The Customer Service and Public Communications Department should revise its monthly Comment Analysis Reports to include recommendations on policy and operational changes that could be made to respond to customer complaints. The revised monthly report should be circulated to the board, general manager, and department heads.

The current Comment Analysis Reports emphasize the numbers of complaints by type and response turnaround times, with no discussion of what can be done to resolve recurring complaints. This recommendation should be implemented no later than October 1, 1998.

C. The Customer Service and Public Communications Department should develop a periodic report card for the public that captures the information from the revised Comment Analysis Report, including its recommended remedies and an implementation status on recommended changes.

This report card would demonstrate the authority's commitment to customer service as well as public accountability. The availability of this report card should be publicized via the authority's website and other media forms such as public newsletters, and distributed at all public meetings, hearings, and special events. The authority should publish the information on a quarterly basis. This recommendation should be implemented no later than December 1, 1998.

Fiscal impact

These recommendations can be accomplished with existing resources.

PROPOSAL 41

Establish board policies for the fair allocation of donations and sponsorships to community and national organizations.

Background

To enhance community relations and customer service, Capital Metro provides cash donations and sponsorships to community groups and nonprofit organizations. The authority spent $80,984 in fiscal 1997 for these purposes. The recipients of these funds were all recognized community groups.

However, the use of taxpayer dollars for donations and sponsorships for community groups raised several troubling policy issues that must be addressed. In the first place, any such donations and scholarships should be awarded only through a fair, open, and formal process for soliciting grant applications from community groups. One also can question whether granting funds to community groups is the most effective way for Capital Metro to enhance its community relations. The final question is whether the mission of a transit authority includes spending local sales tax funds for general goodwill grants and sponsorships, no matter how worthy the recipients.

Need for a grant and sponsorship evaluation process

Capital Metro's staff and board have not developed written policies, procedures, or criteria for granting or donating funds to community groups. The authority has no formal process for soliciting applications for sponsorships, grants, or other cash donations.19 Without such a process, Capital Metro's funds are spent without a clear strategy or any expectation as to what the authority should accomplish.

The lack of a grant application and evaluation process also exposes the board to criticism from other nonprofit community groups that do not receive funds. A formal process could ensure that all community groups receive public notice and have a fair chance to apply for funding, and that Capital Metro selects only those applications that further its strategic plan and objectives.

Other community involvement techniques

Capital Metro has an active and visible community involvement program beyond its grants and donations. For example, the authority periodically sponsors special transit-awareness events and public comment sessions that are widely publicized by the media and on Capital Metro's website.

But Capital Metro lacks a focused strategic plan for involving individual citizens, neighborhood groups, and community groups in efforts to improve transportation throughout its service area. Without such a plan, the authority cannot determine whether or not its grants are an effective use of its funds.

The authority could take advantage of many other ways of garnering community input on transportation services. For example, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has developed a 225-page document listing 131 specific techniques for involving and communicating with the public.20 These include the use of advisory committees and task forces; special efforts to gather input from the disabled; special techniques for involving low-income groups; the use of mailing lists and telephone surveys; and public work sessions such as focus groups and public mediation sessions. It is noteworthy that none of the techniques recommended by the FTA involve blanket donations, sponsorships, or grants.

Use of tax revenues for cash grants

Capital Metro's primary mission is to provide transit services to the greater Austin area. To accomplish this, Capital Metro levies a sales tax that provides most of its budget. One can legitimately question whether a transportation authority should be in the business of providing grants, no matter how worthy the cause. Community groups have many other avenues of funding, including private donations, fundraising, and memberships, as well as assistance from local, state, and federal agencies that are specifically in the business of providing such grants.

Capital Metro made 38 payments totaling $80,984 to community groups in fiscal 1997. The actual total may be higher; Capital Metro's bookkeeping involves conflicting and confusing expense account categories, and grants to community groups are not specifically disclosed in Capital Metro's annual budgets. The full extent of Capital Metro's community sponsorships and grants is hard to determine since the payments are made by several departments and are not disclosed as separate line items in the budget submitted to the board.

Capital Metro's new board is aware of some of these expenditures, and has recently reduced the budget for community grants. Out of the $80,984 known to have been paid to community groups in fiscal 1997, $29,498 (36 percent) was spent by the Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBE) Department. In the board's March 1998 budget, DBE's budget for community group sponsorships was reduced by almost half, to $14,850.21 However, the budget documents provide no indication that the board intends to make similar reductions in other departments.

Other Texas transit authorities' practices

According to a Texas transit consultant interviewed by TPR, the provision of grants, donations, and sponsorships is not a standard practice in other Texas transit systems. This was confirmed when TPR contacted two other major Texas transit authorities, Houston Metro and Dallas' DART. Houston Metro does not give cash donations to organizations. A senior budget analyst with Houston Metro stated that if a donation is given as a gift for no value returned, the payment may risk being in violation of state law. Houston Metro does occasionally provide bus services to community organizations for special events. Even then, Houston Metro has a set policy on how to manage these requests and asks the beneficiary to bear at least a third of the costs.22 DART does not make cash donations of any kind.23

Need for detailed advance disclosure

Finally, while most of the $80,984 paid in 1997 went to local community groups, one payment was for the national sponsorship of a rail policy meeting held in Washington, D.C. The following case provides a clear example of the need for greater advance disclosure in budget-setting for sponsorships, and donations.

On October 11, 1996, Capital Metro paid $10,000 to become one of the top cosponsors of a national rail conference.24 Only ten other organizations contributed funds to sponsor this event, including Amtrak, the FTA, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the Environmental Protection Agency, and transit authorities from Denver, Colorado and Portland, Oregon. Given that Capital Metro does not even have a commuter rail system, it is difficult to justify its use of local taxpayer dollars for a high-profile sponsorship of a national rail workshop. "General goodwill" sponsorship payments such as this make little sense unless they fit a clear strategy and can be expected to produce tangible results to the people of the Austin area.

Recommendations

A. The board should suspend all payments of donations, sponsorships, and grants until it adopts written policies and procedures governing these payments.

Without formally adopted policies and procedures, the board could face criticism from other nonprofit community groups who do not receive donations and sponsorships from Capital Metro. These payments should be discontinued immediately until such policies are adopted by the Board. In addition, Capital Metro's legal counsel should review past payment practices and prepare a written determination to the board on whether any past payments may have been in violation of state laws.

B. The board should adopt policies, criteria, and an evaluation process for fairly and openly allotting donations and sponsorships to community groups and nonprofit organizations.

The board should adopt policies and procedures to guarantee the fairness and legality of allocations among community groups; the effectiveness of the use of taxpayer dollars to involve community groups; and the appropriateness of using taxpayer dollars for general grants to nonprofit groups. These policies should include both cash donations and donations of transportation services. The board also should establish a goal to reduce these payments by at least 30 percent.

The board should discuss these issues with staff and the public and enact final policies no later than December 1, 1998.

C. The board should direct the general manager to establish a single expense and budget category containing all amounts for sponsorships, grants, and donations so that these may be disclosed to the board before approval of the annual budget.

All such disbursements should be charged to a single expense category in the accounting records so that they can be readily tracked and disclosed to the general manager, the board, and the public.

Fiscal impact

In fiscal 1997, Capital Metro spent $80,984 for donations, grant and sponsorships to community and national organizations. The board's fiscal 1998 budget has already reduced the Disadvantaged Business Enterprises Department budget for community group sponsorships by $14,648. If the board reduces future payments by another 30 percent, this would yield annual savings of approximately $20,000.

Fiscal Year Savings
1999 $20,000
2000 20,000
2001 20,000
2002 20,000
2003 20,000


PROPOSAL 42

Update lists and databases of community and customer contacts.

Background

The Public Communications Section has extensive databases of community and customer contacts it uses to develop labels for mailouts of informational letters and newsletters. Its databases include members of neighborhood and community organizations, representatives of the business community and railroad firms, and members of the community at large. Names and addresses in the databases are compiled from lists of attendees at presentations, public meetings, and hearings; advisory committee participants; comments received by Customer Service; and the City of Austin's Community Registry.25 The databases are updated quarterly by Public Communications.

Outdated and unconsolidated data

Capital Metro's constituency and customer service mailing lists are outdated and generally in poor shape. TPR found them completely unusable for developing simple mailout surveys. Moreover, key data that would help Capital Metro target its services have not been collected. For example, Public Communications does not maintain a database that can identify riders who have contacted the authority. (Customer Service, however, is purchasing an automated trip planning software that will assist with the identification of riders.) While the various lists currently maintained inevitably include some customers of Capital Metro's services, no database is entirely composed of customers.

Public Communications also lacks a comprehensive listing of all contact lists maintained by other Capital Metro departments. For example, the Alternative Transportation Operations Section maintains a database of Austin-area employers and other useful contacts, but these data are not consolidated or accessible by Public Communications.

Recommendations

A. Public Communications should identify and consolidate all customer data from all Capital Metro departments.

This recommendation would form a more comprehensive database for Public Communications' public outreach efforts.

Public Communications should collect electronic lists of customers and stakeholders from all other Capital Metro departments. Upon receipt of this information, Public Communications should incorporate the lists into a new combined database and eliminate duplicate listings. Public Communications then would be responsible for maintaining this database for the authority. This task should be completed no later than October 1, 1998.

B. Public Communications should conduct an annual purge and update of its existing customer databases and mailing lists.

Fiscal impact

These recommendations could be accomplished with existing resources.

PROPOSAL 43

Establish guidelines for all internal and external written communications.

Background

The Customer Service and Public Communications Department is responsible for most of Capital Metro's correspondence with the general public. The Public Communications Section drafts and disseminates press releases, schedule changes, event invitations, newsletters, and various responses to public requests for information. Customer Service responds to customer complaints and also edits and disseminates responses to customer complaints drafted by other departments.

Inconsistent correspondence

TPR's review of examples of correspondence drafted by Public Communications revealed inconsistencies regarding style, tone, and format. For example, versions of one letter sent to several different Capital Metro constituencies contained essentially the same information but featured different formats, font sizes, and styles. It becomes difficult to tell what an official letter from Capital Metro looks like.

While the Customer Service Section has established and distributed guidelines for the contents of customer complaint response letters, Public Communications has no such guidelines.26 The section's business plan for 1997-1998 includes a strategy to "establish editing/proofing guidelines to be applied to all written information"; however, the stated objective of the strategy is "to maintain and improve...internal communications with all levels of the Authority."27 The section has no such objectives, goals, or strategies for its external customers.

Recommendation

The Public Communications section should draft a correspondence style guide for the authority. The general manager should approve and enforce adherence to the guide.

At minimum, the style guide should define any incoming mail or mailings to be deemed priority mail; describe the authority's preferred style and tone for external and internal correspondence, including capitalization, punctuation, and titles, names, and salutations; establish letter format guidelines and samples; and include editing and proofing tips. Public Communications should complete this draft by September 1, 1998.

Fiscal impact

The fiscal impact of this recommendation would consist of a minimal cost to print the manual.


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