On a day like today, when extreme heat is expected to cause delays on several of SEPTA’s service routes, conversations with customers tend to get a little hectic. When they do, the staff of SEPTA’s social team is on the front lines of 140 character customer service, ready to respond.
"People get upset, and rightfully so sometimes, and this is an outlet for people to ram and just let off steam," assistant general manager for customer service Kim Scott Heinle said.
"As part of our overall commitment to customer service, we realized that with social media becoming more and more vital to our riders and our demographic, we needed to be able to reach out to them through different channels. We felt that creating a Twitter presence seemed to be the best way to go about that.”
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SEPTA Social is a customer service initiative that uses social media to address riders’ concerns. The initiative began on Facebook in 2011 and expanded to Twitter earlier this year.
Today, riders took to Twitter with complaints about lack of air conditioning on certain buses and trains.
Twitter user @itanyeri tweeted, “@SEPTA commuters pay so much money every month! To get what? bus with no functioning #airconditioning? Shame on you @SEPTA!”
Another user @terilyns68 tweeted, “omg we have no air on this train!!"
James Siler is one of five customer service gurus who respond to these kinds of tweets on the @SEPTA_SOCIAL Twitter account and inquiries on SEPTA’s Facebook page. The team responds directly to customers’ comments, concerns and questions from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.
Despite customer complaints, Siler says he enjoys engaging with customers on Twitter.
“They’re not all that bad. I actually think being on the phone is worse in a way. As far as bad attitudes, well there’s a new one every week. We had one the day before yesterday; a woman was very displeased with a detour and she was just bombarding us with tweets. But we stayed calm, we looked into the issue and we took care of it,” he said.
“I think it’s good though because, number one, it gives riders insight into how things work. If you don’t know how the system works and what goes on behind the scenes, and the issues that go on, you just assume it should be how it is listed on the schedule with no deviations. With the extreme heat we have potential for delays, so it’s good to educate people on what affects our delays. To my surprise, people are very receptive to that and they just want to know what’s going on.”
Since January, the @SEPTA_SOCIAL account has drawn more than 2,000 followers and is gaining about 50 to 75 new followers per week. To date, the social team has sent out nearly 12,000 tweets.
Siler says responding to inquiries on the fly can be challenging.
“It definitely keeps me on my toes. It’s instantaneous; the tweets come in, the Facebook questions come in and the challenge is always answering it as quickly as possible. And sometimes it’s a lot of information so we really have to scramble to get the right information to the riders as quick as possible,” he said.
Aside from the challenge of having to respond to inquiries quickly, SEPTA’s social team also has the added task of responding in less than 140 characters as Twitter requires. Heinle said younger guys on the team like Siler are much better at it than he is.
“Very early on, when I was crafting tweets, I was rambling on too much. But the three guys that we selected are really good at that. We sat down and discussed it as a team and I let them know that I wanted it to be -- not like a traditional customer service -- it’s a lot more spontaneous, a lot more casual, but still professional and sometimes snarky when needed,” Heinle, pictured on the right, said.
“It can be difficult at times. We try to make it as grammatically presentable as possible but we will sometimes have to substitute the number 2 for the letters t-w-o and sometimes we even Google abbreviations to make it fit,” Siler said.
SEPTA also has a channel on YouTube and Heinle says discussions about expanding the social initiative are underway.
“We're starting to look at Instagram for presence, but we do have a YouTube channel that we're trying to develop more and we're constantly looking for new channels to communicate with our riders.”