Implementing Customer Service Training

When Maureen Heath, as the manager of service delivery at London Transit in Ontario, volunteered to be the chair of the Canadian Urban Transit Association Transit Ambassador Redevelopment Task Force in 2006, she wasn’t thinking about the long video shoot days and she most definitely wasn’t prepared for the disruption that weeks of filming would have on her work schedule. “It was a lot of fun though, and I’m really proud of the training program we have created. We set out to make something that was flexible, affordable and modern — and we did.”

The original Transit Ambassador Customer Service Training Program was developed by a task force of CUTA 20 years ago in response to the growing demand for customer service in the industry. By 2006, it had become evident that the standards of customer service excellence in all industries had been raised over the past two decades and the riding public expected more. The 41-member Transit Ambassador Redevelopment Task Force, lead by Heath, accepted the challenge to modernize the original program in content and context, as well as in training methodology, while still maintaining the principals that made the program an industry standard.

The result is a 13-module program comprised of four core modules that are recommended for all agencies and nine supporting modules that can be added depending on the current training and organizational needs of the transit system. Supporting modules include “Special Needs Situations,” “Customer Service: Inside and Out” for non-frontline employees, and “The Customer Focused Organization” for supervisory and management staff. Each module can be delivered in an extended three-and-a-half-hour version or the two-hour condensed version. Transit system trainers participate in a five-day intensive Train-the-Trainer program to learn about the new Transit Ambassador program and to hone their facilitation skills.

Since its launch in 2007, the program has been taken up by new and existing subscribers across North America. They are all taking advantage of the flexibility aspect of the program in their implementation strategies. The following are four examples of how transit systems are using the program to meet their own unique situations and requirements.

London Transit
Andy Hynes is the director of human resources at London Transit, a 190-bus, 350-operator system. It decided to use the Transit Ambassador program to meet a specific need companywide and spent significant time preparing for implementation. Hynes explains, “We identified the need for broader diversity training at London Transit — historically we have done specific in-house

training on policies and procedures. So we first created a diversity committee comprised of various sections of the workforce, representing different groups.

“Coincidentally, the ‘Diversity in Transit’ module of Transit Ambassador was being developed at the same time. London Transit was one of the first groups to bring the diversity module on board. We had our diversity committee and our senior management team look at it and have a run through the program with a CUTA Master Trainer. Both groups were excited about the training because it really fit the bill. We looked at other diversity training, and there are a lot of products on the market, but Transit Ambassador had the transit link that we didn’t see in other programs.” 

After London Transit settled on Transit Ambassador, it was time to roll it out. Hynes explains, “We started delivery of the ‘Diversity in Transit’ module with all employees, from long-time operators to employees in administration and from the garage. The training is broad enough so that it’s accessible to all staff.

“The feedback has been very positive. It gets the point across in a way people can relate to. Our trainer really likes the module, especially the flexibility. We had the option and went with the two-hour version. It covers all our occupational groups, not just focusing on operators.”

Brampton Transit
Brampton Transit is a two-facility system in the Greater Toronto Area in Ontario with 185 buses and 550 employees. Brampton Transit was an original Transit Ambassador subscriber and decided to implement the new program, blending it with its other existing training programs.

Laurie Leece, Brampton Transit’s supervisor of training and safety, says, “The reason we chose Transit Ambassador was the flexibility of the program and the high quality of customer service it would allow us to provide.” 

Brampton Transit used the flexibility of the program to integrate it into its existing courses. Leece explains, “We use Transit Ambassador training with both new hires and experienced operators. We deliver the four core modules to new hires: ‘The Essentials of Customer Service,’ ‘Effective Communication,’ ‘Managing Customer Feedback’ and ‘Managing Stress.’ They provide a great segue for a corporate conflict resolution program we have developed and they lead in very well to what we already have. For refresher training we use the condensed version of ‘The Essentials of Customer Service’ blended with our in-house materials. For the future we are looking at bringing in the ‘Advance Customer Service Module for the Experienced Operator’ for refresher training.

“What the trainers find so valuable is that they can split the program up so it doesn’t have to be delivered in one big block. They can break it up between driving and other training. They also appreciate the ease of use and the current, firsthand examples and experiences the program introduces — it’s something the trainers and the operators can relate to.”

Brampton Transit also took advantage of the professional development opportunities for its trainers. Leece states, “The Train-the-Trainer program was very valuable for our trainers. It was very professional and I can see them now putting on their ‘Transit Ambassador’ hat. They’re very proud of themselves for the accomplishment of certifying as a Transit Ambassador facilitator and they have been recognized for it.”  

At Brampton Transit, it has seen positive results from Transit Ambassador at both the anecdotal and statistical levels. “We brought in one of our ‘problem’ operators with one of the highest complaint records for Transit Ambassador training. Later, during a ride-around the supervisor witnessed this operator handle an irate passenger very well,” Leece says. “Because of the customer service training he received, I think he handled it much better than he would have without.” 

At Brampton Transit, they realize that for any training initiative to be successful, it needs to be an integral part of other organizational efforts. “We incorporated Transit Ambassador into our operational performance management plan to reduce customer complaints. As part of an organization-wide effort to improve customer service, Transit Ambassador has helped decrease customer complaints in the last year,” says Leece.

Sound Transit
The Transit Ambassador program was referred to Sound Transit, a multi-modal transit agency in Seattle, Wash., by another organization when it was looking for training for its newly hired station attendants. The agency had its ‘internal ducks’ in a row, but because of the short time frame required to roll out the training, it decided to bring in a CUTA Master Trainer to deliver the program. The agency used the four core modules plus, to address specific needs in the organization, selected ‘Effective Announcements,’ ‘Difficult Situation’ and ‘Dangerous Situations.’   

Sue McKim, project coordinator at Sound Transit, says, “The Transit Ambassador program is excellent; the videos and all the materials are very realistic and helpful in getting across to new employees the experience they are going to encounter on a daily basis. It is right-on and resonates with our staff. The program is very effective in that it shows actual situations of what employees are going to encounter across the range, from day-to-day encounters to difficult and dangerous situations; from everyday conflict like a customer running late to a situation when an employee might experience a harassment event.” 

McKim was pleased with her decision to bring in a CUTA Master Trainer to directly facilitate the training with Sound Transit staff. “The Master Trainer who delivered the program was a superb facilitator. The depth and breadth of experience was evident and he was able to deliver the customer service training that we didn’t have the experience to provide in-house.

“The program is very professional, very useful; I was very impressed. We used it with our station attendants, but the program is easily transferable to any position. The quality and development of the program make it transferable.”

McKim summarizes, “Providing the customer service piece brings new customers and keeps existing customers coming back.” She’s planning to take the Transit Ambassador Train-the-Trainer course herself later this year.

West Coast Express
Kyla Daman-Willems is the marketing and customer service supervisor at West Coast Express, a commuter rail service in Vancouver, B.C. Daman-Willems has experience with the original program and is also trained as a facilitator in the new Transit Ambassador.

She explains, “West Coast Express opened in 1995 using the Transit Ambassador program and we’ve seen the benefits over the years. It has excellent key core values that are easy to understand. They are not designed to intimidate — they are written in plain English so it ‘travels’ well. We’ve trained train crews, frontline staff, cleaners and maintenance crew — there’s something for everyone.

“We now use the four core modules in a two-day program for a mix of experienced staff and new hires. Because with the Transit Ambassador program the trainer is facilitating rather than instructing, the experienced staff have an opportunity to contribute in a genuine way what they have experienced and it gives credibility to the training session.” 

Daman-Willems has had the benefit of attending a Train-the-Trainer program and knows the new program well. She says, “I love the new materials — it’s important that they look current. It’s well set-up and we can pick what we need to focus on. For example, we don’t have policy issues here, so we pull that section out. The flexibility of the program lets us start and stop when we need to. Plus, the new materials are so much more portable, more adaptable. The master participants’ workbook included with each module makes it easy for us to print our own booklets so we don’t have to worry about ordering materials. I was amazed how easy the materials were to use and how little time it took me to become confident using them. I was good-to-go the very first time.”

West Coast Express is starting to see the results of the new program. Daman-Willems says, “The day after one of our Transit Ambassador training sessions, we had major delays in our service. Subsequently, one of our experienced rail staff phoned me to thank me for the training. He admitted, ‘I was suddenly more aware of our passengers. I remembered to make announcements to keep them informed and to look them in the eye, smile and say I’m sorry. It made the situation so much easier.’”      

Formulating an Implementation Plan
When making decisions about your customer service training implementation, there are many factors to consider:

How much time can we budget for this training?

What are our most pressing organizational needs?

Who needs training?

Are there any compliance issues that need to be addressed with this program?

Are we introducing totally new customer service training topics or are we replacing all existing material?

Will the new training complement our existing materials or will it overlap?

Do we have the skills in-house to deliver this training, or should we bring the expertise in?

Does anything need to be added to or removed from the new material to make it more appropriate for our system?

How does it link to our recruitment process and performance management system?

What are the financial and operational costs of running this program and of not running it?

Don’t forget to look to other transit systems for suggestions. It’s immensely useful to see other implementation plans to help shape your own. When you have the answers to these questions, you’ll be ready to start customizing your own customer service training program.

Sharlene Mitchell is the acting director of education and training for the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

More Related Information:
Archived Article: Operator Training
Archived Article: Manager’s Forum — Training Operators
Archived Article: Driving Risk Out of Your Transit Fleet
Mass Transit Buyer’s Guide: Training, Testing Services