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CX and Transit Ambassadors

Traditional design of transit services is often constrained at the start by what's available, politically acceptable, or convenient. A Customer Experience approach, however, is different. It starts with customer requirements and, instead of accepting practical or political constraints, it works to overcome constraints to build a quality customer experience.

Take, for example, transit ambassadors. A CX approach starts with understanding customer pain points and expectations, and designs the role of ambassadors to address these customer requirements, taking on difficult challenges along the way.

Sound Transit fare ambassadors

Often, ambassadors are deployed to help riders navigate transit, answer questions about fare payment, and/or offer to lend a hand to diverse riders with diverse needs like older adults, people with disabilities, or parents who may need help folding a stroller for example. These are important ambassador services, but many transit riders also want ambassadors to help them feel safe on transit, so it's important to know what safety-related-services riders would expect from ambassadors.

To understand rider expectations in your market, it is helpful to survey riders. For example, in 2021 LA Metro surveyed over 2,000 randomly selected riders to understand rider expectations about a new ambassador program. Riders were asked: "I am now going to mention a series of situations that METRO Transit Ambassadors may come across. Please tell me if you (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree) that METRO Transit Ambassadors should address the situation if they come across it."

(Note: * asterisks indicates that the results are based on a split sample, i.e. not all respondents were asked to rate the same items).

These results come from data weighted to reflect the ethnic makeup of LA Metro riders: 53% Latinx/Hispanic; 18% Black/African American; and 9% Asian/Pacific Islander. It is important to consider potentially diverse needs of diverse riders when it comes to CX issues, especially policing, but in the case of the LA Metro survey customers had broad expectations about what ambassadors should be able to address, and this was very consistent across all ethnicities as shown for example in this table:

Similarly, perspectives on the equipment ambassador should carry spanned all ethnic groups, with over 83% of riders wanting ambassadors to have radios, caution tape to seal off unsafe areas, gloves and trash bags, and Narcan. Support for ambassadors to have nightsticks, tasers, or pepper spray was lower but still enjoyed majority support across all ethnicities, with 62%, 66%, and 77% support, respectively. Guns, however, were favored by only 32% or respondents:

Expectations of ambassadors were quite consistent not only across diverse ethnicities, but also across gender, age, and income. Most transit riders expect ambassadors to help them feel safe on transit and to be equipped with protective devices, so it is important to define the ambassador role in a way that is responsive to these expectations. That could mean including security-related duties in the ambassador scope of work, and training and compensating them appropriately to reflect security-related duties. Or, alternatively, ambassadors could be deployed in a team configuration alongside security personnel - both to address rider security concerns and to help keep the ambassadors safe. Under this team model, a multi-disciplinary team might include an ambassador, a crisis intervention specialist to engage with people experiencing homelessness or cognitive crises, and a security representative. Teams could also include students who are studying medicine or social work.

Regardless of whether a team approach is used, it is important to consider the many situations the team will encounter, what customers expect and need in each situation, and to have clarity on the roles and responsibilities of each team member. The team will encounter riders who engage in behavior that is detrimental to the health or safety of other riders, and sometimes they will encounter individuals whose behavior is influenced by untreated addictions and/or mental health crises.

Take for example a situation in which a rider is playing loud music. Will customers expect an ambassador to ask the rider to address the issue? According to the survey, the answer is yes, more than three out of four riders somewhat or strongly agree that an ambassador should intervene. Loud music may annoy some riders and even cause ear pain in other riders with certain health conditions. Should the ambassador ask the music player to reduce the volume for the comfort of other passengers? Could the ambassador offer inexpensive ear buds to the music-playing rider so they can continue to listen to their music without impacting other passengers? At what point would security staff step in, and how can that happen without potentially escalating the situation?

As another example, suppose a rider is smoking a cigarette. As shown in a chart above, 83% of riders expect an ambassador to address smoking. An ambassador could say something like 'hey friend, would you mind putting that out and saving it for later so other riders don't feel uncomfortable?'

man smoking

As polite as the ambassador might be though, a smoker may not like being told what to do, so it's important to have security staff and a crisis intervention specialist nearby to step in to engage with the rider (or to protect the ambassador) if needed. Until the situation is resolved, other team members could offer to help customers move away from the smoker. They could even offer masks to riders who have lung conditions or who are sensitive to smoke.

Ambassadors or ambassador teams will encounter people experiencing homelessness, mental health and drug addiction who seek shelter on transit. Many of them may be victims of abuse, including domestic violence and elder abuse, veterans in need of support, or young people who have aged out of foster care. The challenge is to engage these individuals in a compassionate way, while at the same time maintaining a safe and hygienic environment for all riders.

Homeless individuals often need to ride transit to access services, visit family, or get to work. All paying customers have a right to ride as long as they don't interfere with the health or safety of other riders.

Ambassadors can offer to connect homeless individuals with shelter or services. While transit agencies have found that most homeless individuals do not accept initial offers of assistance, many individuals who shelter on the system are willing to voluntarily leave the system when asked. With the SEPTA SCOPE program in Philadelphia, for example, 70% of vulnerable individuals voluntarily leave the system when asked politely. Over time, with respect and patience, people in crisis may become more willing to accept offers of help, especially when engaged by people with "lived experience" who previously experienced homelessness and when the shelter is safe and convenient. In the meantime, though, if a transit system allows itself to become a de facto shelter, that is detrimental to the cleanliness and safety for other riders and undermines transit's ability to attract riders and get cars off the road.

In the many types of situations ambassadors encounter, how closely should security staff accompany ambassadors and crisis intervention specialists, and how will they communicate with each other? If security staff is too far away or ambassadors cannot communicate with them easily, security staff may not be able to deter violence or may not be able to step in quickly to protect an ambassador in the event of potential violence. On the other hand, if security staff is too close to other team members, code of conduct violations may escalate more frequently. The team will need to find a comfortable balance. Team members should have some flexibility to learn and refine their approach as they gain experience in the field and should meet regularly to discuss and debrief recent events.

In more serious scenarios, such as domestic violence or hate-motivated violence on transit, security staff may need to take the lead in deescalating the situation, while other team members offer assistance to victims and help riders who want to relocate away from the situation.

The team approach is attractive but there are issues to resolve to operationalize the concept. For example, transit security officers may be accustomed to patrolling in pairs for their safety and effectiveness. If security officers are instead deployed in a team configuration with ambassadors and crisis intervention specialists, it might be desirable to have just one security officer in a team of three. This warrants discussion with impacted employees to figure out a solution that everyone can accept. For example, maybe two interdisciplinary teams could move on the transit system in tandem and communicate with each other, each with one security officer. One team could work the front half of a train, while the other team works the back half. That way, a security officer can respond quickly if the other security officer needs backup.

Alternatively, a pair of security officers could stay together, but move in sync with ambassadors and respond quickly when needed. For example, under this scenario an ambassador team could work the front half of a train, while security officers patrol the back of the train (in train configurations where they can readily move from car to car). It may be helpful to define a response-time standard to guide how closely security should position themselves relative to ambassadors.

Clearly, there needs to be agreement on team member roles and chain of command for each type of scenario. In some cases, security staff should be in the lead, while in other cases a transit ambassador or crisis intervention specialist should take the lead. This requires a lot of detailed planning for the many scenarios a team might encounter, including:

  • Person Crimes

  • Property Crimes

  • Harassment – Sexual, Racial, Religious, or other type of harassment

  • Fighting – Verbal and Physical

  • Threatening behavior

  • Suspected human trafficking

  • Someone on the floor blocking the path

  • Laying down across multiple seats and blocking other customers from using them

  • Someone with extreme odor, or other unhygienic conditions

  • Person experiencing homelessness who may need assistance

  • Urination or defecation

  • Biohazards

  • Smoking

  • Loud Music

  • Illicit drug use

  • Drinking alcohol/inebriation

  • Violation of rules, like no eating or drinking

  • Fare Evasion

  • Littering

  • Spills or trip hazards

  • Fare evasion

  • Loud music

  • Medical issues

In each of these scenarios, it is important to start with an understanding of what customers want and expect from transit personnel on the scene, and design team member roles to address those customer needs. When I served as the Executive Officer for Customer Experience at LA Metro, I worked with community-based organizations and law enforcement professionals to talk through most of these scenarios, find creative de-escalation techniques, and define team member roles and responsibilities accordingly.

When agencies design ambassador programs, if they limit themselves at the start to what seems practical, they may be tempted to deploy ambassadors without teaming them with security officers or limit the ambassador security role to only serve as "eyes and ears" to report security issues they witness. This may seem like a sensible approach, but it can result in a disconnect with rider expectations and potential ridicule of the organization. For example, in 2021 building lobby staff in Manhattan were ridiculed after a video showed them failing to act while a violent hate crime was committed just outside. A transit ambassador program could be similarly ridiculed if riders expect ambassadors to intervene, but the ambassadors instead stand back, call security, and wait a long time for them to arrive.

man on cell phone

There are many perceived obstacles to mapping out an ambassador plan that is responsive to customers. Fellow transit staff may say 'we can't do that because...':

  • "We'd never be able to negotiate it with labor unions..."

  • "Our Board of Directors would never accept it..."

  • "Local advocacy organizations would criticize us..."

  • "That would require a change in state law and we don't want to go down that road..."

  • "We could never afford that..."

  • "Someone else should provide those services. It is their responsibility, not ours..."

Agencies may see these perceived obstacles as impossibilities rather than as challenges to be solved. Or agencies may take a traditional approach and give ambassadors a purely customer service role, then try to "educate" customers not to expect security assistance from ambassadors.

In contrast, instead of living with entrenched obstacles and "managing expectations," the CX approach starts with customer requirements and works to overcome obstacles to deliver what customers want and expect. This requires gumption to surmount what may seem impossible at first.

No matter how transit ambassadors are defined and deployed, training is essential in topics such as:

  • Customer service principles

  • Knowledge of routes, fares, and rules

  • Engaging People Experiencing Homelessness 

  • Conflict De-Escalation

  • Cultural sensitivity and avoiding unconscious bias

  • Disability awareness

  • LGBTQ sensitivity

  • Mental health

  • Data collection

  • Use of radios

  • Emergency procedures and protocols

  • Terrorism

  • Suicide Prevention

  • How to identify and respond to possible human trafficking

  • Staying safe

homeless man in train station, holding sign that says Seeking Human Kindness

One footnote: It is important to keep in mind that even a large number of ambassadors may be highly dispersed across many routes and shifts. Therefore, riders may not see ambassadors very often. As a result, it is important to encourage riders to report security issues or vulnerable persons in need, and to have a rapid-response network in place. Also, on buses, when ambassadors and security are not on board, bus operators often find that if they pull over the bus to a curb, perpetrators will often leave the bus voluntarily. In some cases, this could be the quickest way to keep riders safe.

Hopefully this blog post illustrates how a customer-centric design process can result in services much different than a traditional approach. Whether you are designing an ambassador program, digital wayfinding signs, or new buses, CX is a transformative concept for the transit industry that can better meet rider expectations and attract riders to transit systems.

Traditional Approach

CX Approach

Key parameters already decided at the start - e.g. place ambassadors into an existing job classification or outsource ambassador services to community organizations. Then the program is designed within these constraints.

Starts with understanding customer expectations of ambassadors, defines duties responsive to customer expectations, and considers who can best provide these services and what changes are needed to realize the ambassador vision.


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