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CXO Profiles: Russ Arnold, Sound Transit

Welcome to the first in a series of profiles of transit Customer Experience leaders. Today, I am featuring Russ Arnold, newly promoted Deputy CEO of Service Delivery at Sound Transit in Seattle Washington. With two decades in marketing and branding including stints at four transit agencies, Russ felt a calling to go beyond just branding to actually "deliver the brand" by improving the experience of transit riders. That meant not only making transit dependable, safe, and clean, but also simple, seamless and intuitive.

In his previous role as Sound Transit's Chief Passenger Experience (PX) and Innovation Officer, Russ and his team collaborated with designers and architects to start with passenger needs and work backwards. They used survey data to create "personas" who reflect diverse transit riders and conducted exercises that had everyone put themselves in the personas' shoes. This process created change, for example a redesign of a new Federal Way Transit Center to reduce pedestrian/vehicle interactions. It also led to redesign of Sound Transit wayfinding. Inspired by a trip to Hong Kong, Russ and his team revamped signage to reflect the simplicity of how train station exits were identified in Hong Kong. Russ also led the charge to adopt universal design principles, recognizing that designing for those who have the greatest need improves transit for all. With this kind of PX work, Russ aimed to add value to existing processes rather than just act as a gadfly to advocate for passengers.

One of Russ's objectives has been to bring PX into the design process early to avoid the cost to rework designs late in the process. His team also initiated a new process for "Passenger Care Plans" for large events or planned service disruptions, anticipating customer needs and deploying resources to address them. This required greater lead time for events to allow more time to plan mitigations and communications. And for passengers most impacted by service disruptions or surge ridership events in the system, Russ would often deploy teams to provide direct passenger support in the field. For example, when a recent Taylor Swift Concert drew service away from Mariners baseball fans, Russ deployed teams to redirect riders to alternate services and thank them for their patience by distributing free-ride cards.

PX became especially important during the COVID pandemic, challenging Russ and other Sound Transit leaders to rethink service priorities and even improved air flow and filtration on transit vehicles. This resulted in higher air flow and filtration standards for upcoming vehicle orders.

Another area of focus has been to go beyond traditional transit metrics such as mean time between service delays and create passenger-centric metrics that reflect how well the system is working in terms of safety, cleanliness, accessibility, dependability, passenger information, and other reflections of convenience and comfort. Russ's team conducts passenger satisfaction surveys twice a year, supplemented by monthly focus groups.

Looking forward, Sound Transit realizes that passenger expectations are influenced by what they experience with other services, so for example passengers may expect high quality chat box assistance, especially during hours when the Call Center is closed. Russ and his staff are even working on real time Digital Assistants to provide better advice to customers based on not only travel times, but also considering other factors like potential confusion or complexity.

Russ was a team of one when he started his PX work at Sound Transit in 2018, but eventually grew his portfolio to include about 50 staff spanning not only Research and Innovation but also Customer Care, Passenger Information and Signage, Accessibility for people with disabilities, Station Agents, and Ambassadors (whose role was reimagined to include support for people experiencing homelessness).

In his new role, Russ has a team that is slated to grow to about 400 additional employees who support Sound Transit service delivery, plus multiple contractors that operate most of the services. With this bigger portfolio, Russ's philosophy is to work with staff to create a vision at the onset of a project, then stay out of the way other than to remove obstacles that present themselves.

Russ sets just two goals for his staff: one, to passionately advocate for a passenger point of view at every opportunity; and two, to take sensible risks and get caught "doing something" rather than succumbing to indecision or paralysis. Russ also wants his staff to ask tough questions to spur greater consideration of passenger needs. For example, if Sound Transit is considering longer service disruptions to save money on construction or renovation costs, Russ will want to know what it would cost for a shorter disruption so that all options can be weighed with the passenger in mind.

Creating a passenger-centric culture can be a challenging task because it involves asking colleagues to think in new ways and fundamentally approach their work differently. In fact, most colleagues see themselves as rider-focused and devote themselves to serving passengers on a daily basis, but they also sometimes feel pressure to make decisions that make it easier or less costly to execute programs. That is understandable, but also underscores the value of having a PX person like Russ at the table to help evaluate choices through a customer lens every step of the way.


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