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What employee attitudes and behaviors do you want to nurture when hiring, training, coaching, and recognizing employee excellence? Prized characteristics could include:

  • Employees being helpful to customers and treating them with compassion and respect.

  • Reliable employees – so that your organization can provide consistently reliable service.

  • Employees being flexible and adaptable to meet customer needs in any moment.

  • Employees who are communicative.

  • Employees who listen to understand.

  • Employees who are detail oriented - thinking about every aspect of what customers need.

  • Employees who are proactive and professional and take ownership of whatever is needed to improve customer experiences.

  • Employees who work together for the benefit of customers rather than mistrusting or competing.

Each one of these is important, but one of my favorites is EMPATHY because it gets to the heart of why we are motivated to improve customer experiences. If a transit employee can see pain points through the eyes of transit customers and empathize with them, that employee is more likely to go the extra mile to remedy the pain points.

young hands holding older hands

Let's walk through a few examples of transit employee empathy, starting with a transit CEO. It's great when CEOs are data driven and quantify customer and employee pain points, but sometimes dispassionate analysis creates dispassionate policies.... CEOs who want to be "servant leaders" can tap into their empathy and ask "Why" questions to more deeply understand what makes riders and employees feel the way they do. For example, if riders complain about being late because they experience "ghost buses" (i.e. scheduled buses that never arrive) take time to understand how that impact riders' job, school, medical appointments, or day care pickups, just to give a few examples. What are the ramifications to being late (a feeling of anxiety?, docked pay at work? missed lessons at school? long wait for a new medical appointment? day care penalties?) and how does a lack of accurate real time information make it hard to call ahead to alert people who may be waiting for you to arrive? When a CEO can walk in a rider's shoes to more deeply understand impacts and ramifications, it can bolster the CEO's resolve to fix the problem as quickly as possible. For example, an empathetic CEO who understands the deep impacts of ghost buses might ask staff to quickly get an interim fix in place to bridge the period until new computer systems provide a long-term solution.

To walk in the shoes of a rider or employee and better understand the pain points they experience, transit CEOs can regularly ride transit to talk with riders and visit work locations to talk with employees. What CEOs hear can be anecdotal and may not always reflect rider or employee experiences overall, so it's important not to draw firm conclusions. But hearing it directly from riders and employees may be more meaningful to CEOs than solely quantifying issues from survey results or complaint data.

smiling CEO

Next, let's talk about an example of empathy from the perspective of a Fare Inspector. Suppose a Fare Inspector encounters a customer who can't show proof of payment because the customer's cell phone ran out of battery. Can the Inspector picture this happening to themselves or a family member? Can they understand how it might feel? If they care enough, maybe they discuss the issue with coworkers and supervisors to find a way to remedy these situations. For example, what if fare inspectors were given inexpensive portable charging sticks to offer customers in this situation so they can show proof of payment?

As another example of empathy, let's talk about an employee who works in Accounts Payable. Suppose they field a call from a vendor who has been waiting ten months to get paid? Can the employee imagine what kinds of impacts the delinquent payment might have on the vendor? If it's a small company, does delayed payment in turn impact their ability to pay their employees? Can the accounts payable employee make an extra effort to find out where the payment is stuck and dislodge it? Can they escalate the issue if needed? An employee who is truly empathetic is more likely to make the extra effort to help, and they are more likely to express understanding and sympathy - which itself goes a long way towards helping the vendor feel understood and cared for.

smiling bus operator

As another example, imagine that a bus operator driving a late-night bus senses that a young woman rider seems anxious. An empathetic driver might ask if she is okay, and that in turn could lead to an important conversation. If the rider says she is anxious because she is scared to get off the bus at her normal stop because gang members loiter there, an empathetic bus operator might see it through a lens of how their own daughter might feel in the same circumstance. This empathy could spur them to offer to pull over at an alternate safe location (if the agency allows this).

These are just a few examples of how empathy can motivate employees to remedy pain points. Any employee at any level is more likely to advance the customer experience if they tap into their empathy and seek to truly understand customers and employees.

four people in a boat rowing in unison

A cultural shift towards greater empathy will be most powerful when everyone is aligned and rowing together. For example, management can talk about Empathy at the start of every meeting and ask employees to give examples of it. Talk about Empathy when doing performance appraisals or interviewing employees for promotional opportunities. Talk about Empathy at major events like annual employee award banquets and even retirement parties. Make Empathy ubiquitous and it will drive a steady flow of customer experience improvements!

TIP: No matter whether you pick Empathy or some other attitude or behavior to drive culture change at your transit agency, beat the drum and talk about it incessantly. Pick one primary characteristic that leadership feels passionate about and align all employee touch points around it.


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