Twitter helpdesks are too valuable to be turned off so early

I’d like to write an enormous longform piece on how, in the first five weeks of this year, SEPTA and PATCO have been handling the disruptions of winter weather, for better and for worse. In lieu of the time to crank out the 10,000+ words the subject could take, let me take some time this morning to write briefly on one simple facet: SEPTA’s realtime Twitter account, @SEPTA_SOCIAL, and its PATCO equivalent @RidePATCO. From what I’ve seen, I’ve come to the conclusion that those accounts need to be kept manned much longer than they are now.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had TweetDeck set up to provide a search timeline for everyone who uses the word “septa” on Twitter; this is one of the things that SEPTA does itself in its social media office. As disruption after disruption rolled in over the last month, there was a definite difference in the tone of the customer complaints, depending on whether the disruption was completely within @SEPTA_SOCIAL’s business hours (7:00-19:00 weekdays, 8:00-18:00 weekends), or if it was even partially while the account was dark. Informed riders are happier (if not necessarily happy) riders. That’s the point of the entire exercise.

SEPTA itself, of course, runs 24/7/365. So does PATCO. I’m not asking that either tiny team of social mediators be on call around-the-clock; that would be too much, too fast. But evening ridership is growing quickly. Occasional riders unfamiliar with the transit system tend to ride in the evenings. For that matter, if an evening rush melts down, it will often still be recovering as the sign-off messages go out at 19:00. That’s not a good thing for a Customer Service operation. So I would ask both agencies to prioritize expanding their social media teams to provide coverage of the Twitter desks through at least 21:00, every night. 23:00 or midnight would be even better. Similarly, PATCO signs on in the morning at 6:00; this might be a good thing for SEPTA to emulate.

I know that that is an odd request, when I’m usually banging the drum for much bigger and more expensive things. But the Twitter helpdesk is critical infrastructure for the early 21st Century, as strange as that seems. No other agency does it as well as SEPTA, and PATCO is obviously trying to learn its neighbor’s lessons, unlike other agencies that have yet to see the light about real-time information. And compared to many other things that make transit better for riders, well-trained Twitter handlers are relatively cheap, and are cost-effective. Something to think about as the finishing touches get put on the draft FY2016 budgets.

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  1. How many systems offer 24/7 customer service? I think it’s down to PATCO, PATH, and NYCT. You can call PATCO up and they’ll tell you schedules, assist with ticket problems, and so on. Why wouldn’t you call them? You’ll get an answer directly, and if it’s an emergency you’ll know the message was received.

    Many times they’ve posted after the 7pm time they’re supposedly no longer on Twitter to inform riders of the status of delays, so it’s clear they’re still posting, they’re just not monitoring the account off hours. And why should they? It’s needlessly wasteful when they have customer service reps waiting for your call, so monitoring twitter is a needless expense. Of all the things either agency could spend money on, expanding twitter presence needs to be very near the bottom. Lets get back to the reliable service some of us PATCO riders remember, rather than expanding the hours during which we can bitch and moan about delays that could have been averted if they’d spent the $30-40k a year on a mechanic rather than a social media intern.

    And there’s nothing critical about twitter. You can communicate far more effectively with a TA through the phone. A phone call doesn’t require the agency to be searching for whatever hashtag you’ve decided to use to describe your displeasure that day. Better yet a phone call allows you to know the message was received, and allows follow-up questions to be asked in a far shorter timeframe than would ever be possible with Twitter. So again, why not call?

    1. PATCO’s reliability problems go far, far beyond what can be fixed by $30-40K a year of mechanical salary, which works out to about half a mechanic, plus or minus a wrench.

      You laud the phone over Twitter as a medium for customer support; that’s fine, I just don’t agree. Phones are good for knowing your message has been received, but less good for knowing it got across with all of the details intact. Twitter is also better for situations where signal may be inconsistent, such as being underground, or wrapped up in a big metal box. Finally, there are a lot of people who just plain hate talking to strangers on the phone. I’m one of them, and it’s not a rare opinion.

      Twitter also allows other people to view the interaction, which can be very important. It always stands to reason that if one person has a question, more people might have the same question, but haven’t yet asked. Or haven’t yet figured out that they should ask.

      All that being said, I’d really like to know what the setup is behind PATCO’s Twitter presence; unlike SEPTA’s social media desk, they have not publicized what goes on behind the scenes, and things are made slightly more opaque by the fact that PATCO only has the one Twitter account, versus SEPTA which has nearly 30.

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