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Customer service ranks high on MBTA curriculum

MassDOT University instructor Karen Coffey told transportation workers to do their best to empathize with customers. David L Ryan / Globe Staff

The next time you wedge onto the subway or shove onto a bus, wait at the Registry, or idle at a toll plaza, the Department of Transportation wants you to know this: You are not just a number. You are a customer.

That is one of the two main lessons in a customer service class called “How can I help you today?,” the flagship course at something called MassDOT University.

The other takeaway in the class, offered Tuesday for the 153d time since early 2011, is this: The “public” in public employee is not just about the source of the paycheck.


“We are always on stage, and we need to be mindful of that,” said instructor Maggie Pelletier, leading about 15 employees through Tuesday’s class. “No different than an actor or actress.”

Pelletier asked the students how they would feel if they went to see a concert or play and the performers turned in a tired, half-hearted performance.

“Leave the Red Sox out of this!” a Green Line operator called. Pelletier smiled.

“No matter what the interaction is, we’re not tired, we’re not impatient,” she said. “We’re knowledgeable, courteous, friendly employees.”

Easier said than done, said Wanda Hervey, a bus driver. “Sometimes you’re tired, you’re beat down, you know what I’m saying?” she said.

And T salaries do not exactly rival what movie stars earn. “If I was making as much money as them I would be up there tap dancing, smiling, and I wouldn’t look tired.”

After steering a bus along cramped streets, interacting with riders, and keeping the line moving at the fare box, Hervey regularly reaches the end of her route with just five minutes to exhale and find a rest-room, though she is often stopped by customers with questions before she gets there. And that is a good day.


On a bad day?

She shook her head at the thought of the driver attacked last week by a customer allegedly upset about being left behind, the 68th reported assault on MBTA employees this year.

That is what part of the class is about, defusing charged situations and being ready to encounter the three D’s that the course’s 83-page textbook says can crop up among among the millions of customers who rely on the transportation system daily: different, difficult, and dangerous.

Richard A. Davey, state transportation secretary, dropped in and invoked a fourth D, the discourteous public employee — which can loom large in public opinion, even if it is just a small segment of the workforce.

“Too often we read about the bad employee at the DOT and folks focus on that and think that’s what we’re about. It’s not,” he said.

The class grew out of the 2009 merger of various transit and transportation agencies to form one department, and subsequent recognition that customer service training across those fiefdoms was inconsistent and lacking.

At one MBTA rap session in 2010, a customer service agent told Davey, then the T’s general manager, that he had never actually been trained on customer service.

“How can we expect our employees to provide a high level of customer service if we haven’t given them the tools?” Davey asked.

About 3,500 employees have completed “How can I help you?” since February 2011.

The course is mandatory for the 5,000 “front-line” workers who deal at least semiregularly with the public, not just MBTA bus operators and Registry of Motor Vehicles clerks but Highway Division plow drivers, and planners who lead hearings about road or transit projects.


The university, which has its own logo, offers an array of classes, from CPR training to sign language, but customer service is the core curriculum. It is both a product of the Twitter and YouTube age and a recognition of the state’s transportation funding crisis.

First, there are always smartphones at the ready, primed to record everything.

“How do you want to be portrayed when somebody catches you doing something?” asked Christine Bond, assistant director of human resources and a driving force behind MassDOT University.

“If we’re not doing any bad stuff, we don’t have to worry about it. We’ll force them to take pictures of the good.”

Second, the department may not have the money to immediately replace 30-year-old transit cars or overhaul every rusting bridge, but employees can make the experience of using them more pleasant.

The students Tuesday participated in role-playing sessions, played word games, and dissected videos of the right and wrong way to handle a variety of situations.

The material leaned heavily on sayings — “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” — and acronyms like LASER: Listen actively to customer concerns, Acknowledge the situation, Sincerely apologize for the inconvenience, Empathize with the customer, and Respond appropriately to the issue.

But the class was leavened with humor.


The students learned that 55 percent of a message is conveyed through tone, 38 percent through body language, and 7 percent through spoken word. So even an apology can be fraught.

“Don’t make [it] sarcastic, like, ‘Sorry, sorry, I’ll never be as smart as you,’ ” said instructor Karen Coffey, adopting a pinched, nasal tone. “That’s just going to escalate the situation. And also, don’t use the apology to point out what they did wrong.

“Just apologize for whatever the inconvenience is they’re experiencing. Then you do your best to empathize with the customer. Who knows what empathy is?”

“Putting yourself in that person’s situation,” said Peter Young, a Green Line operator.

“Exactly,” she said.

After eight hours, class was dismissed. They went home, all using roads or transit or both.

Performers out of costume, they were customers just like everyone else.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.