- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Metro subway riders said yesterday they appreciate station mangers’ polishing their politeness but would prefer the agency focus on getting them to work on time.

“You’d think that [courtesy] would be common sense,” said Julia Marks, 66, of Bethesda, who thinks maintenance issues, not customer service, are to blame.

Metro started the mandatory, one-day class for its 421 station managers to help them “brush up” on their customer-service techniques, agency spokesman Steve Taubenkibel said. The refresher classes started Oct. 4 and are expected to finish by the end of this month. So far, about 300 managers have taken the class.

Don Rosenberger, a Metro rider from Fairfax, said yesterday that he thought of one particular manager at the Braddock Road station on the Yellow Line when he learned of the program.

“I said to myself, ‘Boy, she’d be a perfect candidate,’” Mr. Rosenberger said. “I had a fare card that was wet and sweaty from being in my pocket, and the machine tore it up. She showed no compassion and said I was ultimately responsible. She was really short with me. Maybe she was having a bad day.”

The class, called High-Five Customer Service Training for Station Managers, covers topics such as keeping a positive attitude, interpreting body language, listening, managing conflict and anger, and showing empathy.

Agency officials have included role-playing in the class to help managers resolve conflicts, and have packaged the information into such practical lessons as: “Meet and Greet,” “How May I Help You” and “Check Your Response.”

Mr. Taubenkibel said agency officials started the classes, in part, to help the managers deal with Metro’s growing ridership.

“The managers do a great job but are expected on any given day to do more than ever before,” he said.

Station managers, to be sure, have a tough job. They often are the first employees who riders see upon entering the station and do almost everything from giving directions to lost tourists to fixing the computerized turnstiles.

However, the agency is dealing with a lot of bad publicity following several recent incidents including the Nov. 3 Red Line accident in which one train rolled backward into another, injuring 20 riders.

In August, a pregnant woman and her husband said a broom-wielding Metro station manager berated them and pushed the husband for inquiring about an out-of-service escalator.

This past summer, Metro police were criticized for using excessive measures to deal with passengers who had committed minor violations.

On July 16, a passenger was handcuffed and arrested for eating a candy bar as she was entering the Metro Center station.

On Sept. 9, a pregnant woman was forced to the ground, handcuffed and taken to a jail cell for speaking loudly and swearing on a cell phone at the Wheaton Metro station.

A station manager in Southeast who requested anonymity said he and his colleagues are unfairly taking the brunt of the public’s wrath, pointing out that the majority of riders’ gripes are about factors beyond the managers’ control.

“It isn’t fair,” he said. “The SmarTrip cards and train delays are the main things people complain about — things we have no control over. But we get the heat.”

The course, which is included in the agency’s transportation budget, also includes efforts to better recognize the managers’ front-line efforts. Riders will now get “Give That Station Manager a High-Five” forms for them to highlight good efforts.

Alicia Lewis of Alexandria said yesterday afternoon that riders rarely interact with employees because so few are in the station.

“More often than not, I’ve found that on the Red Line there aren’t many people around if you do need help,” she said.

More than 300 commuters filled a meeting room at Metro’s Fifth Street NW headquarters last night for a town hall-style meeting, a first for Metro.

They arrived wearing everything from baseball caps to business suits, but mostly they came with complaints.

“How can you address a major issue such as terrorism when you cannot keep my car from being stolen?” was one written question submitted to the moderator.

“I used to work for Metro,” said Marlene McGuirl, 66, of Georgetown. “I know where the problems are. They start at the top.”

The tension-filled meeting was accentuated with applause and boos.

Those who run Metro got the message.

When several riders shouted “That’s a lie,” after Metro board member Charles Deegan said subway operators use cell phones only in cases of extreme emergency. Mr. Deegan responded by saying Metro will enforce its policy against personal use of the phones more strictly.

“We’ve got to turn the system around to a customer-service system,” said Robert J. Smith, chairman of Metro’s Board of Directors who represents Montgomery County.

“Maybe we should have done this before,” said Gladys W. Mack, the transit agency’s longest-serving board member. Mrs. Mack, who represents the District, said she could not recall a public meeting that has drawn such spirited participation.

“We don’t have a consistent culture over here to serve customers. We’re really looking to make a cultural change here,” said Christopher Zimmerman, a board member from Arlington County.

Metro Chief Executive Officer Richard A. White said the meeting is part of an overhaul plan to improve reliability, customer service and accountability. He plans to announce other initiatives, which officials have said include an outside review of the agency, at a Metro committee meeting tomorrow.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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