The Worst Customer Experience I Regularly Have: Philly’s SEPTA Transit Network

We talk a lot here about how you should treat your customers. On my way home from work Monday night, Halloween, I was reminded both how important that is, and how some companies get it wrong. There is one really, really bad customer experience I go through regularly, and it’s my commute home on SEPTA Regional Rail.

A SEPTA Train at Croydon Station, Pennsylvania.

We talk a lot here about how you should treat your customers. On my way home from work Monday night, Halloween, I was reminded both how important that is, and how some companies get it wrong. There is one really, really bad customer experience I go through regularly, and it’s my commute home on SEPTA Regional Rail.

What’s SEPTA?

SEPTA is the public transportation company that covers the greater Philadelphia area. For the past 9 years, I’ve spent about 2 hours a day riding it’s Philadelphia-to-Trenton line to and from work.

So on Halloween night, Monday, I was standing on the train platform trying to catch a slightly early train home. The train comes — already a bit late — and we all get on. I put on some headphones, start listening to music, try to get enough connectivity to check my email … Train doesn’t move. A few minutes later a voice comes over the speakers and tells us there’s a crew change, we all have to get off the train.

Once we’re on the platform, a different voice comes over the platform speakers. And with all the sympathy of a prison warden canceling the inmates’ movie night, it says “the 5:59 Trenton train is canceled.” We get no other information.

The tone of the voice makes it clear they know we’re going to be upset, and the speaker doesn’t want to hear it. (After all, it’s been a hard night for our monolithic transportation agency, we really shouldn’t burden them with our pitiful riders’ concerns, should we?)

There’s another train coming, but I’m not getting home early.

They announce this several more times. Finally the wording changes: “Due to a personnel shortage, the train is canceled.” The next train is at 6:24 PM, it’s running 10 minutes late itself, and they’re making it a local.

The Customer Experience Is Personal

This all means I’m going from trying to get home before 7, when some trick or treating might still be going on, to getting home after 8 when Halloween is essentially over.

Author: Thorin McGee

Thorin McGee is editor-in-chief and content director of Target Marketing and oversees editorial direction and product development for the magazine, website and other channels.

9 thoughts on “The Worst Customer Experience I Regularly Have: Philly’s SEPTA Transit Network”

  1. I think it’s their transit system in general, Philly is my least favorite airport in the country! While I haven’t had this problem during my times taking SEPTA into the city, I can certainly get the frustration. Hoping that they’ll see this article and address the problem for you, Thorin!

  2. I may get flamed for this but maybe it’s a Philly public transportation thing? I say this because the worst airport experience I’ve ever had was connecting through Philadelphia International after arriving from Portugal.

    Customs agents were screaming (yes, SCREAMING) at passengers and treating everyone like we were convicts (Welcome to America!). Line management was extremely chaotic, which caused airport employees to scream at passengers as well.

    The TSA agent reviewing my documents was distractedly yelling at a foreign passenger who was leaning on the aisle rope (“Don’t you touch my stanchion, don’t you dare!) and literally threw my passport back at me. I had to scramble to keep it from flying out into the line behind me (Welcome home citizen!). I’ve never spent time in Philly, and would love to, but I don’t want to deal with that poorly managed insanity again so I’ll find another way to get to the city.

    1. I’ve had one bad experience at PHL, but I fly from there all the time, so it’s the exception.

      Overall, I love Philly, but I’m not going to argue we’re a “friendly” city.

      Or I guess you cold say we’re as friendly as brotherly love! (If you have brothers, you’ll get that.)

  3. Actually, the postal service is one of the most efficient organizations in the world. They get a bad wrap, but it’s mostly because no one looks at the details.

    There’s not another delivery service on the planet that delivers the volume of paper the USPS does to the area it does anywhere near as cheaply or quickly as it does. And it was operating at a profit before Congress forced the pension-prepayments on it.

    If SEPTA was half as effective the USPS is, I wouldn’t have written this.

  4. I’d have to agree with Customer Service being invested in only when there is competition. I think of how Comcast has had to evolve since Verizon began offering TV, Internet and phone. I’m sure there are exceptions to this but it has to come into the equation.

  5. Thorin, I understand your frustration, and you are not alone. WMATA, the people who run Metro, (the subway and many of the buses in the Greater Washington (DC) area) is just as bad communicating with passengers. Not that it makes a lot of difference – when they do, you generally can’t understand what they are saying, anyway.
    Add to that problem is years of not maintaining the system properly finally catching up with them and you have a very undependable system. Unfortunately, there is no alternative other than taking to the already overcrowded streets. But even then, people are abandoning Metro in favor of more reliable transportation.

    1. I had a friend who lived there last year when they were trying to open a new line (I believe?). He was very excited for it, then it turned out to be a disaster. Fires in the station and issues like that. I don’t envy them!

  6. Great piece, Thorin. I find that it’s the apology – an actual human one, that isn’t laced with business overtones – that works. In the end, we do business with other people – not fire hydrants, water bottles, people. Who all want to get home to family for trick-n-treatin’. Real business remorse should be just like you would ask forgiveness for a social trespass.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *