Chris Upfold, 37, will become the TTC’s chief customer service officer on May 30. The position is a new one; creating it was the top recommendation advanced by the citizen customer service advisory panel which met through much of last year.
Upfold, born in Walkerton and raised in Guelph, lived in Toronto for three years before moving to London, England, in 2001, where he spent the past decade working for London Underground. Currently, he works in ticketing and “non-fares revenue” (i.e. managing advertising space), but before that he dealt with things like station accessibility and customer environment.
He will return to Canada with his British-born wife and their two-year-old son.
Upfold spoke to us over the phone, from London.
Torontoist: “Customer service” has many possible definitions. What does it mean in relation to public transit? Is it just making the trains run on time, or is it a combination of things?
Chris Upfold: I think it’s a combination of things, and I think fundamentally transit is about time. It’s about giving people time. Time to do other things while they’re traveling—to read, do whatever. And it’s about getting them to their destination as quickly and as efficiently as you can.
That’s the quantity of time, but the flipside of that, it’s also about the quality of time. And it’s about making sure whilst you are getting there as fast as you can, that you are doing it in a way that meets people’s expectations of what that journey should be like. And I think those two can’t be divorced.
So if you are giving information at the right time, and in the right format to people, and you are telling them about why there is a delay or what’s happened, then they are more forgiving about that taking more quantity of time. And if you provide that customer service experience, then, yeah, they are happier to be on your trains.
Be that as it may, you’re going to be inheriting a system that’s in nearly perpetual public relations distress. Is it that way in London, or do you find that the TTC is especially prone to these flare-ups of invective from the public?
I think the TTC has been through a bit of a tough time in the last year, and it’s certainly around customer service stuff. A bit unique for them. But I don’t think it’s unique in the world of transit operators.
As someone who lived in Toronto, you’re quite familiar with the TTC, and you’re also probably familiar with people’s complaints about the TTC. Do you have a mental list of things about the TTC that might be particularly in need of improvement?
The great thing is that I don’t need to have a mental list, because the customer service advisory panel put together such a great and comprehensive written list. I’ve never started a job—and a new job, at that—where there is such a comprehensive set of actions that need tackling.
But within that, there are definitely things that I think are important. And the first example, I think, is around talking to customers, but more important listening to customers. I think, when somebody takes time out of their day to contact you, either for a commendation or a complaint, you’ve got to have really, really clear ways of internalizing that comment, and making sure that everybody in the organization knows what the complaints are, knows what the problems are, and that the customer gets that impression. And not just the impression, but that there actually is a way of managing that in a systematic way.
Is there anything London does that the TTC could stand to adopt, do you think?
Every business has a methodology for coming up with business cases—for proving why investment or money or time, in fact, is needed in something. And one of the things I think that London actually does very well is to quantify that, and to be able to say, you know, we have a customer satisfaction score that we conduct on a quarterly basis. And there’s lots of things that make up that survey. And we’re able to very clearly make the link between improving that customer satisfaction score and improving our bottom line, and proving that if we make these changes it will have an impact on our funding situation.
Because if our customers are happier, then the government is going to be happier to give us a higher grant. If our customers are happier, they’re going to be more willing to put up with things when they do go wrong.
So London has a model that basically empirically measures customer satisfaction, and they’re able to use that to sell themselves to higher levels of government?
That’s part of it, yeah. But also to show that it is as important to make a change to something that drives customer satisfaction as it is to make a change to something that drives efficiency, or how well your timetable works, or how many new trains you need.
As you know, the political situation at the City level in Toronto is in a bit of flux right now. As the TTC’s customer service point man, you’re going to be in the middle of all that. And so I was wondering if you could describe how you feel about that.
The same model, broadly, exists at London Underground. The chair of the Transport for London board is the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. So I am very familiar with the concept of operating in a politicized environment and understanding why things gain greater tension or lesser tension and why you need to make your decision within that environment, and how it should affect you, and how it shouldn’t affect you, and all those things.
And actually, I think that’s the way it should be, to some extent. You know, there are tremendous amounts of taxpayer dollars that are spent on transit, and the person that is responsible for that at the end of the day is the most senior political figure that happens to operate in that electoral area.
This interview has been edited for length.