“awesome driver!”: the power of positive feedback

Now and then Twitter pops up something like this, from someone called @wmataplusside.

@wmataplusside@wmata awesome driver! Very clear & announced everything! orange line car 5053. Tell him to keep up the good work 🙂

 In a local ecosystem dominated by colorful critical voices (including @FixWMATA, @dcmetrosucks, @unsuckdcmetro, and my personal favorite moniker, @MedievalMetro), @wmataplusside's niche is to offer all good news:

‏ @wmataplusside  Cell service at Anacostia, Navy Yard, and Waterfront is real! Its really there! #wmata

WMATA, the regional transit agency of the Washington DC region, has a problem that afflicts almost all transit agencies: Negative feedback is constant, positive feedback is rare.  Transit is an incredibly visible service; when something goes wrong — whether in management or operations — there's no concealing it.  Media feed on negativity, so that's what spreads, and what returns amplified to the agency staff.

Experienced transit staff learn to "control" for the negativity.  I often tell client agencies that if the feedback on a service proposal is only 75% negative, as opposed to, say, 95%, then that's actually pretty positive.  Negatively-impacted customers respond in much greater numbers, and usually much more belligerently, than positively-impacted customers, so it's unfair to count comments as though they were votes.  The same is generally true of operations; commendations of good work from customers are rare, because few bother to comment in that situation. while lacerating feedback from angry customers is routine.

This is why folks like @wmataplusside are doing someting important.  When not offering his/her own positive feedback, @wmataplusside is harvesting good news from all over the local Twitterverse, and retweeting it, amplified.  If you want one feed of all the good news about WMATA (and I'm sure the agency does), this is it:

‏ @dcmetrosucks:  I have to say that #wmata has stepped it up this past month and a half…haven't had any significant delays on the OR during peak hours.

‏ @jamdizzle  So pressed with @wmata! Didn't really believe they'd put the money the bus ate on my SmarTrip and certainly not within a few hours!

@jeditrainee:  Love the new bus bays at Seven Corners. Going through there used to be a nightmare. #wmata

@HS1979: On a shuttle. Watched WMATA employee explain to driver how 2 help one confused young passenger. "Take care of her, ok?" IMMD 

@mindymoretti:  $13 cab ride vs. $1.50 bus ride. Snarly cab driver vs. uber friendly bus driver. Well played @wmata well played.

‏ @csimpson82:  My orange line train driver would have an AMAZING career in radio! Excellent job today with the stations!

@zebrafinch:  Cheers, kudos to DC Metro staff Ms. Taylor (Woodley/Zoo) & Gregory (White Flint) for ALWAYS BEING HELPFUL & on task! TY! @wmata #WMATA

@zebrafinch:  New and cheery lighting at formerly dark Metro station. Good! #WMATA http://twitpic.com/9e1yv5

@chrispulaski:  With all my negative #wmata tweets, I have to say that more often than not, the metro workers I encounter are wonderful people.

They don't have to be specific complimnents.  Expressions of sheer passion are also passed on:

‏@Adam_Ulbricht:  Have I confessed my love for the #DCMetro lately? Ya, it's amazing

@Wmataplusside also supports by being useful, extending the agency's eyes:

@wmataplusside: @wmata there are hornets building a nest inside of bus bay H at Naylor Road

The user @wmataplusside took a while to track down, but here's his or her self-description.

Unrelated with WMATA, just a Marylander who grew up with the Green Line. Not really much about me. A suburbanite, born in Virginia, raised in Maryland. Ride Monday through Friday and weekends when I need to go into the city. Been riding all my life, and it's really not as sorry a state of affairs as others make it out to be.

It moves people back and forth without serious incidents being commonplace. Sure, incidents may occur from time to time, but it's not nearly as bad as the Beltway. If riding Metro sounded like listening to a bad traffic report, I could understand relentlessly hating on it.

Started the feed because I couldn't understand why so many were dedicated to being negative about it, and none positive. Goal was an outlet for compliments and comments as a means of hopefully encouraging more positive behavior by wmata employees. Answer rider questions and tweet about my experiences on rails and bus, pass along information about delays when I'm in them. Just want to provide a contrast to all of the pessimism, and another side to the #wmata conversation.

Or as he put it in a tweet:

@wmataplusside: I may look like the eternal optimist, but I'm more normal than it seems. And after reading twitter daily, more lucky than most.

If nobody is aggregating positive feedback for your city's transit system, maybe you should start!  Positive feedback can guide an agency at least as well as the negative can.  Probably better.

16 Responses to “awesome driver!”: the power of positive feedback

  1. Chris May 7, 2012 at 6:13 am #

    So true. When I started as a transit employee my coworkers warned that I better have thick skin, because compliments are rare. When I tell people I am a transit planner, most of the time the next two words out of peoples mouths are “You should…” But building that positive momentum has a much greater impact. I say thank you to my driver every time I ride, even if they’re grumpy. If I drove around in traffic all day, I’d be stressed too.

  2. sadfsd May 7, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    Why would we need to give it positive feedback when it does a great job of giving itself positive feedback?!

  3. Wad May 7, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    Los Angeles’ Metro also publishes feedback on The Source in its Twitter Tuesday feature. There’s both haterade (hashtag #MetroFail) and mad props (#MetroWin).
    Metro itself is @metrolosangeles.

  4. Wad May 7, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    @sadfsd, because positive feedback works on the organization’s people, the ones who actually keep the organization running.
    People don’t shut off psychological responses in a working capacity, even though it’s part of their job duty to do so. Also, because organizations are not independent of the people that work for them, organizations take on the personalities of the people working for them.
    If you don’t feel the need to give positive feedback, the feedback response from the other person is to seek out negative feedback.
    If you don’t praise a person, but you do put them down when you talk to them, the other person wants to avoid future exchanges and wants your silence or inattention instead.

  5. Brendan M. May 7, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

    I’m getting better about looking for praise-worthy drivers and behavior on King County Metro here in greater Seattle, Wash., U.S. Metro has a page on their web site where customers can submit a commendation to a driver. Before submitting a commendation, however, I try to offer a quick word of praise face-to-face because I suspect the personal, direct contact is more meaningful than a commendation submitted electronically and, in some cases, anonymously.

  6. Andre Lot May 8, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    I think it is quite normal to receive only negative feedback. Using public transportation is always going to be (at least in the current paradigm) an experience ranging from the passable to the ourtight miserable. On-time performance, courtesy, efficiency and abiding to regulations are obligations of transit agency associates, not something that deserves any praise or compliment.
    For (also) this reason, I’m all in favor of the most possible automation in any transit system. Ideally, one where all ticketing and all driving are automated and only a skeleton safety and enforcement staff is left.
    Gosh, if a tram or bus driver is entertaining passengers enough to be remembered, he’s likely not abiding to the most strict regulations that would prevent him catering for anything else than safety operations. Conductors MUST be on the look for fare evaders, not have chit-chats with passengers. And public safety officers must be screening the users to find potential people breaking regulations like making too much noise, or vandalizing the vehicles.
    No room for nicities on transport. Leave that for other services that are properly paid, private and operating under a market logic such as restaurants, theme park thrill rides etc.

  7. Robert Wightman May 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    I am from Toronto and have been in Washington 3 times and used WMATA extensively on each occasion. Every time I found employees who were more than willing to explain to a foreigner how to buy the correct pass and to explain to my wife and myself the best way to get to where we were going and to experience the sites of Washington.
    I am not as ignorant as I pretended to be but I wanted to see the amount of help I would receive. In every case it was excellent. I have found in my travels that most transit employees want the customer to have an enjoyable trip. It is the small percentage of user who give the employees grief who cause the attitude problem with the employees. Treat them with respect and they usually reciprocate.

  8. Jhenifer Pabillano @ TransLink May 9, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    How great that WMATA has an advocate collecting all the nice things people say! Here at TransLink, we currently collect positive tweets (and other fun items we hear) through using the Favorites function for our @TransLink Twitter account. Like so: http://twitter.com/#!/translink/favorites

  9. Brendan M. May 10, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    @Andre, Memorable and extraordinary behavior on the part of transit operators isn’t just about chit-chat and delivering an entertaining experience. Much of that above-and-beyond behavior is directly related to performance on the job. There’s one King County Metro driver on a suburban, local route I use who frequently stops in the traffic lane to board/deboard able-bodied passengers, even when there’s room on the shoulder, so he doesn’t get boxed in by passing cars failing to yield. Another driver repeatedly and kindly reminds passengers on a standing-room-only bus to stay clear of the doors and to allow exiting passengers to get by. Another driver might periodically remind people of the fare and instruct them to have their money or passes ready before they get to the farebox (for routes that are pay-as-you-leave). These behaviors, while atypical, do wonders for the perceived efficiency and efficacy of transit, not to mention making life easier for operator and passengers alike.

  10. david vartanoff May 10, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    For a number of years I have been in the habit of saying “thank you” to the driver as I alight. When I started autonomously using transit a half century ago, many riders would speak to drivers/motormen asking for the next stop or by the name of the street. Gradually that diminished as more riders simply pulled the signal cord. The other day as I walked to the front door calling for the next stop, the driver remarked that when he started he thought communication w/riders was considered odd almost forbidden. Of late I am pleased to say I am hearing a few more riders call out a thank you as the get off.

  11. MaxUtil May 10, 2012 at 11:25 am #

    @andre – I’m not saying every driver should get a commendation for getting somewhere on time without crashing. But expressing appreciation for people who fulfill their obligations is a pretty basic part of our social glue. Particularly when it’s fairly obvious that their job is difficult or prone to a lot of constant negative feedback.
    I’ve worked in call centers before and can affirm that even a little positive response from callers does a lot to keep the workers engaged and viewing their customers as partners rather than adversaries. And it’s definitely true that we all took negative feedback/suggestions more seriously when they came from people known to offer praise when warranted. When all you get is negative, you learn to tune it out regardless of whether it is warranted, constructive, or not.

  12. FixWMATA May 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    I’ve given your article a few days to sink in and wanted to provide my feedback (although, I’m sure after reading the comments above mine it’ll be ripped to shreds).
    When you don’t live in the “local echosystem” it’s easy to take a look at what’s written here and think that there are “colorful critical voices” dominating the conversation only to amplify the negative experiences of riders. I can assure you that in the case of WMATA we’re all here, positive or negative comment amplification, to get our system fixed.
    If you haven’t already read this article, a response to the article here, I recommend you do so:
    http://unsuckdcmetro.blogspot.com/2012/05/vinegar-or-honey-with-metro-it-doesnt.html
    The problem we face in Washington is an agency that thinks it does no wrong, and when it finds it does do wrong it either completely ignores it or tries to cover it up. We’ve found in recent years these practices lead to people dying at the hands of an undermaintained and overmanaged transit system.
    Just 2 weeks ago we had a derailment (the agency called it “minor”) due to human error – a track technician that didn’t close a switch completely. The technician was fired but in a board meeting just yesterday the board, after hearing a brief recap of the event, asked no questions. They didn’t ask why the technician failed at his duties. They didn’t ask if training was an issue. They didn’t ask if coverage/overuse of overtime was the issue. They didn’t ask a single question.
    Then, in the same meeting the board heard about 2 separate bus fires. In both cases the fires were due to human error – the wrong parts, installed incorrectly, leading to fires that recalled 93 buses off the street. Again, not a single question was asked – except they DID spend about 30 minutes debating how to get new buses without spending money. Again, nobody asked if there was a training issue, a software/inventory issue, or even a management issue that lead to the problem in the first place.
    We’re dealing with an agency here that honestly believes – from top to bottom – that they can do no wrong. When voices try to convince them otherwise we’re tuned out, blocked, or lied to. When the agency doesn’t meet their own goals – they lower them. When they take questions from the press they only take softball questions, leading the press here to learn that only reporters that ask softball questions will get answers.
    More people are going to die at the hands of WMATA. If our recent derailment hadn’t been at low speeds it would have caused injury or even death. These are realities we live with daily here.
    So, yes – I’m quite negative. In fact, I’ve been called the “9th angriest person in DC” by one of the papers here – a title I hold in great honor. I am angry! People are going to be hurt, or worse – die, because problems are not being fixed here.
    Then you come along and say we all need to be pointing out how great WMATA is? I encourage you to contact the families of the 9 people killed near Fort Totten in June 2009 and ask THEM how great they think WMATA is.
    The public sees a system with problems and they complain about it loudly – just watch the #WMATA tag on Twitter if you want to see any of it. Yet, nobody (and I mean NOBODY) from the public comes to meetings unless it involves accessibility issues. Even when WMATA raises fares, as they just did, only the accessibility crowd showed up to fight it during the vote. Community forums also have poor turnout.
    My goal, as a colorful local critic, is to channel the anger and outrage into action and get these folks to meetings, and if they can’t attend meetings I’m going and am live-tweeting them so people know what’s going on.
    I agree people like @wmataplusside have a place, as do many of the other “characters” you’ll encounter in the WMATA Twitter arena. But I won’t agree that transit advocates who don’t live here should be encouraging people to just be nicer to WMATA. They’re plenty nice enough to themselves without our help.
    I apologize for length here but appreciate the opportunity to respond.
    Thank you.

  13. Jarrett May 11, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    FixWMATA. I do not live in the Washington region and thus have no local view about WMATA. My article is about the usefulness of positive feedback in general, encouraging folks in other cities to consider taking up the @wmataplusside example. I did not imply, and did not say, that negative feedback does not have a role, especially when things are as dire as you describe.
    Please note, however, that just as corporations are not individuals, it is dangerous to talk about government agencies as though they were individuals. When you write that “we are dealing with an agency that believes, from top to bottom, that they can do no wrong,” you are talking about the agency as though it were a person, and further implying that the real human beings inside the agency share the view that you attribute. False attributions of evil intent can be absolutely enraging to receive, and you can incur long-term hostility from some very well-intentioned and humble people by talking so categorically.
    It is more appropriate to demand accountability from the executive and board, ultimately through elected officials. I have no idea whether these channels are functioning in your situation, but it is the ultimate recourse in any remotely democratic system.

  14. Morgan Wick May 11, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    But FixWMATA does raise the question of whether WMATA is a bad example. Is there more negative feedback because negative comments tend to be voiced more, or because there legitimately isn’t that much that’s positive?

  15. Kurt Raschke May 12, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    Jarrett,
    The problem is that in WMATA’s case, those channels are not functioning. The only elected officials to whom WMATA is really accountable are the members of the US Congress, because WMATA is an agency formed by interstate compact. Therefore, the usual tactics of agitating at the state or local level are more or less ineffective.
    As to the fear that such harsh tactics will serve to alienate good people at WMATA, two notes. The first is that there really are people at WMATA, like Hercules Ballard who believe the things FixWMATA mentioned.
    The second is that there are some good people at WMATA; I’ve met some of them. But in order for them to work with advocates and those working to improve the system, they have to do it through back-channels. I’d like to give these people positive feedback, but I can’t, because then they’d be fired, or worse.

  16. Wanderer May 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    I’ve only ridden WMATA a few times, so I can’t meaningfully compare it to other systems (seemed fine, even nice). I do know that “the worst transit system in the world is the one you ride every day.” It’s one you see the most, so you see the most problems is. It’s the one you need the most, so you have the most expectations of it. It’s the one you’re most familiar with, so it’s the one you have the most ideas about how to fix.
    Before I worked for my present employer, I worked for a medium sized city in metropolitan California. We staffers were convinced that everybody in the community hated us, because that’s what we heard all day, every day. At some point, the city paid for a poll—in other words reaching out to people who weren’t making a point of telling us what they thought. The polling firm reported that our city (with the exception of the Public Works Department) had the highest positive ratings of any city they’d polled on. In the regular course of things, people just don’t give positive feedback. The present government-bashing climate doesn’t make things any better.

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