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How SFMTA provided better, faster responses to customer complaints

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

In 2016, when working for the City and County of San Francisco, the folks in the Controller's Office, City Performance Unit, produced a report for the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency on the process for address feedback received from patrons of Muni. The report highlighted key areas of opportunity for improvement: (1) improving customer experience, (2) improving staff tools and processes for addressing feedback, (3) implementing technical improvements to the feedback processing system, (4) expanding performance metrics.

In the Summer of 2017, twelve staff from the Transit and Muni Customer Service (MCS) divisions of SFMTA embarked on a journey to improve the process by which it responds to customer feedback. The project focused specifically on employee-related feedback, which comprises approximately 60% of all feedback submitted to SFMTA about Muni. At the start of the improvement effort, the project team determined that they needed to improve the complaint resolution process. Why? Because customers did not feel valued.

They found that when customers offered feedback or filed complaints, they often did not hear back from the agency. Furthermore, staff were spending extra time investigating complaints that had insufficient information, complaints about behavior or actions that were not actually rule violations, and complaints for which there were varying policy and rule book interpretations. The goal was to work toward an improved future state process, where fewer individual responses require additional investigation by transit management. All staff were trained in Lean, and worked together to create their Why Change is Needed statement.

Then, to keep customers front and center of the improvement effort, the team created an empathy map during their second improvement event. An empathy map is a tool teams can use to gain a deeper insight into their customers' experiences. In this instance, the empathy map helped the team connect to how their customers are feeling and can therefore better understand the context for their complaints. Understanding context informed them on what the customer might expect from the agency's response.

PPI - Empathy Map Reference Guide
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Empathy map created by the team to better understand the context of Muni customer complaints

Transit Management staff are standing around a computer screen, watching one staff members walk them through the process so they can get a better understanding of the process
Transit Management staff go on a “Gemba walk” (observing the process in real time) to MCS to see how a complaint is triaged step-by-step before it is referred to Transit.

Identifying Root Causes

Using Lean tools such as the Five Whys and Fishbone Diagram, the project team determined the root causes for these issues:

  1. First, the process lacked comprehensive, standardized policies for feedback processing.

  2. Second, it is difficult to manage feedback and record investigation details in Muni’s complaint processing software.

  3. Last, customers expect a high level of personal attention and courtesy from transit operators, while operators’ first priority is safety and operations.


After assessing the current state - completing observations of the process and gathering current state metrics - the team identified solutions for the prominent root causes. These solutions included:

• Creating standard guidelines for processing key types of feedback

• Creating follow-up questions for SF311 employees to ensure all information necessary to resolve a complaint is collected from the customer at intake

• Creating templates to make it easier for Muni employees to respond quickly to the most frequent types of complaints

• Developing criteria to identify priority video pulls that are critical to investigations

• Selecting metrics for a new weekly reporting dashboard to monitor performance and manage daily operations

• Building a new online Knowledge Base to serve as a central repository for the work products from the rapid improvement meetings, along with other materials for the efficient processing of complaints

At the heart of all improvement efforts is the necessity to focus on what is most valuable to your customer. Creating value for your customer and understanding their user experience will pave a path to improvement overall. If you create value for your customers, you'll undoubtedly create value for you and your staff in the process.

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