Mystery riders lend an extra set of eyes and ears

Secret or not, industry leaders find spontaneous performance reviews vital

By Bethanie Hestermann

In an industry where safety compliance and customer service make or break reputations, bus professionals need to know their interests are in good hands out on the road. Borrowing the “mystery shopping” concept from retail, many agencies have discovered this peace of mind by appointing mystery riders—incognito scouts that conduct service reviews and report back to management.

Rather than a scare tactic, mystery rider programs generally intend to positively reinforce good behavior and catch potential pitfalls before an incident.

BUSRide spoke with numerous coach and transit agencies that say mystery rider programs give a multi-faceted, positive return for a negligible expense. The goal is two-fold: to increase safety by preventing driver complacency and to stay current with customer expectations.

Peter Pan sets the standard

At Peter Pan Bus Lines, Springfield, MA, the only thing mysterious about its Mystery Rider (MR) program is when exactly a rider will board the coach. Drivers are given a copy of the critique form during training and can access the most up-to-date version at any time.

Why such transparency? Ginny Typrowicz, who manages the in-house MR program, says the company views mystery rides as an opportunity, not a threat, and asks why not make it as easy as possible for drivers to succeed?

“Ninety-nine percent of our drivers are doing a great job day after day and don’t necessarily get recognized for it,” Typrowicz says. “This program gives them the opportunity for the mystery rider to give us a 100 percent report, for which we can reward the employee on a job well done.”

Peter Pan has a network of MRs that rotate throughout each division. Eighty percent of operators have a rider at least once per year; the 20-25 percent left out are given priority status the following year.

“All MRs employed by Peter Pan are CDL-license holders, which means when they ride they can give us an informed rundown of any potential safety issues,” says Typrowicz. “If the operator is driving the coach improperly or spending too much time in the passing lane, they can give us that side of the equation as well as the customer service side.”

With a $20,000 annual operating budget, Typrowicz says the investment is a crucial part of the operation. She says the MR program has been a good tool for building customer service policies and procedures, generating return business and keeping drivers refreshed with company standards and expectations.

Mystery riders typically judge drivers on simple, yet crucial details such as timeliness of the bus, comfort of the ride and appearance of the vehicle, as well as the driver’s demeanor, professional appearance and compliance with regulations like wearing a seatbelt and giving accurate announcements.

Mum’s the word

One major transit system that prefers to remain anonymous cites the following criteria as part of the mystery rider performance review.

“To score well, drivers must greet customers, make eye contact, watch the fare box during transactions, ask if transfer is needed, stay at the bus stop with the door open while the customers are at fare box, make sure senior/disabled patrons are sitting prior to bus pullout, keep a safe distance from vehicles directly ahead, remain professional with all customers, even the disorderly, and operate the vehicle in a safe manner.”

For this East Coast agency it is important operators remain in the dark when it comes to the MR initiative. Beside BUSRide editors only the CEO, COO and Director of Operations are aware of the program’s existence.

“For the success of a mystery shopper program, secrecy is a must,” an agency official says. “The reality is, if someone knows they are being monitored they will react differently than if they are unaware of the situation.”

Secrecy in this case maintains the effectiveness of the program by providing the most unbiased information possible. The official says accident prevention is the greatest return on investment and that it is a win-win for everyone.

Veolia secrets to success

Veolia Transportation, Lombard, IL, says it is strongly committed to its MR programs. Jeanne Snyder, area general manager for MTS San Diego, which contracts with Veolia, says the program uniquely allows objective evaluation of drivers in an actual work environment.

“Clear goals are essential in developing a mystery rider program,” says Snyder. “Whether you use a third-party company or have an in-house program you must determine what you expect to get out of the program before you start developing it.”

She encourages other agencies to be hands-on in its formation and then to evaluate the program frequently to ensure criteria is always current.

Simon Herrera, general manager, Victor Valley Transit Authority (VVTA), Victor Valley, CA, covers all drivers every two weeks with his efficient MR rotation system. He says the agency’s ROI has come from improved service efficiency, focused operators and the ability to deal with issues immediately.

“It is vital to appropriately select and train mystery riders,” advises Herrera. “At VVTA we made sure to include disabled persons in our roster since the disabled community is a big part of our service.”

Regarding the MR program’s importance to VVTA Herrera notes: “As general manager, I could not live without it.”

CTA goes public

In the summer of 2007 the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Chicago, IL, launched its Mystery Shopper program using interns and personnel as secret riders. Beginning in March 2008 the agency switched gears and extended the opportunity to actual customers willing to volunteer their analysis for a free fare.

“Our goal is to attract a wide range of day-to-day riders to participate,” says Adam Case, CTA chief of customer communications. “This gives us a very accurate picture of what customers see and experience on a daily basis.”

If there is one clear benefit from an MR program, it’s eyes and ears where management did not have them before. It’s not paranoia, it’s just smart business.