Customer Experience Lessons From The Chicago Transit Authority: A Cautionary Tale

5th Dec 2013

Every company needs to change the way it interacts with its customers on occasion. Whether it’s new or updated systems, services, offerings, channels or locations, these changes are both expected and required. But how a company implements these changes can either delight customers or alienate them.

This is a story about what not to do when these inevitable changes occur. How not to plan. How not to execute. And how not to communicate. Basically, it’s about how not to repeat the mistakes of others by learning from them. For that and more, please join me in thanking the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).  They recently transitioned their 1.7 million daily ridersfrom a proprietary payment system to Ventra, a third-party service provider – and failed miserably.

Why The Chicago Transit Authority Should Have Thought About Customer Experience

At its core, customer experience is pretty simple. Whether you sell transportation, retail goods or health insurance, the way customers feel about any interaction between themselves and the organizations that serve them is based on their expectations of what that interaction should be like.

A good experience occurs when expectations are met or exceeded, and a poor experience occurs if they’re not. The truth is, companies that fail to understand customer needs can’t provide exceptional customer experience. So what could the CTA have done differently? As it turns out, a lot.

Lesson One: Understand Your Objectives

The CTA exists to get Chicagoans from where they are to where they need to be on its trains and buses – safely, reliably and conveniently. Of course, they need to do so efficiently as well. That’s exactly why they joined the thousands of companies that outsource some business processes to help streamline their core functions.

While the CTA focused on the efficiency gains they’d get by transitioning to a touchless card reader (the Ventra transit payment system whose botched rollout is the focus of this article), the agency lost focus on its greater objectives – providing reliable convenience to its customers.

Avoid this mistake by clearly defining the objectives for any change-related, customer-facing initiative in the context of your broader business strategy and your customers’ expectations of your company.

Lesson Two: Understand Your Customers and Your Environment

In a recent Chicago Tribune article, CTA President Forrest Claypool was quoted as saying “(Ventra) hasn’t fully met our expectations yet, or those of our customers.’’ The key word here is “expectations.” Unsurprisingly, the best way to consistently meet customer expectations is to know what those expectations are.

The fact is, there’s a complex set of interdependencies between people, processes, systems and technologies that, together, shape customer interactions. A deep understanding of these connections is at the core of any successful experience redesign (or technology rollout).

There are many ways to illuminate these interdependencies and see what is (or isn’t) working and why.  Tools such as customer journey maps, when informed by customer research, give companies a visual understanding of what customers go through when using their services. While it sounds, and is, logical, it’s stunning how many organizations – CTA among them – don’t take customer expectations into account.

Lesson Three: Take the Time to Design the Experience (And Engage Users in the Process)

In the context of customer experience, “design” isn’t just a creative exercise. Experience design must take multiple perspectives and systems into account (see Lesson Two above). As the CTA and Ventra discovered, it’s difficult to succeed without taking these multiple considerations into account.

That’s why experience designers take new and existing systems, habits, data and processes into account, often leading to a re-engineering of the approach. Had the CTA brought designers and users into the process, they would have seen issues before they occurred by taking the “real-world dynamic” of bus rider behavior into account.

Take the way the touchless system transmits payment information, when riders board a bus through the front door. Bus drivers would have been able to tell the Ventra team that passengers exit through the front doors sometimes too. Had this been considered, the now-massive problem of charging riders a second time could have been avoided. By actively engaging customers, partners, and employees as part of the experience design process, you’ll see – and resolve – problems before they arise.

Lesson Four: Monitor, Iterate and Improve

Most major technology rollouts or system/service/process redesigns encounter some issues. That’s generally not as big a problem, if you have the systems in place to assess, learn from, solve for and improve where problems occur.  In the case of the CTA, they didn’t analyze, much less understand, all aspects of the customer journey.

So when riders had problems, there was little they could do to resolve them – because customer service was only available between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays, with customers waiting up to 45 minutes for service.  While obvious in hindsight, a lack of consideration for problems occurring outside of “normal business hours” was yet another nail in the nearly half-billion dollar rollout’s coffin.

Thinking About Customer Experience is Always a Good Idea

Why should the CTA – or any organization making a significant change in the way people interact, including, for example, the White House and – have thought about customer experience? Because what happens when they don’t has the potential to be an unmitigated disaster by almost every measure, derailing customer relationships and organizational objectives.

Consider the CTA – an organization that didn’t take the time to understand their customer’s needs. Add technology to the mix, and the inevitable impact of government bureaucracy. Layer in the complexity of getting more than 1.5 million people from point A to point B all day, every day, and you have one of two things: A rare opportunity to positively impact millions of customers by making their lives easier, or a potential PR and customer service nightmare. Now, we know how that turned out.

The good news is that others can avoid a similar train wreck. Provided, of course, the mistakes of others become lessons learned.

This blog originally ran on, where Michael Hinshaw writes the weekly “Get Customer-Centric” blog.

Read More
Just how high is the price for delivering a poor customer experience?
Strategic Planning for Brand, Marketing and Customer Experience
9 Ways To Be More Customer-Centric
The Key To Customer Experience Is Customer Understanding
You Might Be Running A Stupid Company If…


© 2013 Michael Hinshaw and MCorp Consulting. All rights reserved. Read this article and others on Touchpoint Insights, the MCorp Consulting blog. Touchpoint Mapping®Brand MappingSM and Loyalty Mapping® are registered trademarks of MCorp Consulting.


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Alleli Aspili
By Alleli Aspili
18th Dec 2013 03:41

Loved your article! Maybe this article could become an inspiration as well: This article is a round-up of top 10 inspiring Zappos customer support stories. I don't think they've ever planned for these instances... they just happened. And their customers loved it!

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