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Inconsistent Service: A bigger problem than the food?

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Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
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One of the consistent things that creeps up in discussions of Long Distance Dining is the inconsistent quality of the On-Board Service.

If we really care about LD trains and seeing them continue, On-Board Service needs to be fixed.

If you ride the LD trains long enough, you'll run across OBS that are absolutely passionate about their job, OBS that treat customers like they're an inconvenience and OBS that basically get the job done without too much fuss.

I want to emphasize that I don't believe the problem is the union. The problem is the lack of supervision. Simply replacing a unionized workforce with a disposable workforce is not the answer. The problem is that the OBS that are complacent drag down the OBS that really care about their jobs. Management has very little way of knowing which is which or coaching out OBS that aren't doing their jobs. Bad union workers can be fired, it just takes proper documentation. I believe that once management starts holding OBS accountable and weeding out the worst offenders, the rest of the employees will follow suit.

While respecting the unionized workforce, there are a few things that Amtrak can do to make sure OBS is consistent, high quality and able to enhance the amazing experience of LD travel:

1. Make the LSA (Lead Service Attendant) management, outside of the TWU (The Union). The LSA's job should be making sure that all the OBS are not just providing good service, but working together as a team. LSAs should be able to help OBS cross-train on each other's jobs, give feedback and provide training on new best practices and procedures. LSAs should also periodically visit sleeping car passenger customers to ask them about their experiences with their Sleeiping Car Attendant.

2. Consistency. Raising the floor: LSAs should not be mandating that passengers cannot have meals in their rooms. They should be providing all available options per policy and communicating that to the passengers. You provide options and let the customer decide, you don't treat the customer like cattle and herd them into your preferred option. A welcome card stating the policies in each room along with the schedule should be standard. The SCA should not be allowed to "turn off" the call buttons to the entire car, etc.

3. Welcome e-mail. Make sure that every sleeping car passenger receives a welcome e-mail from their SCA and LSA. Advise them of the services available and the expectations in place.

4. Survey e-mail. Make sure every sleeping car passenger gets a survey about their OBS, how they were greeted, what services were offered, what policies were followed, etc.

5. Letting good service take precedence over seniority. This is going to be the hardest to get accomplished with the union. Putting a consistent set of service metrics into place and allowing really great service staff to skip the seniority line while pushing mediocre or bad service staff out of the way is key to changing the OBS culture.

None of these things cost more money. If anything, by making the staff more efficient it will save money in the long run.

Thoughts?
 
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MARC Rider

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Basically, I'm happy enough if "they get the job done without too much fuss," and I'm pleasantly surprised if they do a bit more. I don't think you can ask any more from service workers in today's business culture of understaffing. OBS that might "go the extra mile" when the train is not very busy might just have to forgo some of the extras during busy peak seasons. So I'm not sure how much consistency you can expect, unless you force it to the lowest common denominator.

Example: Lat fall on my trip to the Gathering I got to sample flex dining on the Capitol Limited and on the Cardinal. On the Capitol, the SCA took our dinner order, and we needed a reservation, and had to line up in the Cross Country Cafe to have the tray handed to us. We didn't need to pre order or make a rezzie for breakfast, but we still had to line up and have the attendant serve us. On the Cardinal, the attendant served us at our seat at a table in the "sleeper-lounge" side of the cafe car. It was almost like traditional dining car service, except, of course, for the lower quality of the food and place setting. The difference? The Cap was running with at least two Superliner sleepers and appeared to be pretty close to full. The Cardinal had one Viewliner sleeper that had about 12 passengers. Of course the Cardinal attendant was able to give us better service, but at least the Capitol passengers got their meals. The moral of the story is, don't travel when the train is packed.
 

Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
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Michigan
Basically, I'm happy enough if "they get the job done without too much fuss," and I'm pleasantly surprised if they do a bit more.
Same here.

Honestly, I prefer to just make up my own room...and one day I'll start having them bring me coffee.
 

Devil's Advocate

Sarcastic Misanthrope
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Consistency is not always that helpful in and of itself. Ryanair and Spirit Air have extremely consistent service but I wouldn't want Amtrak to copy them or use their service standards as any sort of template. In the same vein a move toward genuine consistency would further limit and restrict what the best SCA's and LSA's would be able to do for us in the future. What I think people are really getting at when they talk about consistency is raising the floor of acceptable service without bringing the roof down on those who already do a good job.
 
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VentureForth

Conductor
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Richmond Hill, GA
I think not-Acela business class is where the greatest inconstancies live. Perhaps because maybe are state run and some aren't. But that's just an excuse and the customers don't care.
 

Steve4031

Conductor
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Chicago
There are issues based on crew base. Chicago is notorious for inconsistency. Los Angeles is better. The sca On 11 sanitized Roomettes between users. There was no evidence of sanitation on 28 after the car arrived on that mornings 27.
 

MARC Rider

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I think not-Acela business class is where the greatest inconstancies live. Perhaps because maybe are state run and some aren't. But that's just an excuse and the customers don't care.
Do you mean Acela First class? Acela business class is basically coach -- there's no service at all, except that the conductor comes by and scans your ticket.
 

MARC Rider

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I think not-Acela business class is where the greatest inconstancies live. Perhaps because maybe are state run and some aren't. But that's just an excuse and the customers don't care.
In re-reading this, I now realize that you probably meant business class on corridor trains. Actually, business class amenities don't need to be consistent nationwide, all they need to be is something better than the coach service on that particular train. Thus, the hard product on NEC business class gives you a seat that's about the same as an Amfleet 2 long distance coach, and also has window curtains like LD coach. It's certainly better than the Amfleet 1 coaches, in which the seats are closer together, and there's nothing to keep the sun out of your eyes. There's also no attendant or extra service in NEC BC, you can get a free drink at the cafe car. On the other hand, the Carolinian has a business class attendant, but, if you ask me, they could do without it, because you can't get your free BC drink except when the attendant comes by, and I'd rather just be able to go to the cafe car and get it when I want it. The Vermonter has a better BC hard product in that they have the 2-1 club seating, but there's no particular other extra service. (Although one not-so-busy morning, the cafe attendant on the Vermonter brought my breakfast order to my seat, though I did have to get up to order and pay for it beforehand.)

However, the main reason I pay for business class is that it's usually less crowded. Who needs service on a short trip, like between Baltimore and New York?
 

Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
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What I think people are really getting at when they talk about consistency is raising the floor of acceptable service without bringing the roof down on those who already do a good job.
Maybe consistency is not the right way of saying: Stop lying to the customers. But yes, raising the floor it is.
 

Nick Farr

Lead Service Attendant
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Would you have a good attitude if your boss wanted the company to go out of business?
Yes.

There's almost never an excuse for a bad attitude or doing a bad job. If you don't want to do the work, quit.

You really never know when the person you're serving will be interviewing you for your next job. Do you want them to remember you for having a bad attitude or being good at your job?
 

bms

Service Attendant
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Jan 29, 2018
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Cleveland
It is definitely annoying that every train, every station, and even every crew seems to have its own procedures. There is a standards manual that is very good, they just need to follow it.
 

Maglev

OBS Chief
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Orcas Island, Washington
I have always worked at service jobs, and have indeed worked on a "sinking ship" (Rosario Resort at the end of its Gemstone era and before bought by Gerry Barto in 2008). Management had no desire to serve customers well, and this attitude spread to the staff. The management at Amtrak seeks to reduce service on the long-distance network by 57%, and this is a cause for a bad attitude among employees.

I have always tried to treat customers well because that is who I am. But the idea that someone might interview me for my next job never entered my mind until it was mentioned here.
 

Dakota 400

Conductor
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It is definitely annoying that every train, every station, and even every crew seems to have its own procedures. There is a standards manual that is very good, they just need to follow it.
If the standards manual is very good and detailed as to what service is to be provided, then such ought to be followed by all service employees to the best of their ability.

How to do so: my suggestions---

#1: All service employees are required to attend paid in-service instructional seminars regarding the Service Manual at their crew base on a regular basis. Maybe, once per year?

#2: The position of On-board Service Chief be re-established with the needed authority to insure that passengers are receiving the service for which they paid.

#3: Post-trip e-mail surveys sent to guests who have provided their e-mail addresses with encouragement to mention those crew members who met/exceeded the expectations of the guest as well as those crew members who need a "refresher" course in the Standards Manual.
 

Dakota 400

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3. Welcome e-mail. Make sure that every sleeping car passenger receives a welcome e-mail from their SCA and LSA. Advise them of the services available and the expectations in place.
This is an innovative idea regarding the services available and the expectations. For such an e-mail to come from their specific LSA and SCA may not be workable because of the unexpected unavailability of that crew member or for some other reason.

Having a brief "welcoming message" when one arrives in one's sleeper's accommodations, that includes the SCA's name, is a positive sign for a good trip. (I have found a card with my SCA's name welcoming me aboard on both of my Silver Meteor trips.)
 

Qapla

Conductor
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Gator Country Florida
The problem with such email surveys is that many people don't bother with them. Most of the people that do respond are the ones who want to complain - sometimes they even complain about good service simply because they like to complain.
 

Devil's Advocate

Sarcastic Misanthrope
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The problem with such email surveys is that many people don't bother with them. Most of the people that do respond are the ones who want to complain - sometimes they even complain about good service simply because they like to complain.
Amtrak claims that most of the feedback about their new flexicon cafeteria mush is positive.
 

crescent-zephyr

Conductor
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Oct 21, 2015
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There are issues based on crew base. Chicago is notorious for inconsistency. Los Angeles is better. The sca On 11 sanitized Roomettes between users. There was no evidence of sanitation on 28 after the car arrived on that mornings 27.
I’ve had the absolute worst Amtrak customer service experiences from the LA crew base. Both in the dining car.
I’ve also had great crews from LA.

In my personal experience New Orleans is the best, I’ve never had bad OBS crews from that base but could be all luck. Miami seems to be a good crew base as well.
 

Palmetto

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So: how does one know what crew base a crew member is from? I don't travel enough to be able to ascertain that, but I am curious. Just conversation with the crew? If so, one would have to travel a lot, it seems, to be able to make judgements on how members of a certain crew base perform. Enquiring minds want to know.;)
 

Sauve850

OBS Chief
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Jan 9, 2014
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West Palm Beach, Florida
So: how does one know what crew base a crew member is from? I don't travel enough to be able to ascertain that, but I am curious. Just conversation with the crew? If so, one would have to travel a lot, it seems, to be able to make judgements on how members of a certain crew base perform. Enquiring minds want to know.;)
In casual conversation I always ask members of the crew where they are based. Is it their home, family, what life is like on the road, etc. Im genuinely curious and it helps the trip go smoother.
 

RichieRich

Lead Service Attendant
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Dec 2, 2016
Messages
328
The AT has 5. I can tell by the voice when the crew chief makes announcements. Even though I do 10 r/t's a year...there's so many crew members, I don't run across the same people all the time as the odds aren't great you'd have the same one serving your particular car. Some are more "talkative" if they're ol-timers as we reminisce about the good-ol-daze on the AT.
 

crescent-zephyr

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So: how does one know what crew base a crew member is from? I don't travel enough to be able to ascertain that, but I am curious. Just conversation with the crew? If so, one would have to travel a lot, it seems, to be able to make judgements on how members of a certain crew base perform. Enquiring minds want to know.;)
The different crew bases serve different trains. City of New Orleans is a NOL based crew for example.
 
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