On the front line of customer service: Station Agents see it all


On the front line of customer service: Station Agents see it all

Station Agents are the face of BART for many riders but the position might be one of the most misunderstood in the agency.  On the latest edition of our podcast series "Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART" we take an in-depth look at Station Agents and the challenges they face on the job.  Great customer service is the goal and many times Station Agents must respond to the unexpected. The new podcast explores the various responsibilities Station Agents handle every day and features an extended interview with veteran Station Agent Felicia. 

station agent

HOST: “Station agents are on the front line for BART when it comes to customer service.  Their duties often extend well beyond the booth near the fare gates.  It can include explaining the basics of how the system works.”

FELICIA: “If you’re ever wondering and you want to check it, touch it again.  The top line will tell you what your current value is and this one just tells you that the minimum you can add is five cents because we don’t use pennies.”

CUSTOMER: “Thank you.”

FELICIA: “You’re welcome, thank you!”

HOST: “A primary focus of the job is helping people to find their way.  Many times that involves going the extra mile to assist riders with different needs, such as someone who is legally blind.”

FELICIA: “When you hear your station, you’re going to go to downtown Oakland so are you going to 12th or 19th Street?  Which one do you want?”

CUSTOMER: “12th.”

HOST: “On this edition of “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART” I visited the Union City Station and spoke with Felicia, who has been a station agent for BART for 11 years.  She says the life of a station agent is never dull.”

FELICIA: “That is true.  The actual role of a Station Agent, for all Station Agents because there’s opening agents, there’s mid-day agents and closing agents, and we all have different duties within the station.  But the overall responsibility of every agent is passenger assistance.  We have to assist passengers with ticket sales at the machines, with Clipper card upgrades, with adding fare to exit a station, adding fair for parking.  Sometimes they need assistance, elderly people need assistance up to the train.  We have to assist the blind and the disabled up to the train, guide them in the right way to go.  We have to go retrieve items that are lost or left on a train.  We check the escalators for safety, we check the station for any spills, needles, anything that could cause an accident or prove to be a hazard for passengers.  And then we call it fingertip maintenance, so that’s when one of our machines breaks down in the middle of use we go out there before a tech can get here and put a band aid on it basically to get it up and running before the mechanics can come here and totally fix it again.  We keep the passenger flow going, that’s our main thing to keep the passenger flow going.”

HOST: “You have a lot of ground to cover.”station agent

FELICIA: “Yes, absolutely and it’s usually just one agent for an entire station unless you’re in San Francisco and there are two agents because those stations are like three San Francisco city blocks.  It’s a lot of ground to cover.”

HOST: “Tell me a little bit about the training you get.  It seems like you have to be so knowledgeable about the inner workings of BART to be ready to answer people’s questions.  How do you get prepared for that?”

FELICIA: “Honestly, not to say anything bad about training but you can’t get enough training to prepare you for the actual work when you come out.  A lot of it is just common-sense knowledge or common courtesy or customer service.  You develop the skill the longer you’re here, you develop faster ways to do things.  The longer you’re out here the more you develop people skills and that helps you every day all day because people will come and ask you the same question every single time, every minute of the day or you’ll do the same thing so many times in a day and you’ll say, ‘oh my goodness I just did this.’  But that’s the art of being a Station Agent.  It’s repetitive because we’re dealing with different people, different backgrounds, different cultures, and that’s our job.”

HOST: “And you’re dealing with people also who bring different abilities to the table as well.  In fact when I first met you here at the Union City Station you were assisting a patron who is legally blind and she needed some extra help and you were able to provide that.  I would imagine that sort of thing is not uncommon.”

FELICIA: “No, it’s very, very common.  I’ve had passengers that’ll tell me, ‘I’m afraid to go on the escalator will you guide me to the elevator.’  I’ve had elderly people who have lots of stuff, carts and the elevators go out of service.  We go and assist them.  They call us on the phone and, ‘I have all this stuff, the elevators not working, the escalator is not working.’  That’s our job, we go and assist them in whatever way possible.  It’s customer service.”

HOST: “Put it into context for us.  On a typical day how many riders will you help?  How many will you talk to?

FELICIA: “On a typical day, each station is different.  This station here since I’ve been here since September 11th this station I’ve proven to help about maybe five people an hour.  Like literally from their beginning of entry here until the time they get on a train about five people an hour.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Felicia who is a Station Agent for BART here at the Union City Station.  I would think you really have to be a people person to do this job well.  Do you agree with that?”

FELICIA: “Oh absolutely, absolutely and that’s what it’s all about.  There are days when we have our bad days, we do, because everybody has their bad days but there’s always that one passenger or that one smile you can put on somebody’s face or that one good dead that we can do and then somebody says, ‘thank you so much.’  I have people come to me constantly, ‘oh, the other day you helped me do this’ or they remember me and I don’t remember them because there are so many faces and I’ll just be like, ‘oh, thank you.’  So you realize that everything that I do is being appreciated by someone out there.  So maybe everybody doesn’t understand what we do, doesn’t know exactly everything that goes into being a Station Agent but if that one percent that gives us that thank you or that atta girl, or that pat on the back it makes it all worth it.”

HOST: “On the other side of that coin obviously not everybody is always in the best mood when they come to your booth or they approach you with a question or a concern.  How do you deal with that?”station agent

FELICIA: “I’ve developed a new way of dealing with that.  When people come to me and they’re all angry I just kind of stare at them for a minute and just kind of look at them and they’ll go, ‘are you listening to me’ and I say, ‘yes, but it’s kind of hard because you’re yelling at me and I didn’t do anything to you so I’m trying to understand where all the anger and hostility is coming from.’   Then some people are like, ‘I’m so sorry but I’m just having a bad day,’ well don’t we all.  You just have to get them back to their happy place or just give them a moment because they don’t even realize sometimes that they’re yelling at you.   Then there are some that you just can’t help so you just smile and say, ‘thank you, have a good day, and thank you for choosing BART.’  They’ll kind of give you that look like I was really evil to you and then they comeback.  I’ve had some comeback the next day or next week and say, ‘I just want to apologize I was really rude to you, it wasn’t your fault’ but that’s part of being a customer servant.   I got attacked in a booth and it was a really nice guy.  It was an elderly gentleman, a really nice guy and he just walked into my booth and started attacking me and then he didn’t even realize that’s what he did.  Really, honestly it’s just part of the job.”

HOST: “That sounds really scary for something like that to happen.  Has that happened multiple times to you?”

FELICIA: “Since I’ve been an agent I’ve been attacked five times.”

HOST: “Wow!”

FELICIA: “Yes, one time at Powell Street Station a guy came with a closed fist punched me in the back of my head.  I was attacked at Fruitvale Station.  I was attacked at 12th Street Station, was attacked at Bay Point, and I can’t even remember the other one.  People don’t realize that but it’s the norm.  It’s sad but it’s the norm.  Lately there have been a lot of agents that have been attacked so we’re on guard.  When we’re standoffish to people it’s not that we don’t want to help them it’s that with so many reports if I come out of the booth and I’m not extremely nice are you going to punch me?  I just try to be standoffish a little bit away from the people but smile so they know if I’m ok you’re ok.  But yes, we get a lot of Station Agent attacks.”

HOST: “That has to be a big concern.  With that in mind, what keeps you coming back?  You’ve been doing this for many years now.  There must be something about the job that brings you back despite those concerns.”

FELICIA: “Because the majority of our customers are not violent.  When BART has a bad day it has a really bad day and to know that we assisted in letting the system run smoothly, we’ve done as much as we could and people were able to get home to their families and if I’m not having a good day maybe I can make somebody else’s day good, which makes me have a good day at the end of the day.”

HOST: “Another big topic recently has been fare evasion.  There’s been a lot of discussion about that even at the Board level talking about new approaches, new strategies for dealing with that.  There’s been a lot of focused enforcement from BART police, especially in the last few months.  Obviously, you must see it quite a bit I would assume.  How do you deal with that, what can you do about that?”

FELICIA: “That’s one of the hardest questions because it makes me angry, it does.  I feel it’s a complete disrespect for you to walk past my booth, not have your fare, and you look at me as if to say, ‘oh I’m going to walk out anyway I don’t have any money, you don’t come talk to me.’  We can help people if they talk to us.  Everybody can’t be helped, this is a business but if you come talk to us we can help you.  But just the blatant lack of respect and then the paying customers look at us and be like, ‘you didn’t just see that person walk out or hop the gate what are you doing to do about it?’  There’s not much we can do.  It’s out of our hands.  I wish I could come up with a way other than I look at other transportation systems they have emergency gates that are locked, that have alarms on them.  Sometimes it deters people, sometimes it doesn’t but we can try.  All we can do is try.”  

HOST: “It has to be a safety concern for you to not get involved, that has to be really at the forefront of the mind I would think.”

FELICIA: “Yes, because if they don’t have their money and I run after them and say, ‘hey you didn’t pay your fare,’ they can turn around and now I’m out of my safety zone.  The booth is our safety zone.  Now I’m out of my safety zone and if I get attacked I have no place to go.  Approaching people is not something that I do, I don’t approach.  If you walk out of the gate there’s nothing I can do about it.  If BART police are around in the station I do call.  I call, give a full description, sometimes they catch them sometimes they don’t but as a station agent that’s the best we can do.  And it’s not enough.  I understand our passengers’ frustration, I understand the company’s frustration because we’re all frustrated.”

HOST: “I think a lot of people just assume that once you work at a station as a Station Agent that’s your station and you’re there and that’s where you’re going to work until something dramatic happens, you leave or whatever the case may be.  But that’s not the case, there’s a lot of movement isn’t there?”

FELICIA: “There is a lot of movement everything is based on seniority.  I happened to luck up, this is considered one of the better stations, Union City.  I just happened to luck up on getting the opening shift but I’m sure when the agent starts feeling better and she comes back I will no longer be able to get this station.  You just become a chameleon, you kind of conform to the environment of where you’re working at and you just adapt to your environment as a Station Agent and that’s just the way it is.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Felicia one of our station agents at BART.  What’s the toughest part of your job?”

FELICIA: “Oh wow, getting here (laughs).  Getting up in the morning and getting here.”

HOST: “I don’t mean to interrupt but we should be clear you’re working the very early hours.”

FELICIA: “I work 3:50 in the morning, yeah, so beyond getting here I think the toughest part of my job is when the equipment fails and I’m not able to assist the person or there’s a language barrier and I literally just can’t get through to them and it’s like we’re at a standstill.  For me luckily, I haven’t had any, as a train operator when I was a train operator I didn’t have any suicides on my train but I’m assuming that has to be a really hard thing for a Station Agent in their station to actually see that and have to deal with a death or really bad accident.  Those are the really tough days.”

HOST: “What’s your favorite part of this job?”

FELICIA: “I get a lot of passengers because I’m so flamboyant, the passenger compliments I think are the best part of my job.  Just getting to interact with the people and I get a lot of tourists so I learn a lot from a lot of different people and having them talk to me but I actually do like dealing with the public.  It has its perks, it has its perks, not everybody is an angry bird so that’s what I like.  I like the whole dealing with the public.

HOST: “You have a very special look, you sparkle!”

FELICIA: “I do, funny you should say that I have a co-worker who calls me Sparkle.  Everybody else calls me Bling.  I like that, getting up, getting dressed, coming to work, and just shining.  That’s the best part of my day.”

HOST: “We were talking about the different stations that you could be assigned to and every one of those stations is obviously different with different needs at different stations.  Is it a challenge to learn that and to learn the layout of the different stations so you’re as familiar as you possibly can be?”

FELICIA: “It is, it is because you do have to learn different stations.  I work the stations but working them because somebody didn’t show up or working them for one or two hours is different from actually having that as your home station.  This is my very first time actually having this station as my own station.  I had to learn where the switches were to open up in the morning and which way the escalators go in; the layout of the station and where the different rooms were.  Once you get the station down then you have to start learning what type of passenger flow you have.  What time of day you have the most passengers.  You get the regulars all the time.  I have regulars that come in the morning all the time, we speak, we’re on a first-name basis so you get to learn that but every station is different.  Some of them still ask me, ‘what ever happened to the other lady that used to be here’ because they’re so used to seeing her, this was her home for years.  You get used to every station being different, it brings different problems, it brings its own flow of environment, and you have to learn that.   You have to learn how to open that station, how to close that station.  I have to learn what buses go where at this station.  This is all new to me like I’ve never worked Union City or Fremont out here.  People are like ‘oh I need to get the DB’ I was like what is that?  That’s the Dumbarton Express bus, I know that now and I know where it comes.  You have to adapt and you get to learn a lot about the Bay Area based on the stations you work.”

HOST: “In terms of the answers that you have to provide there must be a lot of work that goes into that.  You need to know the bus routes, you need to know where to transfer, you need to know the fares, and everybody is coming to you expecting answers.”

FELICIA: “Exactly and that’s one of those things we talked about earlier that you don’t learn in class because there wouldn’t be a way for training to teach us every bus for every city we service.  So as you work those stations you learn, you meet those bus drivers, you meet the other transit companies and you find out where their buses go, they give you bus schedules.  We’re not required to know that but that’s that little extra mile that we go to help the passengers that they like.  Passengers come to me all the time and I hate trying to say, “I work for BART, I’m not really sure about AC Transit or I’m not really sure about this location.’  It’s easier when I can tell them, ‘oh yeah just right across the street there you catch the Dumbarton Express, for the schedules though you need to speak with the bus driver or whatever,’ but at least I can tell them where for the general area.  Then streets in the area, you pick that up too from just talking to different people or on breaks kind of exploring around.  It’s one of those things, you develop that skill the longer you’re in one place the more you know about the surroundings and you just pick those skills up.”

HOST: “Even though you get moved from station to station do you still find yourself taking a sense of ownership in that this is your station while you’re working here?”

FELICIA: “Absolutely.  When I am in a station no matter where I am I always tell people, ‘I’m the station manager.  Between these hours here this is who you have to go through, I’m the station manager.’  So yeah, it’s my station when I’m there because technically I’m responsible for everything that goes on at that station during my shift so it does become my station.  I don’t worry about what the next agent will do.  This is my station, I’m clocked in now and I’m here to work and I’m here for duty and this is it.”

HOST: “Do you have any fond memories of a time when you helped a rider and felt like you went above and beyond there and really made a person’s day?”

FELICIA: “I did.  Actually, we had a lost child.  The little boy was crying and nervous about it.  I got him off the train from the train operator and I had a talk with him.  I calmed him down, we found his mom, and he was so happy, she was happy.    She had come with two other smaller children, they had just landed, and he was so excited about trains he hoped on a train without even noticing that his mom wasn’t behind him.  Luckily, he only went one station.  That was a happy reunion for me.

But I think the one that stands out the most to me is Gabriel, I still remember his name.  He’s still my little buddy.  He had on his little rubber rain boots, they were Minions and he got it stuck in the escalator.  His mom was pregnant and she was freaking out and I thought she was going to have that baby.  Her husband was with her and I went over and I calmed her down and I took Gabriel and I picked him up and offered him some candy that was in the booth.  I calmed him down and he said, ‘I want a band aid.’  He didn’t have a scratch on his leg but I gave him a band aid anyway because it calmed him down and it calmed the mother down so she didn’t have to worry about him.  Every day he comes to me in the both and says, ‘hi my friend!’  I saw them outside of BART and he walked up to me and somebody was pulling on my little skirt and I was like who was that and it was my friend, he remembered me and I always get a hug from him now.  We have a relationship now and I wouldn’t have ever known the boy if his shoe had not been stuck.  It was scary but that was a built relationship so now that’s a friendship, I have a friendship with little Gabriel.”

HOST: “That’s awesome and so much of your job is customer service but you really are the face of BART.  For lack of a better phrase you’re almost a first responder.  If something happens at your station you’re probably the first BART employee who is going to see it.”

FELICIA: “We are.  We are absolutely the first one there, the first one to go into action, the first one to strike into action.  We don’t have the time to be scared.  We don’t have the time to be nervous.  We don’t have the time to freeze up.  We have to go into action immediately.  Anytime there’s an accident, injury, emergency situation we have to kick into gear.  That’s not something people see on the street.  We’re like behind the scenes, by the time it’s all over with we’re the behind the scenes person but we’re the first responders.   We are literally first on the scene there helping that person doing as much as we can until we can get help.

They used to tell us in training, ‘you’re the eyes and ears of BART.’  We really are, I really believe that we are the eyes and ears of BART.  We get all the complaints from customers before we send them to management they come to us first because we’re the person they see.  They don’t see the people at Lakeside (BART HQ) they see the Station Agent so this is who they’re going to complain to.  Train delays, we get it.  If they smell brakes, instead of them calling the Train Operator they come downstairs and they tell the Station Agent so then we have to kick into action.   Passenger’s reported smell of brakes, passenger reported somebody passed out on a train.  They don’t tell the train operator, they get off the train and run downstairs and tell us.  That’s who they see so that’s the first person they tell and now it’s our job now that we’ve been notified to kick into gear.”

HOST: “If there was one thing about your job that you wish the public knew that they probably don’t what would it be?”

FELICIA: “We do not sit in that booth and do absolutely nothing all day.  It’s very rare that we have downtime as a Station Agent, it could be the quietest station in the system and trust me there’s not a whole lot of downtime.  Between what we’re required to do to keep the passengers safe and to make sure we have a clean station and between doing reports and making sure our machines are running we don’t have a whole lot of downtime.  Really there’s barely time to run out and go use the restroom because that’s the kind of system we have.  It’s an ever-growing system and we’re always full of responsibilities and I wish people would understand it’s not what you see.  One person told me one time it’s not what we do it’s what we know so we are supposed to know automatically just to kick into gear when certain situations happen.  We monitor our radios so when the Train Operator is upstairs and they say I’m at Union City Station and I got a person passed out, if we’re monitoring our radio plus taking care of passengers I can hear that.  I’m like, ‘oh shoot, that train is at my station let me see if they need my assistance.’  Passengers don’t see that, the public doesn’t see that but that’s what we do.”

HOST: “Felicia, thank you so much for joining us.”

FELICIA: “You’re very welcome.  Thank you for having me again it was a pleasure.”

HOST: “And thank you for listening to ‘Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.’  You can listen to our podcasts on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, and of course at our website BART.gov/podcasts.”