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Episode 149 Guest Danny Levy

Few public transit agencies dedicate an employee to improve how riders experience the system each day. Danny Levy of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority tackled this unique role by mapping the customer experience and communicating the “why” behind projects. 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT TO COME

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Cohen: Josh Cohen

Levy: Danny Levy

F: Female Speaker

Cohen: If you’re going to hire someone to focus on improving the customer experience in public transit, it helps if they truly understand the experience as a rider.  For Danny Levy, the chief customer officer for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, that started from the first time she took the T as a teenager.  You’ll hear how that experience impacted her, coming up next on The Movement podcast.  Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all.  Welcome to The Movement, where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders.  Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.  

Cohen: Danny Levy is the chief customer officer of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or the T, as the locals call it, where she directs the customer experience at one of the oldest public transportation systems in the nation.  Previously, she served as the chief marketing officer for Massport, the agency that owns and operates Boston’s Logan Airport, among other assets.  Welcome to The Movement, Danny.

Levy: Thank you, Josh.  I’m delighted to be here.

Cohen: Well, good.  I’m looking forward to this, and primarily because the T is one of my favorite transit systems around.  It’s probably—

Levy: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: —the big-city transit system that I probably used the most and the earliest, kind of in my adult life.  So I have a lot of fond memories about it.  So, it’s great to be able to chat today, especially someone that’s kind of playing such an important role in making the T work.

Levy: I am flattered that you find the T one of your favorites.  I have—the T has a special place in my heart, coming from Boston, of course.  And I love when people say that, because I equate the T to the Red Sox.  Everyone loves to hate us.  They’re rooting for our success, and we disappoint them greatly, oftentimes.

Cohen: Wow.  So maybe—I shared there at the top there that you have some experience at Massport as well, and many people have, I’m sure, flown to Boston Logan Airport, or through Logan Airport.  So I’m curious what your mobility story is.  I mean, you worked at Massport and the T, both primarily focused on moving people.  How did that happen?  What’s the story there?

Levy: On a personal level, I remember taking the T, riding the T in high school, Josh.  My parents lived in Milton, a little bit outside of Boston, and I had this fantastic internship in downtown Boston, which required me to take the trolly from Mattapan station to Ashmont, where I rode the Red Line to get me to downtown Boston.

And I remember, as a teenager, being fascinated by the people riding the T.  From Ashmont to Alewife, there were so many stops.  And as you watched the people going in and out, all different walks of life, and it hit me early on that the T is an equalizer.  You don’t know who you’re sitting next to.  You don’t know that this could be an MIT, Harvard professor sitting next to a construction worker, or a student, or a doctor.  And I would sit there, riding the T and making up stories in my head about these people.  At the time, there was no social media, no iPhones, so I just found myself making stories up.  So that’s kind of my mobility story in terms of what interests me about transportation.

And—but going to Massport was a little bit after 9/11.  And if you can recall, Massport, Boston Logan International Airport specifically, was at a really low point in its history.  And my background is primarily strategic communications, telling stories, how to rebuild brands, how we make connections between our brands and the individuals who use it.

Cohen: Wow.  I mean, that must have been just an intense period to be a part of Logan Airport, especially—I guess you were there for a number of years, and so there was a huge growth during that time as well, right?

Levy: Absolutely.  And I really am proud of myself in terms of—and my team, in terms of the growth following 9/11.  What I loved about Massport at the time, it was this can-do attitude of the folks who worked there, although they were viewed as the pariah; no one wanted to go there.  The media loved to hate us and tell negative stories and remind people that we were the advent of 9/11.  Folks at the airport, Josh, they hunkered down.  They had a belief in themselves.  They wanted to do better, and they were committed to success.  And I’d never seen anything like this.

They had this belief of excellence, which I admired and respected, and being part of rebuilding that brand for nearly 15 years.  I’m particularly excited of the fact that I was able to reintroduce the international airlines, my time at Massport.  From Japan Airlines, to El Al flying to Israel, to Qatar, Emirates, and small ones in between, we had a lot of fun rebuilding the international brand at Logan Airport.

Cohen: Now, I think what’s so interesting about, you know, that experience that you just talked about where it’s kind of a low point, and certainly as it relates to public transit that you alluded to before, kind of that people really love to hate on you, if you will—I’m curious, is there something special that is within you that allows you to deal with some of that negative energy or use it for positive?  Or is it something that you’ve kind of grown to know how to deal with?  I’m curious kind of how you do that.  Because not everybody could deal with that very well, I guess, is what I’m trying to get at there.

Levy: I appreciate that.  I think I’m a glutton for punishment.  No.  I really believe, and I love challenges.  And Logan was a challenge.  And I have to say, when the call first came, I didn’t jump at the opportunity; I was a little bit hesitant, and I wasn’t sure if I could even pull it off.  But the more I spoken to my then boss and others, it really intrigued me.

And after speaking to others, it was clear; they were ready for change.  Challenges are challenges; however, if folks you’re working with are not ready to roll up their sleeves and be committed to change, then we won’t be successful.  And I realized that the folks that I would be working with, they were willing, and they were already rolling up their sleeves.  And then coming to the T, Josh, was the same thing, was, you know—the winter of 2015 was a nightmare, of course.

Cohen: Yeah.

Levy: And I came in, in 2018.  We still had that air, if you will, the epithet of the winter of 2015 still surrounding us.  But I remember meeting my team, and they were just fantastic.  They were looking for—I don’t call myself a leader; I call myself the conductor.  They were willing.  They were so embracing of me joining the team, incredibly supportive.

I remember speaking to the secretary of transportation, and she goes, “You love challenges.”  And I do.  And then I said, “Yes.”  And it’s been an amazing experience for the past three years.

Cohen: I really love to hear that, because I think sometimes that, again, less so on the inside of the transportation industry and the public transit industry, anybody who works inside the industry kind of knows how hard everyone works in the industry and how much people are interested in seeing it succeed.  The general public doesn’t always see that.  Right?  The general public kind of is the ones that sometimes can hold, you know, such a high standard—and maybe high standards are okay—but maybe an unfair standard sometimes to how complex an organization it is to move, you know, hundreds of thousands to millions of people a day.  I mean, it’s just an intense, intensely complex thing, and it really—and obviously, there’s just so many hardworking people that help to make that happen every day.

Levy: I absolutely agree with that statement.  The Customer Experience Department at the MBTA was the brainchild of our FMCB board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt.  She envisioned this department, and she cobbled it together.  And at the time, I don’t truly think folks understood what customer experience was or what it ought to be doing.  And my team, they were disparate.  Right?  They were a disparate group of people brought together and called “Customer Experience.”  And they were doing their thing in their silos, and doing it well for the most part.  But what was the vision and the strategy behind customer experience?  And that’s when I came in.  And this was new to me as well.

So I remember, one of the first things I did early on was having a workshop.  I held a workshop with my team and others, I think some folks from the Customer Technology Department.  This was really about me understanding the experience, the customer experience as it’s called.  And we took ourselves from leaving our homes—what is the customer journey?  We mapped it out.  And we asked ourselves, “Okay, what do customers need, or what do we need when we’re here?  What do we offer customers?  What would be great to offer customers?  What’s missing?”

So we did that throughout each aspect of the customer journey, Josh, to fully understand the customer experience, first and foremost.  And that was an eye-opening experience for me, being new in all this, and I think it helped my team start thinking about things differently.  So I’m at a bus stop.  What do I need?  What would be great?  Here.  What’s missing?  I’m on the platform.  What would be great?  What do we need?  What’s missing?  How are our announcements?  How do they sound?  Are they providing us clear, concise information, real-time information, headway, arrival times?  Is it clear?  Does it makes sense?  Hence the Customer Experience Department at the T.

Cohen: So, I mean, certainly, in a complex organization like the T or any public transit agency, you’ve got more desires than you have funds.  Right?  And so how did you get some of these things through?  Because I imagine some of them cost money.  Maybe other ones maybe didn’t cost as much money as it maybe just was a shift in focus or a shift in prioritization or something like that.  But how did you get the funds to help make some of these things a reality?

Levy: That’s a great question.  I think it was really getting the commitment and the support of leadership, internal leadership and the board.  And when they hired me, they were serious about customer experience, so they thought, right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Levy: So you have to put your money where your mouth is.

Cohen: Yeah.

Levy: And we had to show—I had to show success early on, using, you know, a shoestring budget, and we did.  And there were some low-hanging fruit that we could really turn on pretty quickly.  And again, with the support of the Customer Technology Department that were already working on some of this real-time information, if you will, coupled with our customer experience team, we were able to show success early on in the short term.  And we just built on that.  Then the pandemic hit.  [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Yeah, well, I mean, and obviously that’s just a huge disruption that has changed how a lot of people are moving.  Certainly, I’m sure that’s impacted some of the commuter rail.

Levy: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: At least what I’m seeing in other communities as well, just with how that’s working.  Going—stepping back, though, to some of that low-hanging fruit.  So you mentioned, you know, real-time information was one, just to help people understand when that bus or that subway car or that railcar was coming.  So, you know—which obviously is important here where I live in North Carolina in the winter, but it’s maybe life or death up in Massachusetts, not having to wait outside for any longer than you have to.

Levy: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: What were some other kind of—quick wins is not the right word there, but early things that you could do to kind of help show the value of customer experience?  Because I think that’s one of those things that I believe is so, so, so important and that I don’t feel like a lot of public transit agencies—I think New York is obviously doing some work on that front as well.  But it doesn’t seem like a lot of agencies are really investing in this in the same way.  So I’m curious how you were able to kind of really build that momentum there from the beginning.

Levy: That’s a great question.  So for me, it was really about customer awareness.  We, at the time, were embarking on an eight-point—for an $8.6 billion capital improvement program at the T.  And we had the commitment from the governor’s office.  We were—we had to really upgrade, improve our rails, our stations, our platforms.  You name it.  It was a huge, huge initiative, Josh.

And one thing I found was, we were now considering shutting down, not for overnight—not, I’m sorry, over the weekend, but during the weekday shutdowns, which would inconvenience people, riders, if you will.  And one thing I learned was we did not do a good job communicating to our riding public, and even our employees for that matter, what we were doing and why we were doing it.  We just did it and didn’t communicate, didn’t articulate the why.  And I think the why was important.

So we developed this initiative called Building a Better T, and we started to show the riding public what we were doing, why we were doing it, and the customer the benefits as a result.  And I remember we launched a video.  We did a time-lapse video, and I couldn’t tell you how exciting it was for us.  We posted it on our social media feed, and we had like 15,000 views in a matter of seconds. 

Cohen: Wow.

Levy: And people were like, “Wow, this is super cool,” a behind-the-scenes look at what was happening at the T.  And we took our general manager out, and he explained to the riding public the why.  We showed them what we meant by tiles, like what we were doing repairing the tiles, and the rails, and how, the how and the why.

And I think we didn’t do a good job communicating.  We just did it.  We kept our head down, and we did it.  But now I think—and I give a lot of credit to our capital improvement folks, our capital delivery folks; they work in concert with us.  They allow us to have our photographers meet, be on the scene, if you will, taking these pictures, these videos, which we post.  We have a terrific and committed GM who I drive him crazy when I have these videos and I say, “Let’s talk about this.”

But now we see not just Customer Experience, but throughout the Authority, really thinking about the customer.  What is the benefit to the customer with this project?  And articulating that benefit.  And when we do so, Josh, what I find is the public is more forgiving; they’re more supportive; they’re less critical.

Cohen: Mm-mmm-mmm.  I really love that.  I mean, it kind of really validates hiring someone with your experience in strategic communications into this role.  Because again, partly it’s doing some things differently, but partly it’s just making sure you’re telling the story of the things that you are already doing.  Right?

Levy: Absolutely.  I appreciate that.  Absolutely.  Exactly, telling the story.

Cohen: Wow.  So I’m curious what you think the future of customer service is in transit.  I’m particularly thinking in the public transit space, and I acknowledge that the public transit looks different in Boston and New York and Chicago and in L.A. than it does in many other communities around the country.  But I still think that someone with your experience and the way you’re looking at this—I’m sure there are some nuggets in there that those listeners, who are maybe in some of these smaller towns that don’t have the same level of headway that you might have in Boston, might still be able to benefit.  So I’m curious what you think is coming that other folks might also benefit from or start thinking about.

Levy: I wish—I was a Classics major, Josh.  But I’m not a soothsayer.  I wish I were.  I wish I had a crystal ball to see what is coming.  Everything is so fluid right now, and we have to change in real time, and we have to be able to address what we’re seeing.

Prior to the pandemic, we had more passengers than capacity throughout our system.  Obviously, that’s no longer the case.  We’re trying to run nearly as much service to promote public health, but we need to work to regain our ridership.  You mentioned this earlier: We had 1.3 million passengers a day, and we saw that dry up overnight when the pandemic hit.  And we’re still not at the pre-pandemic levels yet; although traffic is, our ridership is not.

Our future, I think, continues to be dependent on communications.  We have worked very closely, and we continue to work closely, with our advocates in our business community, the different transportation—the TMAs, to make sure our service matches demand.  We continue to provide essential service to the essential riders that stayed with us throughout the pandemic, and I deeply, deeply thank them.

And we need to make sure our fare products match the new work schedules of the hybrid workforce, and that continues to shape out.  Right?  Because I remember this past summer, Josh, we were receiving this one question over and over again.  “What is the T doing, you know, to welcome back riders in the fall?”  And we were hustling, and we were getting things ready to welcome back riders.  Well, only to find out September came and we didn’t get the ridership we had anticipated.

And in discussions with the business community, they had decided to postpone requiring employees to return to the workplace, so we had to pivot.  And so now we’re awaiting the next round.  But then when you have the different variants showing up, folks continue to be hesitant.  And employers are hearing directly from employees, they don’t want to go back to five days.  Maybe two, maybe three.  What do those days look like?  What can we offer?  We offered a flexible—a Flex Pass, as we called it, to help address the flexible, new, hybrid work pattern.

So we’re still keeping a very close eye on what is happening around us and trying to address those needs.  Unfortunately, as you can appreciate, sometimes it’s not real time.  We can’t deliver a product, a fair product overnight; it takes time.

Cohen: It’s a challenging area to have to navigate right now with, like you said, moving targets with COVID and what people are comfortable with and what businesses are doing, especially in some of these central business districts, which Boston, I think, is lucky that it’s got several central business districts or several major job hubs, if you will, but—

Levy: And also, Josh, to that point, businesses, do they continue to offer parking incentives to their workforce—right—or not?  How committed are they to public transportation, or the climate, you know, whatever, you name it?  But they have a responsibility and role as well.

Cohen: You know, it’s funny you mention that.  It’s this—I almost feel like there’s some Maslow’s hierarchy of needs thing going on here, which maybe that’s not even the right frame there.  But it seems like there’s this approach that many people are taking, which is, you know, “Before I start thinking about these larger issues,” like say climate change or anything like that, “I’m worried about my own health and safety.”  And so—

Levy: Yeah.

Cohen: —many of them are maybe making choices that may feel safer, and maybe—you know, and I don’t know if they necessarily are safer, but they may feel safer in the short term of driving their own vehicle, but that’s not a long-term solution with traffic, with congestion, with climate change, so forth.  And so—

Levy: Yeah, right.  I absolutely agree.  What we did—we heard this directly from the employers.  Folks didn’t feel safe.  So we launched something I’m really proud of.  We launched initiative called Ride Safer, which is our public awareness campaign, what we were doing on the system to make sure our riding public felt safe.

We gave away masks at key stations, a few times a year, Josh.  We had—we elevated our cleaning and disinfectant.  We had signage reminding people to keep—you know, to stay six feet apart.  We had a dedicated website that showed, again, behind the scenes, what we were doing, what did the cleaning and disinfecting look like, to reassure people that we have your health in mind; we want you to be safe on the system, and this is what we’re doing to do so.

Cohen: Hmm.  I want to maybe get a little tactical for a minute, which is you mentioned communications earlier and how important that was with, you know, with thinking about what the, you know, future is and customer service.  I guess, from a tactical level, how long does it take to shift in a communication style and way of doing it?  And so, I guess, what I’m trying to get at there is that, you know, say you have someone in a similar transit agency or similar organization, and they’re trying to come in and pull a Danny Levy in their community.  Right?  And how long does it take to get that message out, or maybe for the general public to start to understand, “Oh, something’s different here”?

Levy: I’ll give you a quick story.  When the pandemic hit, we had more than 6,000 employees at the MBTA, Josh.  And I’m saddened to say, not all of our employees have access to emails.  And they were starved for information from leadership on what was happening, how or what were we doing to—how were we communicating to our employees, first and foremost.  We were reading through media reports.  Reporters were interviewing our bus operators and others, and they were saying they didn’t feel safe.  They weren’t—they didn’t have access to PPEs.  As you can recall, at the beginning of the pandemic, we were not alone in this struggle.

So, I remember my social media director, Andrew Cassidy, and I went into the office.  We took his iPhone, and we recorded a GM message.  We had the GM record, using a simple iPhone, what we were doing, explaining to the employees, “We hear you.  We got you.  This is where we are, and this is what’s happening.”

And we have this paging system called Everbridge, and we were able to deliver that message using the Everbridge paging system.  All that to say is one has to be innovative and creative.  And also one has to be consistent.  We did this every week for 10 weeks straight.  We went from using the iPhones to now using a video.  And then we used—we posted—we had two messages, one for the riding public and one for our employees.

I think, for me, I would suggest folks need to be creative and folks need to think outside the box.  Communication is so different than when I first started way back when, and there are so many opportunities available to us, new assets that didn’t exist before that we can certainly leverage in this time.  I think it’s exciting, and I think people ought not be afraid to push the envelope.

Cohen: I love it.  I love it.  Danny, this has been such a great introduction to the work that you’re doing at the T.  It’s exciting.  I am so grateful that Monica helped to bring this to fruition there at the T.  She’s a longtime friend and also a guest on the podcast from way back in the early days.  So I’m so grateful that she had some vision there, and I’m grateful that you took on the challenge to come there and really not just take on the challenge, but really focus on these critical things like communicating the why and really asking the hard question, “What is the benefit to the customer?”

So thank you, thank you so much for joining me on The Movement podcast.  This has been a really fun conversation and great to meet you and to learn a little bit more about your background and how you’re making public transit better for riders there in Massachusetts and beyond.

Levy: Thank you so much, Josh.  I so enjoyed our conversation.  I could talk to you all day.  Whatever I can do in the future, I’m here.

Cohen: Thank you so much.  Danny, keep up the great work.

Levy: Likewise.  Thank you.

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP.  Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.