Thursday, September 8, 2011

Customer Service Nightmare: Clipper Card

Over the last few years, paying for public transportation in the Bay Area has become easier and simpler -- or so some would have you believe. We went from cash fares on buses and paper tickets on BART to auto-loading (but separate) cards that scan upon entry, to the unified Clipper Card, which can be used on AC Transit buses, BART, and SF Muni buses and trains. For regular riders like me, this was a dream come true... until it became clear that Clipper's customer service can't keep up.

I've had a Clipper since they first became available last summer, and I had no trouble registering my card online, or adding my credit card for auto-load. I loved the set-it-and-forget-it model of paying for transportation, especially since it made it easy to use my pre-tax commute dollars via eFlex debit card. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the smallest hiccup with Clipper can quickly turn into a nightmare.

In July, I received an email alert from Clipper telling me that my credit card had been declined, and I should sign into the website to input a new method of payment. While my eFlex card read as active on my end, I logged in to change to my regular credit card while I looked into the matter. On the account overview page, I saw my Clipper card reading as active (see right). However, as I attempted to navigate the site, I kept seeing "no cards found" under the options to add value, set up auto-load, etc.

So I emailed customer service. I got a quick response, but obviously a form letter (the font for my name was different from the body of the email, which was different still from the signature), and rife with typos:

Thank you for contacting the Clipper Customer Service Center. We are experiencing issue with our website, you only option is to download the Edit Auto load from ands fax or email to our office.
If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the Clipper Card Customer Service Center at 1-877-878-8883 (TDD/TTY 711 or 1-800-735-2929).

I filled out the required form and emailed it back, along with a proofread version of the form letter for their future use. (I used to be a freelance writer and proofreader... Old habits die hard.) I requested that they let me know if my new payment form had been accepted, as I was eager to stop paying for all of my travels in cash. I was informed that it could take up to 72 hours, but when my Clipper worked the next morning, I thought I was golden.

Oh no. A few days later, I get an email telling me my credit card was declined "again." I replied asking for clarification, since they had acknowledged receipt of the auto-load change form, and my Clipper was working fine. No answer. I (mistakenly) assume that mean it's their bad, and go on about my merry way.

Fast forward to August. I'm headed to work, and my Clipper gets declined at the BART turnstile. This sometimes happens. I try another turnstile. No joy. Annoyed to be missing my train, I go to the attendant's booth, she scans my Clipper, and says it's returned as "bad debt." Now I'm annoyed and humiliated. I buy a paper ticket, hoof it to work, and send off an angry email to the culprits. I'm asked for the serial number on my card (even though my message was in response to a previous email thread). I oblige. Radio silence.

I wait a week. No response. I write again, being careful to include my card's serial number. 10 more days pass. Yesterday, I called up Clipper's customer service number, to be told that they cannot change my payment information, and I have to do so on the website. Rather than take out my anger on an innocent call center worker, I go back to, and even though on many pages it still reads "no cards available," I manage to find a hidden link on one of these pages to change my billing info. I put in my eFlex debit card number (which by this time I have double-checked is active and has funds). All bets are off as to what happens next.

One good thing has come out of this mess, and that is that, working in a user-facing position as Community Manager at a web 2.0 site, I can look for lessons in customer service. I used to answer every single email that came into the site personally. Luckily, we now have a Chief Moderator and several part-time mods who answer most of the general questions, but I still deal with a lot of troubleshooting and disgruntled users on a daily basis. We strive to respond to all emails within 2 business days, but we still get complaints from users who expect 24/7 coverage of the team inbox. Based on my experience with Clipper, I'd say we're doing a-okay there. And while I understand the temptation to procrastinate in answering the more difficult emails, this experience with Clipper has renewed my conviction that these are the messages that should take priority. As always, if you don't know the answer to something, find someone who does. In the meantime, check in with your customer/user to let them know you're looking into the problem. In customer service, a little communication goes a long way. And that, I think, is the moral of this story.

A moral's very well and good, of course, but it won't help me get on the train tomorrow.

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