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The TTC that could be

By Kevin Stolarick

Toronto is in the midst of a customer service revolt. The millions who rely on the TTC have not only been complaining, blogging and tweeting to anyone who will listen, they have taken improving customer service into their own hands.

The TTC’s predictable and bureaucratic response is to assemble a “blue ribbon” panel of “customer service experts” who will have carte blanche and look into everything and tell us exactly what is wrong, and how, at the mere cost of billions of dollars, it can all be fixed.

Does anyone want to lay odds now at the effectiveness of this entire process? No disrespect to the TTC, its workers or management, or to any of the highly knowledgeable individuals who will serve on the panel, but it’s perfectly designed to solve exactly the wrong problem. The TTC is a service organization. It is full of individuals who are providing the service of efficiently moving people around the city of Toronto. While not everyone working for the TTC directly interacts with customers, most do, and even those who don’t still have direct impact on the customer experience.

The TTC has the opportunity, nay, the responsibility, to transform itself — its people, its equipment and facilities and its operations — to be the world’s leading transit organization and provider of customer service that has no equal. This transformation is as much about the quality of the TTC’s jobs and the employee experience as it is about the customer experience. Achieving this metamorphosis requires working with, listening to and capturing the creativity of everyone: customers, employees, managers, suppliers and others.

Recently, the City of Toronto with other partners jointly held the Strength in Services summit, which assembled more than 200 service workers and managers, unions, colleges and universities, corporations, non-profits and all levels of government. We discussed how to grow the regional economy by tapping the creative potential and improving the value and wages of the 45% of the Toronto workforce who are engaged in low-wage service jobs. Building this prosperity must come from improving not just the wages of those in low-wage, low-autonomy, often precarious service jobs but by making those jobs “better.”

Something can be learned from the automobile industry, which, despite its recent troubles, has been an amazing example of how creativity and innovation can improve productivity and wages and how the best ideas and transformations come from those “on the floor.”

It’s time for the service sector to undertake the same kind of transformation. Services are the jobs of the future. Production might move to China or India, but the financing, marketing, advertising, design and sales are still run out of New York and Toronto. And, most service work cannot be shipped offshore — how would you offshore your haircut or your dry cleaning?

Demonstrating that transforming customer service is not only possible, but necessary and profitable, requires that someone to “move first.” They must show it can be done and how to do it.

The City of Toronto wants to demonstrate to the world that we are the region that understands that customer service can be rewarding and enriching for everyone.

Turning the current crisis at the TTC into an opportunity to build “the world’s best 21st-century transit system” would do just that.

Kevin Stolarick, PhD, is the Research Director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.