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Mystery Shopping City Hall (Part 5)

Getting free condoms, calling City Council, complaining to SEPTA and more

When was the last time you encountered the city bureaucracy and said to yourself, “Wow, what great customer service?” That’s a question The Citizen editor Larry Platt asked in an article several months ago. As a result, we’ve taken a page from private industry and unleashed a team of mystery shoppers to interact with city service providers and report back on their experiences…the good, the bad, and the disfiguring. Stay tuned for more.

Mystery Shopper Test # 13: Getting a response to a resident question from City Councilmembers

Steps taken:

  1. Looked up each City Councilmember’s webpage.
  2. Filled out each “Contact City Councilmember” box with the same question:

“My name is _______ and I’m a new resident in [your district] and I’m new to Philly. It hasn’t taken me long to realize there’s a really big litter problem in the area.

Can you tell me, as my City Councilmember, what your plan is to combat this problem?

Please let me know.”

  1. Only two Councilmembers’ offices responded: Councilman Mark Squilla’s within an hour, and Councilman Brian O’Neill nearly two weeks later.

Time Spent: 60 minutes (plus four weeks of waiting)

Result: Only two Councilmembers responded to my citizen question.

Takeaways: Councilman Mark Squilla: Squilla’s representative responded within an hour with a detailed list of the cleanup measures for which his office is advocating, and legislation he will soon be proposing, including working with the city to appoint the new Director of Zero Waste and Litter, and introducing a “Single Use Bag” bill to cut down on usage of plastic bags.

Councilman Brian O’Neill: O’Neill’s office took a bit longer to respond—nearly two weeks later. But, instead of emailing back, they gave me a call and left a message to talk about my inquiry.

Everyone else: Councilmembers should be more accessible and responsive to residents with basic questions such as this. Though, to be fair, perhaps the other councilmembers would have been quicker to respond if it were a specific issue about which they care—like Squilla and street cleaning.

Lightning Bolt Rating:

Councilman Squilla: bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32

Councilman O’Neill: bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32

Everyone else: 0

Mystery Shopper Test # 14: Filing a complaint to SEPTA

The issue: Token machines at two different subway stations on the Broad Street Line were out of order. The subway clerks—as at most stops—don’t sell tokens, or make change. At the second station, the clerk at the Oregon Avenue station brusquely told me to go get change on my own, and then waved me away from her window. She then refused to answer any more questions. (The KEY kiosks—needless to say—still are unusable for single-use rides.)

Steps taken:

  1. Went on to SEPTA’s website, where “Customer Service” is directly in the middle of the top bar.
  2. Clicked on first tab in pull down menu, for “Comments.”
  3. Filled out detailed form with my complaint, and the date, and a question about KEY.
  4. A day later, received a friendly email from Andy Sharpe, SEPTA Customer Service Social Media Expert, apologizing for the frustration with the tokens, and patiently explaining that it must have been a fluke—an unexpectedly busy rush on tokens at both stations. He also explained that SEPTA KEY will be operational for token users “very soon.”
  5. Sharpe did not address my complaint about the clerk—admittedly not a huge deal, but as customer service goes, the people on the front lines matter.

Time Spent: 5 minutes

Result: A prompt and friendly reply to a rather mundane complaint? That’s really good customer service.

Takeaways: Everyone has a bad day—and the clerk probably had already heard an earful by the time I got to her. But it seems like SEPTA is trying to respond quickly to complaints, even minor ones.

Lightning bolt ratingbolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32

Mystery Shopper Test # 15: Getting Free City Condoms (online)

The issue: I started out with a question: What sort of sexual health resources does the city provide online?

Steps taken:

  1. Went to Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s website.
  2. In the “Get Help” menu, chose “Free Condoms & Sexual Health Services.”
  3. Found out that residents can get free condoms at a number of locations around town. Those ages 13 to 19 can also have them MAILED TO THEM!!
  4. This is good news for a 19 year old like me. I put in my address, and chose a condom package.
  5. Four business days later, I received 10 condoms, small containers of lube, and detailed instructions on how to use them.

Time Spent: 5 minutes (plus 4 days waiting)

Result: Free condoms! A good start to sexual health.

Takeaways: The Take Control Philly program seems like a good way to get condoms into the hands of teenagers, who may not be able to purchase them on their own. Hopefully it’s well-known.

Lightning Bolt Ratingbolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32

Mystery Shopper Test #16: Finding My Trash Day on (the old) website vs (new)

The issue: The City of Philadelphia is beta testing a new website. Our Mystery Shopper set out to see if it’s better than the old one.

Steps Taken:

  1. Went to
  2. Clicked on “Topics” choice in top bar.
  3. Scrolled to the bottom of the Topics page. Trash was not listed.
  4. Under “Transportation and Utilities,” took a guess and clicked on “Philadelphia Streets.”
  5. Found “Sanitation” in top bar. Under “Residential Trash,” found “Collection Schedules.”
  6. That link took me to another site:
  7. I typed in my address. First I found the real estate taxes on the building. Halfway, through the page, I found my trash day!

Time Spent: 7 minutes

Result: I found my trash day—it’s Monday!

Takeaways: Way harder than needed, as I got pushed to three different Philadelphia sites just to find out when to put out my trash.

Lightning Bolt Rating: bolt_32x32bolt_32x32

Steps Taken:

  1. Went to
  2. The first button below heading says “Find trash day.” (The other three say “Pay a bill,” “Explore City jobs” and “Search for a property.”)
  3. Clicked on button, and was taken directly to a “Trash & Recycling Collection” page with just one thing on it: A bar in which to type my address.
  4. Immediately, the day popped up boldly: Monday.

Time Spent: 1 minute

Result: Found my trash day.

Takeaways: So simple! Bonus for making trash collection a top priority on the city’s website. That probably reflects a common citizen question. Now, if only the city would roll out the whole revamp …

Lightning Bolt Rating: bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32

Photo: R. Nial Bradshaw/Flickr

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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