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Mystery Shoppers

Over the last couple years, we’ve gone out and tested the city’s and some private industry’s customer service. The results may surprise you…or not.

Check out past Mystery Shoppers here.

Citizen Mystery Shopper (Part 13)

We sent out mystery shoppers to test Philadelphia City Council and SEPTA. Here, the results.

Citizen Mystery Shopper (Part 13)

We sent out mystery shoppers to test Philadelphia City Council and SEPTA. Here, the results.

When’s the last time you got really good customer service from the city? Or, for that matter, really bad customer service?

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.

In this installment, two Philadelphians—one brand new to the city and one longtime resident—navigate SEPTA, and test City Councilmembers to see how well and quickly they react (or not) to the asbestos crisis. Check out our reports below.

You can find all our previous Mystery Shoppers here. And while you’re at it, take part in our Integrity Icon search to find Philadelphia’s best non-elected city workers by nominating someone who’s provided you good customer service via the button below.

The nomination button for America's first Integrity Icon competition

Mystery Shopper Test #35: Communicating with City Councilmembers

The Situation: We wondered how quickly and completely our newly-installed City Council would respond to constituent questions, so we emailed each to weigh in on school asbestos.

Steps Taken

  1. I look up City Councilmembers’ contact info on their webpages, and click on each members’ name.
  2. It’s a month after inauguration day, and the four new Councilpeople—Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Isaiah Thomas— still do not have their emails listed, or a contact form on their webpages. One, Brooks, doesn’t even have a completed City Council website yet, just “Coming Soon.”
  3. For the others, I fill out the individual “Contact City Councilmember” boxes with the question, “Every week, it seems like another public school building is closed because of asbestos. What are you, as my City Councilperson, planning to do about this situation?”
  4. I receive an automated email that my message has been received by my City Councilperson.
  5. Using the phone numbers listed for Gauthier, I call twice but no one answers. Then I call Richardson, and Thomas; this time I leave a message with the same question on their office voicemails. 
  6.  I wait.
  7. Within 24 hours, two Councilperson chiefs of staff respond: Mark Squilla’s and Curtis Jones Jr.’s. Squilla’s chief of staff, in particular, laid out a fairly detailed account of what he is doing so far to address the issue of asbestos in the schools.
  8. Three weeks later, still no response from other Councilmembers.

Time Spent: 10 minutes emailing members of City Council, 10 minutes calling, and three weeks of waiting for a response.

Result: Kudos to Squilla and Jones for having staff who respond to questions from Philadelphians in a timely manner. What about the rest of Council, though?

Takeaway: Even now, two full months since their inauguration, the new City Councilmembers don’t have fully operating websites. That’s not their fault, but certainly isn’t a help If you want to get in touch. For the others: Why bother to have emails or voicemails if no one answers? 

Lightning Bolt Rating: Squilla: ⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️ for responding in a day, with a detailed answer. Jones: ⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️ for answering quickly. Brooks and Gauthier: N/A since they never received the request. Everyone else: 0 

Update: Councilwoman Helen Gym’s office responded this week, with an apology, noting that two of her staff members went to Harrisburg to speak with Gov. Wolf about additional funding. 

Mystery Shopper Test #36: Navigating SEPTA as a new city resident

The Situation: Having just moved to the city about a month ago, I wanted to get from my apartment near the Met on Broad Street to Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown on SEPTA. As someone who is admittedly very bad with directions but has relied on public transportation in other cities, I was only a little nervous about it.

The Trip There

Steps Taken:

  1. An attendant at the Fairmount Station on the Broad Street Line, the stop closest to my apartment, told me to go north to the Erie Station, then take a bus. He did not know which bus to take.
  2. The trip from Fairmount to Erie took a couple of minutes, during which I used my phone to look up the fastest route to Uncle Bobbie’s from Erie Station. My phone’s GPS, which seems to still think I live in the Midwest, did manage to give me directions as if I was still at Fairmont Station—and the suggested route was for the subway, but a bus.
  3. When I got off at Erie Avenue, there was no SEPTA attendant present. I checked my phone’s maps again, and saw that there was a bus called the XH steps from where I was standing that could get me to Uncle Bobbie’s in 20 minutes.
  4. By the time I’d walked to the bus stop, my phone notified me that the bus had been delayed 26 minutes.
  5. After waiting six minutes by myself, I checked for other routes and learned that the 23 bus leaves from Erie and Germantown avenues, going north toward Chestnut Hill. The ride was estimated to be 17 minutes.
  6. I walked across the street to the bus stop at Germantown and Erie avenues.
  7. I waited 11 minutes for the 23, which inexplicably has a stop in the middle of a busy intersection rather than on the side of the road. (Oh wait, this was the Southbound bus … my bad)
  8. I walked across the street to the stop for the northbound bus, and waited with one other person until its arrival.
  9. The 23 was not very crowded, and I was able to get a seat near the back.
  10. After a 20-minute ride, the bus dropped me off steps from Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown. ☕️

The Return Trip

Steps Taken:

  1. Walking steps from Uncle Bobbie’s and crossing the street at the crosswalk, I waited three minutes for the 23 bus south towards 11th and Market. The bus was packed; there was just standing room.
  2. I took the bus to my stop at Germantown and Erie avenues without any issues or delays.
  3. At Broad and Erie, I entered the Broad Street Station, only to find out (along with several other disgruntled passengers) that our Key cards would not swipe us into the station, and the ticket booths were locked.
  4. The station was evidently closed, despite not having a sign to point this out, and there was no attendant offering directions.
  5. A fellow citizen pointed out that the station across the street (meant solely for riders going north) was open and could still get us on the right subway.
  6. Walking back across the street I had just crossed, I entered the northbound Erie Station, and was able to follow signs to a southbound subway and swipe my Key card. I was lucky: Someone who had tried to swipe their card at the other entrance was unable to swipe it again here.
  7. I got on the southbound express subway, as this was the first one to come, and found that the express doesn’t drop off at Fairmont, although it seems to drop off at every other station on the same route as the local subway.
  8. Hopping off at Spring Garden, I got on the local northbound subway back to Fairmount.

Time Spent: The trip itself, not including the wonderful hour I spent at Uncle Bobbie’s, took almost 90 minutes there and back.

Result: I got there, and home again. But no one mentioned to me that SEPTA has an app! So I had to rely on Google and asking questions to strangers to complete my trip. Even with help from a SEPTA worker, though, it was way more complicated than it needed to be.

Takeaway: Next time, I’ll use the SEPTA app to map out the route before I go and maybe even write down the directions. Clearly, riders can’t rely on attendants or info in the station to direct us.

Lightning Bolt Rating: ⚡️⚡️

Mystery Shopper Test #37: Navigating SEPTA as a seasoned city resident

The Situation: I needed to get on a trolley from 13th Street to 30th Street. Easy-peasy, right?

Steps Taken:

  1. On the northwest corner of 13th and Market streets, I take the steps down underground.
  2. At the bottom, there are two signs: Suburban Station one way; Market-Frankford line the other way.
  3. Hmmm. I’m taking a subway, so, follow the signs to the El. That takes me past a couple sleeping homeless people, and down a brightly lit 100-foot hallway towards a green-tiled wall I spot in the distance. (Green, as in green line!)
  4. At the end of the hall, I see more signs: This time, one does show me the way to the trolley—in exactly the opposite direction from where I came.
  5. I turn around, stroll past my sleeping friends, past the stairway to the street, to the platform, just as a trolley pulls up.
  6. The driver opens the door, and several people get out. He opens the door for me so I step in. I’m the only one getting on at the station.
  7. “Pick-up is over there,” he says, pointing about 10 feet away. “Excuse me?” I ask.
  8. “Pick-up is over there,” he says again. Then he waits for me…to exit the trolley. Which I do.
  9. He pulls up another 10 feet, and opens the door.
  10. I follow him, get on and swipe my card.

Time Spent: 10 ridiculous minutes.

Result: I eventually got to where I needed to be, but would a couple more signs be out of the question? And really with the making me get off the trolley? I appreciate rules as much as the next guy, but that’s just silliness.

Takeaway: SEPTA, I love you. But managing the warrens of tunnels, platforms, rules and signs is way more confusing than it should be.

Lightning bolt rating: ⚡️⚡️

Correction: An earlier version of this neglected to note the City Councilpeople whose sites are not completed yet, or that two members never received the request for a response.

Photo: R. Nial Bradshaw/Flickr

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