Reputational Risk: A Personal Case Study

Metro CenterI’ve been writing and speaking a lot lately about reputational risk. The fact is even hardcore fans of a service, product, or individual can become jaded given enough reason. This is my personal tale of alienation from a once-proud service.

Living in the Washington, D.C., area, I’ve long been a fan of the region’s Metrorail subway system. Sure, there have been problems: High fares due to the fact that competing jurisdictions refuse to fund operations and maintenance properly, occasional surly workers, and cars with no air conditioning on sweltering summer days. But by and large it was a bargain.

It is far cheaper than driving (and parking). And from a psychic point of view, it saved wear and tear on my gentle soul not to have to share the road with the occasional maniac. Plus, I am a firm believer that automobiles have no place in a busy downtown core.

It saddens me to say that I’ve been forced into rethinking all of that. The service failures have become routine and epic. It is no longer sufficient to simply walk out the door and head to the Metro station. It has become necessary to check the traffic reports to see what delays exist (note the language—it’s not if they exist, it’s how bad they are).

Case in point: September 21. I was due to speak in front of a client that had a few dozen of its leaders in town (the topic, ironically, was reputational risk). Being an old Metro hand, I gave myself 30 extra minutes of travel time due to the recent woes. I arrived on the platform where the electronic billboard indicated a train would arrive in three minutes. Sounds fine. Then the sign kept changing. This was, in fact, the only entertaining part of the wait—seeing how many times it changed with no connection to reality whatsoever. It was like spinning a roulette wheel; you never knew what might pop up next. After more than 20 minutes of waiting, a train blessedly pulled in to the station. Thank goodness I padded my travel time by that half-hour.

Following my remarks, it was back to Metro. Same situation. Random train arrival times posted. Changes in train destinations that I knew of only because I checked on Twitter (Metro failed to announce these service curtailments in the station; indeed, that is one of the worst elements of this whole fiasco: Metro’s steadfast inability to communicate with its riders). The 30-minute wait made the morning’s commute seem speedy by comparison.

I had another meeting downtown that evening. If you think I risked Metro, guess again. I drove. Not my first choice, but one that was forced upon me.

I’m one of the very last people Metro ran the risk of alienating. I’ve put up with steadily eroding service in recent years with a grim smile and an “oh, well, it could be worse” attitude. No more. In a classic case of reputational risk, Metro has pushed away one of its most loyal fans.

It’s not that I’ll never ride the rails again. That’s not realistic in a metropolitan area. When time isn’t of the essence, fine. But for the most part, my car and I are going to be spending more time together. I’ll get more acquainted with buses (although bus departures seem to bear little resemblance to the posted schedules, they at least tend to suffer fewer breakdowns). For traveling between meetings downtown, walking and taxis take priority (don’t get me started on those ride sharing services; I have no interest in riding in the back seat of a personal vehicle driven by someone with little to no professional training).

Okay, back to the heart of the matter, reputational risk. Metro has lost not only the revenue from folks like me (and there are plenty of us). It has suffered a massive blow to its image. How does it regain that loyalty? Reliable service, open communication, and commitment to safety and quality would be good starting points. But it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before I shout Metro’s value from the rooftops again.

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