The Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) is using technology to gather feedback and improve engagement with drivers that utilize its public facilities statewide.
Last summer, the department implemented software from Portland-based Opiniator to allow them to gather feedback from drivers or visitors at their rest stops and welcome centers via SMS, phone or Web. The agency now gets real-time feedback, and can contact citizens within minutes to fix an issue. The new system replaces their previous manual comment card system.
“Before this system, we had hand-written comment cards and boxes at our rest area facilities and welcome centers,” said Tim Lattner, director of the Office of Maintenance at Florida DOT, who is accountable for the driver feedback program. “The cards allowed people to give the restrooms, the security, the parking, grounds, etc. a rating between one and five. They would fill the card out and then either stick it in the box right there at the rest area or take it home with them, fill it out and mail it back to us.”
Florida DOT would collect the cards twice a week and scan them into their computer system. A barcode on the back of the card identified which facility the card pertained to.
“It was pretty innovative when we started it,” said Lattner. “We used reading software to actually view the card and then we would update a database with the information from the card.”
The downside, however, was that it often took a week or two before the person responsible for maintaining the facility was alerted to the problem.
“One of the things that we’ve been talking about for the last couple of years was automating this system somehow so we get a faster response to the comments,” said Lattner.
Using the new Opiniator system, drivers can provide feedback instantly using their smartphone or another electronic device of their choice. Signs posted at the site solicit the feedback and contain a code that indicates which facility was visited.
Questions relate both to the location and the quality of services, and takes an average of two minutes to complete. The data is then delivered to Florida DOT and analyzed in real-time. In addition, if the respondent issues a low mark, an email alert is automatically generated and instantly delivered to the person responsible for maintenance at that site. The message may also contain the driver’s contact information if they indicate they want to be contacted.
“We had one response that came in saying that one of the restrooms was out of toilet paper,” said Lattner. “Within 10 minutes, the attendant was in there filling it up. So it allows us to respond very quickly, and that's one of the major things that got us on board with this system.”
The system also allows Florida DOT to better manage their subcontractors. The state subcontracts maintenance services for all their rest areas. “We now have this system to have some accountability for the contractors as far as how quickly they respond to customers and resolve their concerns,” said Lattner.
Since Florida DOT implemented the technology at 76 different locations in July, the number of responses has slowly increased. That month, they received 53 responses. In October, responses grew to 128. They anticipate around 160 responses in December.
“It makes a huge difference in customer service, which is one of the things we wanted to focus on,” said Lattner. “When there is a rating of a 1 or a 2, which is poor or below standard, an email automatically gets sent to the facility project manager. In 10 seconds they know that there is an issue, and they can contact the person to let them know they are working to resolve it.”
The feedback action is also logged so that DOT knows the feedback cycle has been completed from input through analysis to verification. The questions can be changed at any time so they can relate to demographics, travel habits, facility improvements and so on.
Matt Selbie, president and founder of Opiniator, said the software was developed to allow customers of any business to give feedback at the point of consumption. “Feedback is more accurate when you get it right then and there, and it also gives the company chance to fix it right then and there, and to potentially salvage that customer,” he said.
Opiniator has primarily been used in health care, facility management, hospitality and retail establishments thus far, said Selbie, though public-sector inquiries and implementations are on the rise. Minnesota DOT recently implemented Opiniator in its rest areas statewide, and Virginia is currently conducting a pilot at its rest stops. Utah’s tourism group is also looking at implementing the software in its tourism centers, where officials can ask more strategic questions to help them analyze tourism activities in the state.
In addition to allowing Florida DOT to respond to complaints more quickly, the new system is also enabling them to save money they would have used to print the hardcopy forms, as well as the time required to collect and collate them. And, faster reaction to issues can also mean safer facilities and lower fixed costs. For example, a bathroom faucet that won’t shut off can reduce both maintenance and water costs.
“The old system was more of a tool to determine how well the rest areas were being maintained. It really wasn't set up to do what the new system does, which is to basically maintain them in real time,” said Lattner. “The new system not only lets us know how well we’re doing, but it lets us correct issues much more quickly. The fact that we’re acting on and communicating with users at the facility also means good PR for us and shows them we care about our facilities as well as the people who are utilizing them.”