‘Backtracking’: SEPTA’s social media team has your commute memorized

And they might reach out to chat, totally unprovoked.

SEPTA social media specialists respond to 150+ complaints every day

SEPTA social media specialists respond to 150+ complaints every day

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
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Updated 9:40 a.m.

Each morning starting at 6 a.m., a half dozen people assume their positions in a mid-sized Center City office. Each has their own desk with computer, and they’ve made the space homey by decorating the walls with images from Marvel Comics.

Also, there’s a good chance that they have your daily commute memorized.

Six men make up the SEPTA Social team. They run the Twitter account that fields all of Philly’s public transportation complaints — at least 150 per day. The group has existed for years, responding to your social media questions, comments and concerns.

But recently, the team decided to expand its role in the Twitterverse — now, they’ll also contact you totally out of the blue, just to see what’s up.

The team calls it backtracking, and they’ve built it into their daily schedule.

At least one person every day is responsible for poring over SEPTA’s past Twitter interactions, and then checking back up on people.

“If we see somebody we’re familiar with, who we interact with a lot, and we don’t hear from them for a little while, we’ll circle back and touch base,” said Dennis Zorzi, SEPTA’s technology supervisor.

They’ll ask questions like whether you’re still using SEPTA, or whether you’ve had any issues recently. Per Zorzi, they’ll even remember and inquire about the specific route you usually take.

The team built backtracking into its schedule at the beginning of the year, but it had its unofficial start in mid-2017. That’s when some members of the SEPTA Social team thought up the idea — they started to memorize customers commutes, and they’d think of them when they heard about a detour or route change.

Zorzi, who heads the SEPTA Social team, jumped on board right away.

“It came from them doing it on their own, reaching out to people they talk to on a pretty regular basis who they hadn’t heard from,” Zorzi said. “We saw that it worked, so we put it into a wider frame with the rest of the team.”

This is all part of a larger goal on SEPTA’s behalf: to make more personal connections with customers.

“We have to make sure we’re not robots,” said Shane Hopkins, a social media specialist. “We have to see what they like and relate to the customer.”

Dennis Zorzi (left) leads the SEPTA Social team

Dennis Zorzi (left) leads the SEPTA Social team

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

In its effort to backtrack, SEPTA seems to be on its own. Other cities don’t follow the same practice — New York’s MTA twitter will respond to your questions, but it won’t reach out on its own. And accounts in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Chicago mostly just send out service updates.

And so far, team members say the customer feedback has been mostly positive.

If you chat online often with SEPTA, there’s a good chance the social media specialists remember you. Neftali Velez has sent a Star Wars meme to a customer with a reference in their bio, and a cat GIF to someone who posted about their pets.

“When you do this on a daily basis, you remember,” Velez said. “There’s Ed, he likes to go to the Phillies games. He takes the Paoli line and then the subway. We already know by heart.”

Does this mean SEPTA is keeping data on you?

Short answer is yes — but not more than is already kept on other platforms. It’s probably not a cause for concern, team members said.

“We keep just our conversation history, which Twitter keeps for you anyway,” Zorzi said. “We don’t want people thinking we have a database of all their interactions with us.”

By becoming more personal, the Social team hopes it can ease the tension Philadelphians often feel with SEPTA.

“We can’t control traffic,” Zorzi said, “but we can control customer experience.”