Got to gripe @ SEPTA? These are the guys who tweet back

SEPTA social-media specialists Neftali Velez (right) and Andy Sharpe (foreground) work on a response to a SEPTA rider who contacted the agency through Twitter on Wednesday. The SEPTA customer-service social-media specialists, six of them, work in a tiny room at headquarters on Market Street at 12th.

Another Monday, and Nicole Guess was again squeezed between passengers on an overcrowded subway car.

She turned to Twitter to vent on her way to her music-theory class.

“I was so irritated, and I was just like, I had to tweet about that moment,” said Guess, 21. 

Four minutes later, she got a reply.

"I was actually kind of shocked they actually responded back to me," she said.

As was Andy Sharpe, a 28-year-old former freelance writer who, along with a few others, is the voice of @SEPTA_SOCIAL, the Twitter account for SEPTA riders' questions and complaints. 

@SEPTA_SOCIAL's 22,200 followers typically send the account 80 to 100 tweets a day. Questions about late trains and buses, complaints about cancellations or missed connections or a surly SEPTA staffer, they all get funneled to @SEPTA_SOCIAL, whose social-media specialists cull SEPTA's real-time data for explanations, and if possible, someone to help. Some are angry, even abusive. 

“You have to have a thick skin,” Sharpe said. “It does get to be a little uncivil at times."

About a year ago at this time, @SEPTA_SOCIAL typically caught about 30,000 eyes a day, according to Twitter metrics.

Then 2016 got challenging for SEPTA. In July, Regional Rail experienced a major equipment malfunction. On the first work day after that was announced, July 5, @SEPTA_SOCIAL reached 200,000.

On Nov. 1, when city transit workers went on strike for a week, @SEPTA_SOCIAL's impressions skyrocketed to more than 500,000.

"It was very, very hectic for quite a while," said Kim Scott Heinle, a SEPTA assistant general manager overseeing customer service. "It was hard for them to come up for air, quite frankly."

SEPTA's customer-service workers were not in the strikers' union, but some on Twitter didn't get the distinction. Shane Hopkins, 26, of Ambler, who began working in the unit in August, remembered showing up for work and receiving a mountain of tweets asking things like, "Why are you on strike? When are you coming back?"

The account has stayed busy, with a recent spike in traffic coinciding with the snowstorm in March.

For a group on the receiving end of rage, SEPTA's social-media specialists expressed a lot of job satisfaction. One of the most enthusiastic is Neftali Velez, 43, who began at SEPTA driving a vehicle for disabled customers, moved to dispatch, and then to customer service. Bearded, burly, and gregarious, he sees himself as a key link between frustrated customers and people who could help.

“Having the ability to notify those who can do something is overwhelming, it’s great,” Velez said.

Along with answering the 80 to 100 tweets directed at the account each day, @SEPTA_SOCIAL's crew forwards complaints to other SEPTA departments. Some are acted on. Others give management a sense of what's causing rider dissatisfaction.

Velez prides himself on making personal connections with riders. He noticed a Star Wars reference on the Twitter account of a man who recently tweeted about a late train.

"The Force is strong with this one," Velez responded.

One regular tweeter, Amy Huber, said tweeting makes a difference. She's complained about conductors on her train from Trevose to Suburban Station, and noticed a change in their demeanors after.

"Bar none, so much nicer than most of the other customer-service representatives I’ve dealt with," the 41-year-old paralegal said. "I get a sense that they care."

When not working, Velez trades in social media for video games, he said, but others at @SEPTA_SOCIAL don't feel the need to unplug. Sharpe has an active Twitter presence in his off hours. Hopkins goes to Twitter to follow sports.

"A lot of my time is social media," Hopkins said.

In @SEPTA_SOCIAL's cramped office, four or five workers, paid an average of $50,000, monitor columns of incoming tweets, more than a dozen of SEPTA's Twitter accounts, and the transportation authority's Facebook and Instagram pages. Software does keyword searches for tweets that require responses. Tweets to @SEPTA_SOCIAL should be answered within five minutes and provide useful information. Facebook comments have to be answered within an hour. The directive since @SEPTA_SOCIAL's debut in 2011 is to keep it friendly.

“Relate to the customer, understand the customer, because you don’t know what they’re going through,” said James Silver, SEPTA's assistant director of customer service.

If it gets too ugly, Heinle takes over.

"I don’t want them caught in the middle," he said of his front-line people.

@SEPTA_SOCIAL's approach is to make customers feel heard, and, if possible, to solve problems.

"We don’t have the power to change it right away," Sharpe said, "but we can send it to someone who does."

Sharpe's response made Guess feel a little better.

"I liked that they acknowledged it," she said. "They noticed people are upset."

She added, though, that the Market-Frankford El is still really damned crowded.