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New CTA Ventra problems arise ‘every day’ — unlike live phone help

Kimberly Canady Chicago tried out Ventrsystem Mechandise Mart transit stop Monday. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Kimberly Canady of Chicago tried out the Ventra system at the Mechandise Mart transit stop Monday. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 3, 2013 6:11AM

The CTA’s overloaded Ventra call centers were supposed to triple their staff to 300 Friday, but all the new live operators will be located in Tennessee and California and won’t be working weekends, CTA officials say.

In fact, since the rollout of the new Chicago Transit Authority fare payment system two months ago, no live Ventra call center operators have worked weekends or late on weekdays, CTA officials conceded Friday.

Instead, Ventra customer service representatives have only been answering questions Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., in call centers located in Tennessee and California, CTA officials said. However, they noted, Ventra’s automated answering system has been available 24/7.

Kevin Peterson, assistant secretary of the Chicago transit advocacy group People Taking Action, called it “completely asinine” that Ventra has not used live human beings to answer questions 24/7 from the kickoff of such a major and expensive project.

“A lot of people cannot waste their work day waiting almost an hour to talk to Ventra,’’ Peterson said.

At a minimum, Peterson said, late-night and weekend operators should have been added when Cubic Transportation Systems, the CTA’s $454 million Ventra contractor, was ordered last month to hire 200 more operators to stem the deluge of Ventra center calls and long hold times.

“The fact that they [CTA officials] did not ask for live operators on weekends and at nights on this —they completely botched the customer service on Ventra,’’ Peterson said.

CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said “There’s never been a discussion to have call [representatives] on the weekend.”

Instead, the work hours of Ventra live operators “mirror those of [the] CTA’s customer service center,” which is open weekdays only, 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Chase said in an email.

The onslaught of calls to Ventra prompted CTA President Forrest Claypool on Oct. 9 to roll back some Ventra deadlines and temporarily resume the sale of old magnetic-stripe fare cards.

CTA Board Vice Chair Jacquelyne Grimshaw said Friday that off-peak and weekend Ventra customer service representatives would have been helpful from the beginning, but especially after all the “problems’’ that have arisen with Ventra.

“This this is getting to be, every day, a new revelation,’’ Grimshaw told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I assumed there were weekend hours. Any credit card I have, I can get a hold of customer service 24/7,’’ Grimshaw said. “It’s disappointing . . . . I’m disappointed in myself that I never thought to ask the question.’’

Chase said that because there are no live operators on weekends, “there aren’t wait times on weekends.’’

But that wasn’t the experience of one Chicago Sun-Times staffer, who called the Ventra help line twice on Saturday, Oct. 19, and was offered the option of speaking to a live representative if he was willing to wait. In the end, all he got was disconnected — after waiting nearly 45 minutes.

The automated messages warned of 50- and 57-minute wait times before someone would be available.

The staffer took a third stab at contacting Ventra — by using Ventra’s email option. Finally, he got a call at home about a week later — after the CTA had hired yet another outside firm for up to $245,000 to make Ventra “courtesy calls.’’ However, the Ventra representative merely sent the staffer back to square one by directing him to call the Ventra help line.

Chase said the call center is “automated” on the weekends, and “You’re the first person to tell me that people are being put on hold, so I’ll have to ask the vendor about that. That is news to me.’’

And despite the promise of three times as many call center operators by Friday, another Sun-Times staffer on Friday encountered a 22-minute wait on the Ventra help line — and never got a customer service representative. Instead, the staffer was transferred to a Cubic “message center” employee who could take messages, but not answer questions requiring access to Ventra account information.


Twitter: @rosalindrossi

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