Fire Service Customer Care: Part 2 – Delivering Quality Service

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Question: How does a fire and emergency services organization create an effective customer care system that delights the community as well as the firefighters and officers?

Answer: The basic building blocks themselves and the delivery process are the critical factors for the creation of a stellar customer care system for fire and emergency services. You do not have to have a sophisticated system. Your department can do simple things right now and begin where you are.

We in the fire and emergency services have always been in an enviable position: the opportunity to become known for creating and delivering superior customer care to the citizens we protect. Suggesting that we have the opportunity does not necessarily mean that we are doing this in our department. At least we have a good foundation on which to build: the traditions and evolution of the fire service.

The public still sees us as one of the most trustworthy and admirable professions in the country. It is our responsibility to maintain that standard for the entire fire service in each of our communities. Each of us in our own departments is responsible for all of us across the nation in the way our customers see us through the services we deliver. Superior customer care is one of the ways to do this. Remember, people expect that we can do the big things like putting out fires and rescuing them from car accidents. It is the way we treat them at all points of contact that project how the public sees us.

Incidentally, customer care continues to be – and will remain – one of the key points of differentiation in any business-public or private. Consider the lifetime dollar value in tax support of delivering outstanding customer care to each of the citizens your department protects and you begin to see how excellent customer care leads to financial support; both of which lead to the perpetuation of your department in the community.

The values of the fire service have always been customer-centered. Creating a superior customer care system begins with the values and the mission of the department. Most departmental missions revolve around suppression, prevention, education and code compliance. These are the building blocks of the protection services we deliver to all of our citizens, businesses and institutions in our jurisdictions.

Most companies and organizations look at customer service as a separate part of the overall operation such as the “customer service department.” I would suggest that customer service defines the manner in which we create and deliver everything that we do in the fire and emergency services. I would also suggest that the term “customer care” is critical because it defines how we think about our customers and ourselves. “We care.” However, it is the reasons why we are firefighters, coupled with the emergency and non-emergency needs of our citizens that create the real value that motivates us to deliver superior customer care in the first place.

By placing the customer in the center of the service system, we ensure that our values and mission are synergistic and focused on doing the right thing for the people we are serving. Motivations, values and a customer-centered methodology can change lives; and they will completely alter your citizens’ perceptions of your department.

The next step in the creation of a customer service system is a structure that ensures consistent feedback and the ability to modify the system. You can create a customer care system at any point in the development of your department or you can greatly enhance the system you may already have. The point here is that you can create a system from small actions or situations as opposed to creating a complex system before you even begin. It is always better to go for some small documented “wins” than to spend time, money and resources creating a complex system that cannot deliver on expectations.

The creation of a five-step customer-centered system methodology itself comprises the following actions:

  1. Determining who the customer really is (customer segments).
  2. Defining present and projected customer needs (customer services).
  3. Creating ways to fulfill the needs (service delivery systems).
  4. Monitoring customer perceptions of how we are fulfilling the needs (evaluating if we are really delivering value).
  5. Modifying the system as the needs change (fine tuning or changing the system to fit changing needs).

While you can create the system from any point, here are two approaches to consider: comprehensive and point of entry.

The comprehensive approach – making customer service part of the strategic plan. The comprehensive approach places customer service as part of the departmental strategic plan to achieve departmental goals. This approach is comprised of clearly defined goals, objectives and tactics. Some of these goals could include the following actions.

Analyze the market and your present situation by determining customer segments, needs and perceptions:

  1. If you already have a customer service program, evaluate its main components and determine their effectiveness according to the customer.
  2. Determine each internal customer segment and define their needs. These will include firefighters and their families, officers and support staff. They will also include those in associated services such as law enforcement, hospitals, utilities, city and county leadership.
  3. Evaluate perceptions and attitudes of internal customers (firefighters, officers and support staff) through simple surveys.
  4. Evaluate perceptions and attitudes of external customers (all citizens).
  5. Evaluate perceptions and attitudes of businesses and institutions (such as schools and hospitals).
  6. Analysis, evaluation and categorization of communications with customers before during and after any contact. This includes emergency and non-emergency situations. Analyze for places of consistent communication breakdown, leading to misunderstanding and misperception.
  7. Evaluate target hazards in the community as well as customers requiring inspection and code enforcement.
  8. Establish a customer review portion of any emergency or non-emergency call with the companies who answered the call. This should be done as soon as possible after the incident.

Build the system by create a process and system to achieve customer service and departmental goals:

  1. Prioritize customer needs and perceptions in each segment.
  2. Determine necessary actions to fulfill the needs.
  3. Provide a feedback loop to make certain that the goals are being achieved and in a way consistent with departmental and fire service values.

The point-of-entry approach – cultivate observation. The second approach to creating a fire service customer care system that works is simple and can be effective quickly. The point-of-entry approach is especially effective in small fire departments, but can be just as effective in larger, metropolitan fire departments if it begins within one department. The beauty of this approach lies in starting where you are and creating the system in small, proven incremental steps from any point you wish to begin:

  1. Establish with your company officer or chief that you wish to begin a customer service “pilot project” to determine if there may be application to specific areas of the department (such as incidents, inspections, code enforcement and public education).
  2. Take the time to observe the needs and perceptions of citizens at incidents, or business owners/managers during inspections or compliance discussions.
  3. Create a simple customer evaluation form of no more than five questions that evaluates how the customer who receives the service perceived how well you performed after any kind of incident or contact. For each question, ask how you might have done a better job. Be sure to include a portion that asks whether the customer wants to learn more about the department, or become involved in some way. Ask the customer to prioritize the information given to you.
  4. Prioritize the needs and perceptions.
  5. Create a set of no more than five goals based on the needs and perceptions.
  6. Create a pilot program for three months with one or two shifts.
  7. Evaluate the program, modify and expand to another shift

Before you know it you will have created an effective program from the ground up and based on the reality of customer contact and what the firefighters really perceive to be necessary. (Contact me by e-mail for a comprehensive customer service strategy.)

Next time: “The Customer Care Officer.”

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE POSITIVE AND THE NEGATIVE
Common Sense Actions You Can Do Now for More Effective Customer Service

POSITIVE
NEGATIVE
Initiate positive phone calls rather than
Making only callbacks
Make recommendations
Making justifications
Using the phone
Using correspondence and e-mail
Show appreciation
Waiting for misunderstandings
Make service suggestions
Waiting for service requests
Use “we” problem-solving language
Using “you had better” code jargon
Get right to problems
Responding to problems
Talking about the future of a safe community
Talking about making good on past mistakes
Explaining the reasons for your actions
Treating citizens like victims
Using professional and caring language
Using crude or clinical fire department language

Ben May will present “Marketing Basics for Fire and Emergency Services” at Firehouse Expo 2005, July 26-31 in Baltimore.


Ben May, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for the past 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. May holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master’s degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort.

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