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Question: While there is always so much discussion in the business community about customer service, why is it also so important for a public service such as a fire department?
Answer: Just because we are a vital public service does not mean that we cannot go out of business. In a society that bases its decisions about the quality of a service or business on quick impressions, customer service will always be the great differentiator in private or public enterprise. It is the vital link that transforms who we are to what we do in the eyes of the customer. Customer service is the critical, operative aspect of marketing success for maintaining long-term support and growth of your fire department.
There are probably as many volumes written about customer service as there are about marketing. In fact, I would say that if your department can become outstanding at customer care, then most other aspects of marketing will take care of themselves.
Customer care can be a little bit like the weather. As Ben Franklin, founder of the U.S. fire service, once said about the elements, “Everybody talks about it. But very few do anything about it.” This seems to be the case with customer service. The constant refrain is that, in general, service is not very good. Naturally, this depends on how one defines “service.” If you think about it, customer service is a little bit like the weather in another sense: it is all around us. It is a constant. It is no different for the fire and emergency services. We just cannot escape the fact that in most situations we are going to be dealing with people.
In a public service, the entire market comprises our base of customers. However, we do not have the luxury of selecting who we want our customers to be. In fact, the term “customer” has taken some time to sink into the culture of fire protection. The fire and emergency services have been latecomers to this particular aspect of marketing. Customer service is a vital part of the discipline of marketing management. It is just as critical to the maintenance of our service as the other aspects of our vital contribution to the public good: saving lives and property; and educating the public about how to prevent emergencies.
Chief Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix Fire Department, always on the cutting edge of change in the fire service, wrote one of the first books on the subject in the mid-1990s: Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service (IFSTA, 1996). If you really want to understand the pure essence of true customer service from one of the best in our business while also gaining insight into how to practice it well, you should read this manual from cover to cover.
As Brunacini states it so well, “The most important element of fire and emergency services has never changed: the relationship and feeling between the citizen who has a problem and the firefighter who responds to solve the problem. The two become intensely involved in a very special experience that defines essentially why we exist as a service.” This is also why I believe that it is best to define the customer service part of what we do as customer care.
Scratch a firefighter and you will find someone who cares intensely about people in need of help, about family and about each other. This is the reason that I prefer to use the term “customer care.” Think about the pace of our contemporary society with its fragmented families and alienated individuals. Most people today more than ever are just looking for a little tender, loving care. We can deliver that care. It is on our uniforms. It is the reason for our existence. It is our purpose. You may think that firefighting and emergency service is what you do, but the result of what you do is in the eyes of the people we help. Once you add in the fact that those we help pay for the service in tax dollars, you begin to see that customer care is “critical care.”