Fire Service Customer Care: The Promises We Keep – Part 1

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...


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One other fact we need to consider: Internal care is at least as important as external. This means that the departmental pyramid is turned upside down with the chief on the bottom and the firefighters on the top, right next to the customers. If you are not serving the customer directly, then you had better be supporting those who do.

It is virtually impossible to “motivate” people to become service-minded. We all deal with service people who are not motivated to serve every day in thousands of transactions. This is really amazing to behold in a market economy, because this lapse of service – just basic kinds of things like knowing how to deal with people in need – provides the key elements of what I like to call “the competitive edge.” Every firefighter has this kind of service motivation written on his or her DNA. Every business today, private or public, needs a competitive advantage to set it apart, to position it away from others.

An understanding and practice of superior customer care is one of the key public aspects of a public service, yet it is one of the most private and individual kinds of a relationship: an individual’s emergency. When we arrive on the scene, we are already into “service recovery.” We didn’t cause the problem, but we are going to do our best to fix it. Most of the calls that we receive run the gamut from major building fires to EMS to “good intent.” In most situations, we have the chance to work closely with our citizens in a way that really sets us up for success.

Customer service is, for the most part, a matter of expectations and satisfaction. Citizens expect that we will know how to handle most emergency incidents, even the worst kinds of situations like 9/11. That is what they have come to expect from their fire department. We are there to help and they call us.

Always try to put yourself in the mind of the citizen you are helping. Probably the person is scared or at best perplexed; at the least (and on most occasions) the person just needs some information or an answer to a question. The major opportunities for success lie in between these extremes, especially in the way we go about our business, how we treat our customers and the image that we portray as we do our jobs, especially in non-emergency situations. Most people will not remember much of what we do to help in a dire emergency. They will remember what we do in a non-emergency.

Like it or not, it is what our citizen customers do not expect that will gain their attention and many times determine how they view their fire department. This is called a moment of truth: when you are face to face with a customer and you have the chance to go the extra mile to serve. In these situations, just do the right, best thing exceedingly well. It’s a small investment for a big return.

Good customer care should achieve the following goals:

  • It solves an individual problem in a personal way
  • It is all about attitude and execution
  • The beauty of its execution lies in the details and the process
  • It completes the marketing equation of delivering on the promises we make as a service

So how do we set ourselves up to successfully deliver superior customer care? Tune in next time for “Customer Care Basics: Creating a Process that Delivers Quality Service.”

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.