Messages From The“Dark Side” Counting Customer Comments

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There is hardly a day that goes by without a few citizens' complaints coming across the city manager's desk. Whether they relate to trash pickups, overgrown lots or fire trucks traveling too fast, people generally are quick to express their dislikes. Yet each call presents a wonderful opportunity for improved customer service.

It is a great idea to take advantage of opportunities to improve service delivery whenever and wherever you can. Most of the time, the improvements that you can make are completed at little or no cost to the organization. Simply by listening to your customers, you can learn a great deal about your performance on the street (a blinding flash of the obvious, thank you very much).

Surprisingly, however, people generally are reluctant to say a simple "thank you" for the outstanding fire-rescue services they receive. The "atta girls" and "atta boys" fall far short of the "oh shucks" letters, so the fire department needs to capitalize on each and every "good news" item that comes along. This column will focus on creating a few more "good news" opportunities and a very interesting way to "showcase" the compliments that a department receives from the public.

In their book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman use a very important phrase early in the text: "To be successful, businesses must stick to the knitting." In other words, we must be able to do our jobs in a nearly flawless way. We must be able to properly and effectively extinguish fires, handle emergency medical calls, and manage hazardous materials incidents and the like.

Another quote that I really like to use to describe how we need to perform our duty is, "Flawlessly execute the basics." First things first, we need to be able to perform our jobs well to raise the "customer service" delivery bar and to receive letters of thanks and praise (I needed to get that little burst out of my system).

Each time the fire department responds to an alarm, a wonderful opportunity for customer feedback is born. The fire chief must determine the best way possible to take advantage of the situation in such a way as to shine a positive light on the relations and opinions that our citizens have about their fire-rescue department. When we are providing our "mainstream" list of services to the community, a very effective process with which I have had a lot of experience is the use of a customer survey postcard.

After each alarm, a survey instrument is mailed out to the customers who have received fire-rescue services. The survey is simple and straight forward. It asks for a "yes-or-no" response to five basic business indicators. The five questions are:

  1. Did we respond quickly? Yes/No
  2. Did we resolve your emergency? Yes/No
  3. Did we act professionally? Yes/No
  4. Did we look professional? Yes/No
  5. Did we treat you nice? Yes/No

The postcards are pre-addressed and stamped to make it very easy for customers to provide this critical feedback information to the fire chief. Also on each card are a few lines to write in additional information and/or comments. Finally, as an option, customers can add their names and telephone numbers so that the fire chief can call to discuss any issue related to the fire rescue department.

This feedback information is invaluable to the organization in two ways. First, the responses to these five business indicators become part of your "dashboard management" process. Dashboard management is an emerging concept where critical performance information is publicly displayed in a user-friendly format (hence the "dashboard" analogy) to quickly illustrate service performance. These five items, coupled with several other operational items, make up a respectable dashboard management tool.

Second, the returned survey cards become the basis for reports (at least quarterly) by the fire chief to the governing body and public. In my experience, the returned cards over a seven-year period were always in the 97-plus-percent positive range. Furthermore, the text comments were typically extremely positive. Actual customer feedback to my department have included a few jewels such as "Our city firefighters deserve a pay raise," "Those paramedics saved my life" and "City firefighters are wonderful."

This critical feedback is easy to package using PowerPoint and handouts for all to see and understand. The survey data is then used as a standard starting point for departmental quarterly reports. The few negative comments do provide a great opportunity to call upon the unhappy citizens long before they attempt to reach an elected official or the newspaper. This concept should greatly reduce organizational stress.

Another idea that is worth implementing is called the "Good News" book. All thank-you cards, notes, newspaper articles and survey results are packaged in a book for each quarter. The "Good News" is distributed during the same quarterly presentation to the elected body and news media and made available on the website for all citizens to access. This document has had a very positive impact on the elected officials, the public and the media.

The implementation of both programs has had many, many positive returns. Other departments have mimicked this process and the governing body will refer to this document from time to time. The media have taken a few of the letters and turned them into human-interest stories. Your department cannot afford to pass up this type of media coverage; in a word, the positive customer testimony is priceless.

The notion that fire-rescue agencies should "toot their own horn" may go against our grain. The return on investment is tremendous and worth all of the effort. Until next time, be safe out there!


Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Atlanta Fire Department. Previously, he was city manager and public safety director for the City of Dothan, AL. Rubin is a 31-year fire-rescue veteran, serving in many capacities and with several departments. He holds an associate's degree in fire science from Northern Virginia Community College and a bachelor's degree in fire science from the University of Maryland, and is enrolled in the Oklahoma State University Graduate School Fire Administration Program. Rubin is a 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and holds the national Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification and the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He serves on several IAFC committees, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. Rubin can be reached at Firerube@aol.com.

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