Customer Service, Souther Style: Part 1 - Getting Started

Customer service has become a catchphrase of the fire service. Dennis L. Rubin offers tips on gauging the effectiveness f your department's "customer service."


Reflecting back to a few decades ago, most of the American fire service was enthusiastically diving into the delivery of emergency medical services. The quality of street-level medical care in our country has dramatically improved since the entry of fire departments into this arena. The acceptance...


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Reflecting back to a few decades ago, most of the American fire service was enthusiastically diving into the delivery of emergency medical services. The quality of street-level medical care in our country has dramatically improved since the entry of fire departments into this arena. The acceptance of this major responsibility is the most likely reason why the vast majority of firefighters enjoy tremendous support and respect today.

The next wave to wash over our shores happened about 10 years later. It was the preparation for, response to, and recovery from the uncontrolled release of hazardous materials. As our society has continued to benefit from a proliferation of chemical compounds, the need to handle various accidents becomes necessary. Overwhelmingly, we have answered this call to additional duties superbly.

The newest and maybe the greatest change to crash into our business is the notion of "customer service." Your author predicts that fire history books will record the '90s as the era of customer service enlightenment. With these historical mileposts in mind, let's look at how the Dothan, AL, Fire Department is thriving in a customer-focused culture.

"Stick To The Knitting"

In getting started, allow me to set the stage to describe our "southern-made" program. First and foremost, we must "stick to the knitting" as Tom Peters discusses in his brilliant work on organizational excellence. To translate, we must be ready and able to deliver "world-class" quality fire, emergency medical, rescue and hazmat-control services to our community. If we can't perform our assigned mission well, customer service really does not have any purpose. I get real nervous when we can't flawlessly perform all of the basics of our business. It wouldn't make much sense spending time and effort to add services if we couldn't do well at our core work.

Next, our customer service delivery system is a lot like the highways in the great state of Alabama - they are both under construction, with an eye toward continuous improvement. We are always looking for logical opportunities to work in value-added programs that are helpful to the taxpaying citizens that we serve. It has been amazing watching our talented and capable firefighters refine our customer service program given the time, resources and support.

The foundation of our efforts is an outward and spoken organizational value towards customer service. Rooted into our mission statement is the focus on the highest level of help to those in need. To illustrate our culture, we have converted a van-type vehicle into a "customer service unit." At all significant incidents a customer service sector is established. A committee meets regularly to review our customer service functions. Each of these items will be discussed in future articles, but I want to get the idea across that the concept of customer service is a corporate philosophy. We "talk the talk and walk the walk" at all ranks within the department regarding customer service. Without this level of organizational commitment, any program would flounder at best.

Feedback From Those We Serve

Just over two years ago, we implemented a customer survey/feedback process. Along with other useful materials, everyone who receives services from the Dothan Fire Department is mailed a postcard. This postcard asks five simple questions that we call our business indicators. The questions are laid out in a "yes or no" format to make it easy on those who respond to our request for feedback. The five questions are:

  1. Did we respond quickly? Yes/No
  2. Did we solve your problem? Yes/No
  3. Did we act professionally? Yes/No
  4. Did we look professional? Yes/No
  5. Did we treat you nicely? Yes/No

The postcard is pre-printed with our address and pre-stamped. The card has a place for written comments as well as an optional section for name and phone number. The concept is to make it easy and quick for the customer to communicate with us. Chief Joe Starnes of Sandy Ridge, NC, and of AT&T customer service fame (who is also a Firehouse® Magazine contributor and Firehouse Emergency Services Expo speaker) helped in the development of these five critical business indicators.

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