Customer Service, Southern Style

Dennis L. Rubin takes a look at the future of fire department customer service programs.


By all indications, fire department-based "customer service" programs are on the rise across the nation. It appears that fire departments are learning more about customer service and providing many additional services for the citizens they serve. The prospect seems highly likely that meeting the...


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By all indications, fire department-based "customer service" programs are on the rise across the nation. It appears that fire departments are learning more about customer service and providing many additional services for the citizens they serve. The prospect seems highly likely that meeting the human needs as well as the emergency needs of citizens will be part of our central mission well into the 21st century.

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Photo provided by Dothan FD
A new tool in the Dothan Fire Department's customer service inventory is a trailer-mounted trash container. At fire scenes, damaged materials are placed in the container, rather than piled in the front yard, making for a better way to manage the mess that firefighters must make to overhaul the building.

As a first-hand example of this trend, more than 250 fire departments across North America requested copies of the customer survey documents that were described in the first article in this series (February 1999). Many of these agencies have begun to build their own customer service satisfaction measurement instruments. In fact, several departments have reported back on how well these collections of information and ideas have been received in their towns.

There is a growing belief that there is a direct correlation between a fire department being customer focused and the support that the community gives back to its "hometown heroes." This article will take a practical approach to forecasting what the near to mid-range future might hold for "Customer Service, Southern Style."

"Stick To The Knitting"

The opening requirement to be able to provide great customer service is always worth repeating. And the fact is that we must be able to perform our core tasks effectively, efficiently and safely. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. point out in their bestseller In Search of Excellence that organizations must "stick to the knitting" and be outstanding at their primary business.

There is no need to provide great customer service if your outfit can't master your primary operational mission. In simpler terms, we must be able to flawlessly execute the basics of fire-rescue services (prevention, control, EMS, hazardous materials, technical rescue, etc.) to have value to our communities. Therefore, the number-one key to delivering great customer service and exceeding the public's expectations is to be good at our jobs. It sounds simple enough, but it's worth mentioning here - keep emphasis on being at the best at what we do.

The second key point is to develop, foster and reward organizational attitudes toward excellent customer service. To go the extra mile and pay attention for the opportunities to better help our taxpaying citizens is a learned skill. Department leaders need to "role model" and teach the desired behaviors for change to take place where it counts, at the street level.

Outward acknowledgement of superior performance must be recognized and appreciated. If you don't take the time to have some type of reward system (verbal or written thanks) it will be difficult to keep your members committed to the "customer cause." Further, without the organizational support of resources, it will become easy for firefighters to find obstacles to prevent them from reaching your stated goals. Send the same message to your members through all of the various media (policy, action, budget support, etc.). These are the type of items that get noticed and are watched by the firefighting forces.

Recently, our local daily newspaper published a letter to the editor that was written by a nurse. She expressed her concern that there was not enough time for "quality patient care" because of the hospital's expectation that various unnecessary customer service benchmarks were to be achieved. The letter was negative toward the concept of being helpful/nice to patients for fear of giving a lower level of care. The letter read as though these are two separate concepts (being nice and nursing a sick patient) that are not even closely connected.

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