Customer Service, Southern Style

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.

As I read the letter, I couldn't help but think that the institution had moved ahead without getting employee buy-in and understanding. It appeared that the hospital was heading in the right direction, but without selling/telling its staff to get them on-board with the various value-added programs.

If your goal is to "wow" your customers, the attitude of workers cannot be overstated. Training, resources, communication and rewards are all-important requirements if our frontline members are to strive for excellence. Administration has the responsibility to ensure proper staffing, so that core tasks are handled well so that personnel are able to perform the additional duties.

Documentation

We've made some changes in our department's customer service program. We've developed a "Customer Service Check List" (see page 62) that is much like a command check sheet or an assignment check list. This document will help the officer who is assigned to be the advocate for the impacted family stay on track with what the department expects of him or her. It also will ensure consistency as well as thoroughness at this most important assignment. Along with the check list, we are adding a training presentation for all officers and acting officers to keep up with this change. Training that relates to customer service will continue to reinforce the importance of the entire program.

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Next, we have added a trash container to our inventory of specialty tools and appliances. The container is kept at the ready on a small trailer that can be towed by any support vehicle in the department's fleet to significant structural fires. Once on location, the container is placed near the fire area, such as in a driveway or at a window or door. Damaged materials are placed in the container, rather than piled in the front yard. This makes for a better way to manage the mess that we must make to overhaul the building. Wetting down the container before returning to quarters lessens the potential for the debris pile to rekindle. Once the job is completed, our city's Public Works Department picks up, dumps and returns the container. This additional service greatly improves the look of the community by removing such debris piles, rather than letting them"age" for weeks or months. Also, it is a "jump start" for the family to start the remodeling process and return their dwelling place to normal.

Networking Idea

I have seen a growing interest in a regional/national customer service seminar. Several dozen people have chatted with me about building such a program. Maybe a two- or three-day conference could include various workshops to reveal the failures and successes of a wide range of customer service initiatives. It's my hope that this networking opportunity can happen somewhere in the middle of the nation (easy to get to), at a low cost (easy on the budget/wallet) and over a weekend (easy on the schedule). Of course, the keynoter should be Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini, the father of this movement. After all, if it weren't for him, I am not sure that we would be on this customer service journey in the fire-rescue service. Let's hope that this program gets pulled together soon.

To close, I would like to briefly summarize with the following key points that will help ensure our future success:

  1. Be good (actually great) at the everyday emergency work. This will only come through hard work, training and dedication to performing our duties correctly the first time, every time.
  2. Foster a positive attitude toward delivering great services to our customers. If you hold a leadership position in your outfit (formal or informal), remember that you are a role model to be looked up too. Act the part and set the example in all that you do.
  3. Reward and reinforce good behavior by whatever means that you can (a "thank you" does mean something to your troops).
  4. Think about adding a "customer service check list" to your command package. This document will serve you well as a great reminder during the heat of battle.
  5. Add equipment items to your inventory (when you can) that will help get families back on their feet sooner after an unplanned event. Even the little things that can be done will add up and be appreciated by the customer.
  6. Look for some type of national "fire-rescue customer service" workshop to be presented in the not-so-distant future.

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Dothan, AL, Fire Department. Previous installments were in the February 1999, April 1999 and July 2000 issues.

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