Leadership: Under Promise; Over Deliver

I recently purchased a new computer at home. I went to one of the major computer manufacturer's web page online, customized the specifications I wanted for a really jazzed-up whiz-bang machine, and then printed my specs and called them on the telephone, credit card in hand.

The sales person was helpful, offering a bit of good advice that I hadn't really considered, and in a matter of a few minutes I had ordered the new machine and was given both a shipping date and an expected delivery date. So far, so good. I got busy at home, cleaning up the old computer and making sure all the files and program disks that I wanted to keep were safely copied and organized.

Sure enough, on the shipping date promised me at the time of the order, I went online to track its progress, and the computer had left the plant right on time. And here's where my problems started. The machine was to be shipped by a national carrier specializing in air freight. I figured three days, tops. Ten days later, I went online with the tracking number given me by the manufacturer. The shipper was unable to give me any information about the order except to say that there had been an "unexpected delay." I then called the manufacturer asking about the problem. They assured me that I would get the computer within four or five more days. And then they added that my monitor would be delayed another two to three weeks. My reaction was, "Say what?" Oh, they had neglected to tell me about a problem with their supplier.

In the meantime, I had sold my old system, monitor and all. I was looking at another month without a computer, and that wasn't going to make me or my family very happy.

I thought about it for an hour or two and then decided to take some drastic action. I called the computer company's major rival, explained the specifications of the machine I wanted, and asked how quickly they could get the computer to my house. They promised me that it would be in my hands in no more than ten days.

You guessed it. I quickly canceled the original order and placed the new one with the rival manufacturer. I'm happy to say that I got the new machine eight days later. In fact, the order was at my house on the very day that I had been told it would leave the plant! The first company over-promised and under-delivered. The second company did it just the opposite way-the right way-and delighted their new customer-me!

You might be wondering what this story has to do with fire service leadership. And I would submit to you that there is a lesson here for any organization that deals with customers, including the fire service.

People call or visit our department with various requests all the time, and I'm sure ours is no different than yours. They want copies of reports for insurance purposes. They want a speaker for some function they are having. They need to make an appointment to have their child's safety seat inspected in their car. They have all kinds of very general, and sometimes very specific questions. How many smoke detectors, and where? How do they go about getting an extinguisher refilled? Do they need CO monitors?

If your department provides emergency medical services, as most of us do, that provides the source of a host of further questions from the public.

Most fire stations will get frequent drop-in visitors looking for directions, or asking to have their blood pressure checked.

All of these situations provide an opportunity for us to under-promise and over-deliver. Most departments will have written guidelines about providing copies of reports. But once a customer satisfies whatever requirements exist to obtain them, we offer copies at no charge. Obviously, your department's policies may differ. A larger department could incur significant expense by providing copies gratis, but ours is small enough to where that is not a problem for us.

If someone needs directions, we offer a copy of our maps, also free of charge. We will provide complete sets of maps to pizza vendors and other delivery outfits, and charge only enough to cover the cost of the materials used. I can't tell you how much that has been appreciated, especially since ours is a growing community with new streets and subdivisions added all the time.

If someone calls for a specific person who isn't there, we try to offer someone else's help. If the caller only wants the specific person they requested, we try to let them know when to expect a return call. Beyond that, some follow-up to ensure that the call was answered can be very helpful too.

The bottom line is that customers don't always expect much help from us. It's been said that there's nothing a public servant hates more than serving the public, and I'm always amazed at how many people think those of us in government service have that attitude. But we can dispel that myth with a little thoughtfulness, a little side trip out of our way to help someone who has a problem.

Returning to my computer story, I'm not na?ve enough to think that a large computer manufacturer went on red alert in order to get my computer out to me in less than the time promised. They probably knew all along that they could comfortably get it to me in eight days, so they promised it to me in ten. And I was dazzled by their service, especially in the context of my experience with the rival company.

So give it some thought, will you? Be conservative in terms of the promises you make on behalf of your organization. But then be radical in beating the deadlines you set. I promise you, your customers will be delighted with your service!


Bruce Thompson is the chief of the Sierra Vista(AZ) Fire Department. Chief Thompson started his fire service career in 1974. He is a Past President of the Arizona Fire Chiefs? Association and a 1989 graduate of the National Fire Academy?s Executive Officer Program. E-mail Chief Thompson at: bthompson@ci.sierra-vista.az.us