Customer Care Basics

March 9, 2006

Question: How does a fire and emergency services organization create an effective customer care system that delights the community as well as the firefighters and officers?

Answer: The basic building blocks themselves and the delivery process are the critical factors for the creation of a stellar customer care system for fire and emergency services. You do not have to have a sophisticated system. Your department can do simple things right now and begin where you are.

We in the fire and emergency services have always been in an enviable position: the opportunity to become known for creating and delivering superior customer care to the citizens we protect. Suggesting that we have the opportunity does not necessarily mean that we are doing this in our department. At least we have a good foundation on which to build: the traditions and evolution of the fire service. The public still sees us as one of the most trustworthy and admirable professions in the country. It is our responsibility to maintain that standard for the entire fire service in each of our communities. Each of us in our own departments is responsible for all of us across the nation in the way our customers see us through the services we deliver. Superior customer care is one of the ways to do this. Remember, people expect that we can do the big things like putting out fires and rescuing them from car accidents. It is the way we treat them at all points of contact that project how the public sees us. Incidentally, customer care continues to be, and will remain, one of the key points of differentiation in any business-public or private. Consider the lifetime dollar value in tax support of delivering outstanding customer care to each of the citizens your department protects and you begin to see how excellent customer care leads to financial support; both of which lead to the perpetuation of your department in the community.

The Values Of The Fire Service Have Always Been Customer-Centered

Creating a superior customer care system begins with the values and the mission of the department. Most departmental missions revolve around suppression, prevention, education and code compliance. These are the building blocks of the protection services we deliver to all of our citizens, businesses and institutions in our jurisdictions. Most companies and organizations look at customer service as a separate part of the overall operation such as the "customer service department." I would suggest that customer service defines the manner in which we create and deliver everything that we do in the fire and emergency services. I would also suggest that the term "customer care" is critical because it defines how we think about our customers and ourselves. "We care."

However, it is the reasons why we are firefighters, coupled with the emergency and non-emergency needs of our citizens that create the real value that motivates us to deliver superior customer care in the first place. By placing the customer in the center of the service system we ensure that our values and mission are synergistic and focused on doing the right thing for the people we are serving. Motivations, values and a customer-centered methodology can change lives; and they will completely alter your citizens' perceptions of your department. The next step in the creation of a customer service system is a structure that ensures consistent feedback and the ability to modify the system. You can create a customer care system at any point in the development of your department or you can greatly enhance the system you may already have. The point here is that you can create a system from small actions or situations as opposed to creating a complex system before you even begin. It is always better to go for some small documented "wins" than to spend time, money and resources creating a complex system based that cannot deliver on expectations.

The creation of a five-step customer-centered system methodology itself comprises the following actions:

  1. Determining who the customer really is (customer segments).
  2. Defining present and projected customer needs (customer services).
  3. Creating ways to fulfill the needs (service delivery systems).
  4. Monitoring customer perceptions of how we are fulfilling the needs (evaluating if we are really delivering value).
  5. Modifying the system as the needs change (fine tuning or changing the system to fit changing needs).

While you can create the system from any point, here are two approaches to consider: comprehensive and point of entry.

The Comprehensive Approach: Making Customer Service Part Of The Strategic Plan

The comprehensive approach places customer service as part of the departmental strategic plan to achieve departmental goals. This approach is comprised of clearly defined goals, objectives and tactics. Some of these goals could include the following actions.

Analyze the Market And Your Present Situation

Determine Customer Segments, Needs and Perceptions

  1. If you already have a customer service program, evaluate its main components and determine their effectiveness according to the customer.
  2. Determine each internal customer segment and define their needs. These will include firefighters and their families, officers and support staff. They will also include those in associated services such as law enforcement, hospitals, utilities, city and county leadership.
  3. Evaluate perceptions and attitudes of internal customers (firefighters, officers and support staff) through simple surveys.
  4. Evaluate perceptions and attitudes of external customers (all citizens).
  5. Evaluate perceptions and attitudes of business, institutional (schools, hospitals, etc.)
  6. Analysis, evaluation and categorization of communications with customers before during and after any contact. This includes emergency and non-emergency situations. Analyze for places of consistent communication breakdown, leading to misunderstanding and misperception.
  7. Evaluation of target hazards in the community as well as customers requiring inspection and code enforcement.
  8. Establish a customer review portion of any emergency or non-emergency call with the companies who answered the call. This should be done as soon as possible after the incident.

Build The System

Create a process and system to achieve customer service and departmental goals.

  1. Prioritize customer needs and perceptions in each segment.
  2. Determine necessary actions to fulfill the needs.
  3. Provide a feedback loop to make certain that the goals are being achieved and in a way consistent with departmental and fire service values.

The Point Of Entry Approach: Cultivate Observation

The second approach to creating a fire service customer care system that works is simple and can be effective quickly. The point of entry approach is especially effective in small departments, but can be just as effective in larger, metropolitan departments if it begins within one department. The beauty of this approach lies in starting where you are and creating the system in small, proven incremental steps from any point you wish to begin.

  1. Establish with your company officer or chief that you wish to begin a customer service "pilot project" to determine if there may be application to specific areas of the department (incidents, inspections, code enforcement, public education, etc.).
  2. Take the time to observe the needs and perceptions of citizens at incidents, or business owners/managers during inspections or compliance discussions.
  3. Create a simple customer evaluation form of no more than five questions that evaluates how the customer who receives the service perceived your performance after any kind of incident or contact. With each question, ask how you might have done a better job. Be sure to include a portion that asks whether the customer wants to learn more about the department, or become involved in some way. Ask the customer to prioritize the information they give you.
  4. Prioritize the needs and perceptions.
  5. Create a set of no more than five goals based on the needs and perceptions.
  6. Create a pilot program for three months with one or two shifts.
  7. Evaluate the program, modify and expand to another shift.

Before you know it you will have created an effective program from the ground up and based on the reality of customer contact and what the firefighters really perceive to be necessary. Contact me by e-mail for a comprehensive customer service strategy

Differences Between The Positive And The Negative

Common sense actions you can do now for more effective customer service.

  • Initiate positive phone calls rather than
  • Make recommendations
  • Using the phone
  • Show appreciation
  • Make service suggestions
  • Use "we" problem-solving language
  • Get right to problems
  • Talking about the future of a safe community
  • Explaining the reasons for your actions
  • Using professional and caring language
  • Making only callbacks
  • Making justifications
  • Using correspondence and e-mail
  • Waiting for misunderstandings
  • Waiting for service requests
  • Using "you had better" code jargon
  • Responding to problems
  • Talking about making good on past mistakes
  • Treating citizens like victims
  • Using crude or clinical fire department language

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