Relationship Management in the Fire Service

Sept. 5, 2006
There is not a day that does not pass in the finest firms and organizations that a new opportunity dies prematurely or a present situation deteriorates because someone did not understand the nature of how to manage a relationship

Question: Why are relationships so important to a necessary public service based on technical expertise? With all of the various duties and standards for which we are responsible, why do we have to be so proficient in the "soft skill" of managing relationships?

Answer: If ever there were a "blinding flash of the obvious," this is it. Regardless of how technically proficient and professionally delivered our service may be, its perpetuation will always be dependent on the relationships we have. While each of us has our own expertise based on our particular function (engine or ladder company, EMS, prevention or public affairs, etc.), relationship management is a skill that each of us must develop for the good of our departments and the fire service as a whole.

There is not a day that does not pass in the finest firms and organizations that a new opportunity dies prematurely or a present situation deteriorates because someone did not understand the nature of how to manage a relationship. With over 30 years in both business and the fire service, I have seen this occur all too often. It happens because few people take the time to understand the nature of people as individuals and most important, individual and organizational needs.

We all know people in our professions that just seem "to get it" when it comes to various natural skills in getting the job done on the fireground or in an emergency situation. Some of the best firefighters and officers fall into this category, yet it is amazing that many of these same professionals simply do not have the skills to manage relationships. Perhaps we could solve this problem by creating a new position called Chief Relationship Officer and give the job to people who have skills in this area so we can go about our "real jobs." Believe it or not, some firms actually have this kind of position regardless of the actual title. And our real jobs include dealing with live humans.

The Basics of Relationship Management: Care, Relevancy and Immediacy

Like it or not, the success of any endeavor involving people will always rely on the care and feeding of the relationship. Most people have not made these skills into a professional methodology as part of their marketing toolbox. I am not referring to a manipulative sales technique to convince someone to do something against his or her will or desire. It also does not mean that one must become a glad-hander or "shmoozer" as we call it. It means that we take the time to dig deep into the true needs of the person or organization that person represents so that we can understand their position and how we could fit into each other's picture of the world to achieve mutual gains.

You do not need to be a chummy salesperson to do this or blow out your budget taking people to dinner every night. The key is to be transparent in all of your dealings, telling it like it is, yet telling it with an understanding of the other person's true needs. I mean knowing the other person or organization's needs as well as you know your own. It also means demonstrating honestly that one cares enough about the relationship to take actions that demonstrate that care.

Discuss: Fire Service Marketing Ideas Forums: Public Information & Media Relations

We have all heard the phrase, "tell me that you care before you tell me what I should know." Concentrate on the relationship only first and you will be amazed how the world will open up to you in having your needs fulfilled. This takes the same kind of practice and skill that one needs to master an evolution in firefighting. And, some would say, that it also takes enough experience to almost intuitively understand the direction of a relationship and to possess a certain sense of immediacy.

I would liken this to the sense one gets just before a room flashes over. An experienced firefighter can read the seat of the fire as it expands along its vapor front just before it explodes a room. In the same way, one can read the direction of a relationship and whether it requires immediate attention. If one traces the steps of any successful initiative in the realm of human relations, one can see the various "footprints" of how a set of relationships developed until success was achieved. Yet almost nobody really takes the time to realize what and how this developed in front and behind the scenes.

Relationships can be Measured

It is even possible to put a value on relationship management. Here is a story to illustrate the point. Some years ago, I had the opportunity to work at a senior officer level in a global marketing firm. During the recruiting process the CEO asked me how much I thought a fair salary would be. I gave him a dollar amount, but I felt uneasy about it. I did not know if it was too high or too low. As was my normal ritual when I had a business problem, I called my dad for advice. He asked me the following questions: "Ben, how much do you think your relationships with your clients are worth? How much did it cost you in time and money to build one relationship with an influential CEO who is now a valued friend over 10 or 20 years, and which resulted in significant business for your firm?" Now multiply that number times the number of clients you would be bringing to the new company." I said: "Dad, that number would be so high that I would not have the guts to say the dollar amount." My dad said, "Either get the guts to say it or do nothing and suffer." I summoned up my courage and told the dollar amount to the CEO. After a long silence, he said OK, if we pay you that amount will you take the job?"

My point is that relationships can be measured just like anything else and intelligent leaders in public and private enterprise know it. The key is to know where they begin and end. You have heard the term "closing the sale." This means convincing a customer to sign on the dotted line for a purchase. This phrase should be outlawed from the lexicon! We don't close sales. We open relationships. Once the sale is made or once the citizen pays us his or her taxes to maintain our service, then we are in the debt column. The citizen has done us a favor based on our promise to them to give the finest safety service possible. This reflects on the way each of us performs our job daily. Just as important, is how we deal with the citizens and each other.

Every Fire Service Organization and Department Has Multiple Relationships

The corollary to this relationship management idea is that each of us needs to expand our circle of relationships or at least create value from the ones we have. This is not rocket science. Consider the number and complexities of relationships, which already exist for any fire and rescue department.

Internal relationships

  • Firefighters
  • Officers
  • Firefighters and Officers
  • Union
  • Management
  • Union Officials and Management
  • Commissioners

External relationships

  • Citizens
  • Citizen organizations
  • Citizen demographic groups
  • Local government officials
  • Businesses and corporations
  • Institutions (ie: schools)
  • Organizations (ie: Red Cross)
  • Other local agencies such as law enforcement, utilities, etc.
  • Media

Examples "On the Scene"

Every time we go out on a call, inspect a business, create a pre-fire plan or meet with government officials we have the opportunity to develop a positive relationship. I did not say make a good impression. Creating a relationship implies two-way communication. Some of the best relationships can come from the toughest problems, such as complaints.

If you want to add value to the department, concentrate on expanding your relationships. The key is not to polarize on issues if possible. In our profession, sometimes we must stand firm when it comes to mandates and codes. But the way we approach the relationship can determine the customer or business owner's willingness to comply. Usually it is a matter of explanation. That is even more critical as our "customers" gain more understanding of how our service operates. And this is just fine because in the end, the citizen finances our service. We need to remember that the ability to perform our service is dependent on the decision of our citizens to support it and that depends first on how well we mange the relationships as we deliver excellent service. Here is an example.

Your ladder company arrives on the scene of a house fire. You must vent the roof. The owner of the house thinks you are wrecking the house unnecessarily. You have a number of responses to this homeowner. You can ignore the person or make short shrift of the inquiry because you are busy saving the home. Or you can tell the owner what you are doing as you do it and the reasons why. You could then call the owner at a later date and invite them to the station for coffee where you can explain in more detail (if the customer is interested) or use the opportunity to discuss fire prevention in the home. Will you be successful with everyone? No. But, even if you are successful building one new advocate per week, that is a start. And the goal is to build advocates and ambassadors of goodwill for the department.

A Lesson from Harvard

Theodore Levitt, former dean of the Harvard Business School and author of a number of marketing books has noted in his book, Levitt on Marketing, that in the absence of good management, relationships tend to deteriorate because of the differences between needs and expectations among people and organizations. The tendency for any organization is to face inward rather than outward. Inward orientation leads to insensitivity and unresponsiveness in customer relations.

Examples of this can be seen in bureaucratic formalities instead of authentic interactions. An example of this might be found in the manner of our inspection and permit policies. With no attention the things that build bad relationships accumulate while good ones suffer. The natural tendency of relationships, whether in marriage or business, is entropy-the erosion or deterioration of sensitivity and attentiveness. A healthy relationship maintains, and expands its equity and the possibilities of new creative situations. We must not just ask ourselves "how are we doing?" in the function of our service, but" how do our customers perceive us to be doing?" and "how is the relationship going?" In other words, "how are we known?" Here is a list of things to be aware of in the development of relationships.

Things Affecting Relationships

  • Good Thing: Initiate positive phone calls...Bad Thing: Make only callbacks
  • Good Thing: Make recommendations...Bad Thing: Make justifications
  • Good Thing: Candor in language...Bad Thing: Accommodative language
  • Good Thing: Use phone...Bad Thing: Use correspondence
  • Good Thing: Show appreciation...Bad Thing: Wait for misunderstandings
  • Good Thing: Make service suggestions...Bad Thing: Wait for service requests
  • Good Thing: Use "we" problem solving language... Bad Thing:Use "owe us" legal language
  • Good Thing: Get to problems fast...Bad Thing: Only respond to problems
  • Good Thing: Use shorthand ...Bad Thing: Use long-winded communications
  • Good Thing: Personality problems aired...Bad Thing: Personality problems hidden
  • Good Thing: Talk of a "future together"...Bad Thing: Talk about making good on the past
  • Good Thing: Routinize responses for non emergency issues... Bad Thing:Fire drill responsiveness
  • Good Thing: Accept responsibility...Bad Thing: Shift blame
  • Good Thing: Plan the future...Bad Thing: Rehash the past

On the surface, the concept of relationship management appears to be obvious and easy to grasp. In practice it is the difference between a successful organization and a one that fails, one individual at a time.

Making it Happen

To effectively manage relationships, we must meet four requirements:

  1. Awareness: Understand the problem and opportunity areas
  2. Assessment: Determine where the department stands in the minds of its various constituencies, especially in terms of what's necessary to get the desired result.
  3. Accountability: Actually establish regular reporting on individual relationships and then on group relationships, so that these can be weighed against other measures of performance.
  4. Actions: Make decisions and allocations and establish routines and communications on the basis of their impact on the targeted relationships. Constantly reinforce awareness and actions.

Try This Experiment

Look at it this way. Once we arrive on the scene, the relationship for us begins. When we leave the scene, the relationship continues with the customer. What will be the customer's impression? Try this test. The next time you visit a fire station for the first time, see how you are treated by the first person you see. I will make you a bet; you can tell how the Chief thinks based on the attitude of that firefighter. That is the same way a citizen or business owner will think depending on how you manage the relationship from the beginning to end.

Ben May, a Firehouse.Com and Firehouse Magazine contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for the past 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort. You can e-mail Ben at [email protected]

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