9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

"How Can I Help You: Customer Service in Emergency Communications

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine December 2007
Written by Sheila Hanna-Wiles, she works for the SC Highway Patrol and has been an adjunct instructor for APCO institute for seven years.

We usually think about customer service in terms of how quickly we get served at a restaurant or whether a store clerk gives us a hard time when we try to return a piece of clothing that doesn't fit. When we think about good customer service, Walt Disney World and Nordstrom are the two businesses that come most readily to mind. But what does customer service have to do with public safety communications? After all, 911 is a monopoly. But think about it for a minute. Has your agency received any of the following types of complaints?

"The calltaker I spoke with was very rude."
"I got the feeling that the calltaker did not care about my situation."
"The calltaker was very unprofessional."
"Susie did not help me with that three-alarm call."
"The radio dispatcher has an attitude problem."

These complaints may seem vague, but they all deal with the same factor: customer service.

We've heard about customer service, but we may not know the definition or understand how it applies to public safety communications. In fact, a single definition of customer service does not exist. It can be defined as an activity, a performance measurement and/or a philosophy. So customer service:
  • Is the ability to provide a service or product in the way that it has been promised;
  • Is about treating others as you would like to be treated yourself;
  • Is an organization's ability to supply its customers' wants and needs;
  • Describes the process of taking care of customers in a positive manner;
  • Is any contact between a customer and a company that causes a negative or positive perception by a customer;
  • Is a process for providing a competitive advantage and adding benefits in order to maximize the total value to the customer; and
  • Is the commitment to providing value added services to external and internal customers and involves attitude, knowledge, technical support and quality of service in a timely manner.

Customer service is the intangible element that goes with the acquisition of goods and services. When you go to the store to buy a loaf of bread, there's an element of customer service that goes along with the purchase. How were you treated? Were you able to easily find what you were looking for? Was the store clean? Were you able to check out quickly? Was the parking lot well lit? None of these questions are related to the quality, freshness or price of the bread that you bought; they are all part of customer service.

When you go to purchase services, many of the same questions apply. If you drop off and pick up your clothes at the dry cleaners, there are certain aspects of service that you are paying for in the price. Were the clothes cleaned properly? Were they free of damage or discoloration? Were they pressed properly and hung neatly, covered with plastic to keep them clean? These are services that you are paying for. But courtesy, being open when needed and convenience also play a big part in our decision to use these services.

Why do people choose not to use a certain store or service? Overwhelmingly, people stop doing business with companies because the customer perceived an attitude of indifference from the company's representative.

The Public Safety Customer

How does this apply to public safety communications? To answer that question, we must first identify who the customer is in public safety communications. Customers can be separated into two categories: internal and external. Internal customers are those people within your organization for whom you provide certain services or products. External customers are those from outside your organization. Let's begin with the obvious external public safety customer, the caller.

The caller is someone who calls the public safety communications agency, requesting some type of assistance or emergency response.

Our emergency responders are another set of customers, encompassing law enforcement, EMS or fire personnel that we dispatch to the callers.

Support personnel are also customers. This group includes personnel from environmental services, utilities, towing, addressing department, emergency management, equipment maintencance, etc.

Yet another customer is our public sector, those organizations that we educate in public safety communications. Public sector customers may include school administrators, students, hospital personnel, church groups, communities, government officials, etc.

Finally, our last customer--the internal public safety customer--consists of the people around us, sitting in the chairs next to us or across the room from us and the people who oversee the operations of the communications center, our co-workers.

Why Customer Service Counts

By now you may be thinking that these customers don't have a choice when it comes to public safety services. So is it even relevant if they receive good or bad customer service? The answer: It is absolutley relevant.

Public safety agencies are typically supported by government funding, which comes from property taxes, local sales taxes and other sources of government income. The public, through the payment of taxes, provides the income by which public safety services are provided. When a caller says, "I pay your salary!" that's essentially a correct statement.

It's true that citizens typically don't have a choice when it comes to public safety services. They cannot call another law enforcement agency, ambulance service or fire department if they're dissatisfied with local service. But what they can do is call the local governing body and the media, form opposition groups, etc. They can refuse a grant increase or vote down a bond issue to fund a new PSAP or a new radio or CAD system. They can bring lawsuits and other legal action, and it will affect the crime level and quality of life in the community if they refuse to call and report crimes.

Not only do citizens have the power to make important decisions that affect the telecommunicator's job, but emergency responders themselves have power. If they work for a separate agency dispatched by a consolidated PSAP, they may refuse to work with a PSAP that provides poor service and choose another source for dispatching.

Our co-workers can file grievances or terminate us.

The public sector can follow the same path as the callers. The support personnel can follow the same path as the emergency responders.

Customers are the most important aspect to any public safety agency. Customers are not dependent on us; we are dependent on them. Customers are not interruptions to our work; they are the purpose of it. We are not doing customers a favor by serving them; we are fulfilling our obligation by doing so. Customers are not outsiders to our business, they are part of it.

All of our customers depend on us to do a job, and we must perform that job to the best of our ability or be prepared to handle the consequences mentioned above. The bottom line: Our customer service skills will reflect stability in our jobs. Remember, no customers equals no business and no employees.

Exceptional Customer Service

Exceptional customer service consists of many factors: assurance, empathy, responsiveness, attitude, quality, problem-solving and listening skills. You must assure the customer that you possess the knowledge and skills needed to perform your job properly. To assure confidence to the customer, you must know the policies and procedures set forth by your agency. Lack of knowledge and confidence wil leave your customer feeling that you don't know what you're doing. You must understand and listen to the callers' specific needs and concerns. Let the caller know that they have your undivided attention and what they have to say is important to you. Listening skills and problem-solving skills will show the customer that you are competent and trustworthy. If you don't possess these skills, the customer will wonder if they truly got the correct response.

We must show a willingness to help our customers and provide prompt service. Placing a caller on hold for a long period of time will indicate that you're not interested in them or that you're having difficulty. Letting the caller know what's going on and the reason for the delay will instill a more positive impression. Attitude is like a virus. If you display a good attitude, then your customer will end the call in a positive manner specifically because of your good attitude. If you display a bad attitude, then your customer will end the call in a negative manner again specifically because of your bad attitude.

Customers have three expectations about what will happen when they call for public safety assistance. They expect to: 1) talk with a trained and knowledgeable professional; 2) be treated with respect and courtesy and 3) talk with someone in authority.

There is nothing as important in calltaking or dispatching than making the customer feel good about their contact with your agency. The entire department's image is formed by the person who answers the phone or dispatches on the radio. The way they talk and ask questions, the way they solve the problems and the customer's perception of service virtually establish the customer's entire feeling about the department.

How many times have you heard from a family member or friend, "It's not what you said, it's how you said it."? How true! Maybe more so with telecommunicators who are heard but never seen. When you are not face to face with people, they tend to make visual images of you, judging you by the tone of your voice. Your actual spoken words are not as important as the tone in which you use them. A short "yeah," click of the mic or "all right" can mean many things depending on how you articulate them. Two different telecommunicators saying the exact same thing but in different tones come across with totally different messages. Like the police officer calling out on a routine traffic stop who screams, making you think he's in a full-blown pursuit, tone of voice can have an effect on all of us. Tone of voice is probably the most important factor when dealing with difficult callers. Changing your tone and changing the way you phrase your words can make or break a conversation with an already upset caller.

When you start to deal with someone who is upset, you must first deal with the emotions. The facts don't make a difference to someone who's upset, and explaining your position or the agency's position won't even begin to make a dent in the situation. You must deal with the caller's emotions. Here are some key phrases that will help you when dealing with customers:

  • I understand.
  • I'm sorry.
  • Thank you.
  • You're welcome.
  • I can help you...
  • I understand that you are frightened and upset, but (next question)...
  • Please don't curse. I need to know...
  • My supervisor can help you.
  • Can you hold for a moment so I can...?
  • I don't know, but I can find out.
  • Let me help you.

Say "A locksmith can help you..." or "Public Works handles that" rather than "We don't do that." Say, "Let me give you that telephone number" rather than "You have to call..." Always emphasize the help that's available, not the assistance that you cannot provide.

Here are a few trigger phrases that you need to avoid because they tend to enrage customers--whether or not they were already upset:

  • "I'm sorry, but that's not our policy."
  • "It's against the rules."
  • "That isn't my department's responsibility."
  • "We've never done it that way."
  • "You have to calm down or I won't help you."

Something that should be considered on every call is that each customer is unique. Some may be more intelligent than others. Cultural background or beliefs will affect how a customer responds to you. A customer's moral values may not match yours. The age and life experiences of a customer are all factors to consider when trying to achieve excellence in customer service.

A customer will not accept someone being too authoritative or someone preaching or losing their temper and yelling. You are the public safety professional. It's your job to listen to the customer, show empathy, provide the customer with feedback and, most importantly, follow the Golden Rule: "Treat others as you want to be treated."

Customer service is part of being a telecommunicator, and it involves more than just answering the phone. Customers expect more from emergency services due to several influences. First, it is unthinkable that there would be anything but the best in emergency services. Second, television and movies have created expectations. And third, the customer of emergency services may be in a panic situation, not really knowing what they want, except a fix for their problem.

Basics to Better Serve Your Customers

A "customer service star" typically exhibits certain characteristics. To begin with, they focus on the customer rather than the situation. They also:

  • Set personal standards that exceed customer expectations.
  • View work as a show.
  • Create mutually cooperative relationships with customers, especially internal customers.
  • Smile a lot when talking to customers. (Smiles really do get transmitted over the phone line and radio frequencies.)
  • Think of themselves as professional customer service personnel. It works. Self image is important to projecting a caring image.
  • Remember that everyone they contact is a customer and that, in turn, they are a customer to others.
  • Recognize that the customer is always right, but so are they. The trick is to get the two as close together as possible.
  • Acknowledge that good customer service is a cycle. Having a good attitude toward customers breeds good feedback from customers, which feeds your good attitude, which breeds more good feedback, which feeds your attitude.
  • Remember that they cannot please everyone. Don't let a customer service failure get you down.

These characteristics take time and energy to adopt, but they do work.

Customer Complaints

If a customer's expectations are not met, only one out of 10 will complain to the agency. So if a manager gets 10 similar complaints in a week, there were probably a hundred or more total incidents during that week. Whether or not the customer complains to the agency, and even if the customer is eventually satisfied, they may still tell people how they were initially treated, repeating the complaint to others. Therefore, it's prudent to take a practical approach to solving customer problems and resolving customer complaints before they ever happen.

Dissatisfield customers usually do two things. They may go elsewhere for the same products or services if possible, and they tend to tell everyone and anyone who will listen about how they were treated. Satisfied customers will tell seven people. Dissatisfied people will tell 28. Those who still have to use the service or products (no choice) tend to tell many more about their unpleasant experiences.

When customers complain, what do they expect will happen? Many want the person responsible to be disciplined -- or even fired. Others want special privileges or some type of special treatment. Some look for an apology only.

The customer is looking at things from their point of view. Some customers may not have all of the information that they need to be correct, but perception is reality. In their minds, they are right.

Always shoot for the satisfied customer! Remember that customer service is very important. Every agency should demand excellent customer service from its employees so that customers will return and for job stability. No customer equals no business and no employees.

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