9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Serving Callers in Need: Evaluating the Cost of a Smile in Emergency Communications

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, January 2015
Written by Stephen Martini, emergency communications supervisor at Brentwood (Tenn)    9-1-1.  Before joining public safety, Martini was a newspaper journalist in North Carolina and Tennessee.  Contact him via email at martinis@brentwood-tn.org.

We are 9-1-1.

Telecommunicators proudly (and rightly) boast the fact they answer the call in the direst of circumstances.  We display mottos declaring we are there when seconds count and when lives are on the line; then we tell the police where to go.

But the reality in most centers is that 9-1-1 calls make up a fraction of our overall call load -- and many of those 9-1-1 calls are non-emergency in nature.  Having worked in two PSAPs in my career, I know firsthand that approximately 80% of calls placed into the PSAP are on non-emergency lines.

So why are we still using the urgent nature of our profession to excuse poor customer service?

In more than a decade in public safety communications, I have heard a variety of excuses for delivering poor customer service.  I have seen some telecommunicators curtly disconnect with a caller in the name of not tying up 9-1-1 lines, while others gave harsh, almost sarcastic, instructions to callers while advising their reported emergency was barely worth reporting at all.

In fact, one former co-worker once informed me they did not have to answer administrative calls at all, deeming it a self-declared perk of seniority.

Let's table the clear lack of supervision in the last example and focus on the core issue: customer service.  What does customer service look like in the comm center?  Where can we turn to learn more about such an important topic?  Where do we begin?  

Who Are Our Customers?
To start, we must determine who our customers are:

  • Responders in the field (fire, police, EMS, other dispatchable resources)
  • Residents and visitors who call for assistance (9-1-1 and non-emergency callers)
  • Our fellow first responders in the PSAP
How we interact with each of these customers will change based on the nature of their request.  For example, an officer screaming for back-up on the radio will receive an abrupt and targeted response from a focused telecommunicator keen to send the right help to the right place at the right time.  However, if that same officer called on the phone seeking a phone number to a business across town, our reaction would not be nearly as abrupt and targeted.  In fact, as we prioritize that request in light of other tasks we are completing at the time, we may ask the officer if we can call them back with that information--something you would never do if an officer called for help on the radio.

For this first article in a series on customer service, we focus on serving our callers.

A caller reporting a home invasion requires an exceptional level of care: a targeted response from a well-trained telecommunicator weaving strategically through relevant call guides and protocols to gather critical information to assist law enforcement and protect the caller prior to field responders arriving on the scene.  In this situation, it is important to focus the caller's answers to match your questions, and to keep the caller focused on providing relevant information for both their safety and that of the officers.

A seasoned telecommunicator may talk over the caller, cut them off or interrupt with a clear, authoritative tone to control the call.  All of these techniques are important when gathering critical information in a time-and safety-sensitive environment.

Can we apply the same call-handling techniques to the caller who starts his call saying "I know this isn't an emergency, but....?"  Those words are cringe-worthy.  Many telecommunicators shudder at what may follow some variation of this well-known phrase.

Or what about the citizen who calls to ask about trash collection, fireworks displays, noise ordinances,  or to report that their purse was stolen overnight from where they left it on the front seat of their unlocked vehicle?  Often, this is an area where our call-processing customer service falters.

Non-Emergency Calls Matter
When handling non-emergency or administrative phone calls, we should turn our attention to the wealth of training information available at corporate call centers that handle millions of incoming calls per year.  In those situations, we should borrow some pages from their personal selling playbook.

Personal selling is a promotional method in which one party uses skills and techniques for building personal relationships with another party, resulting in both parties obtaining value.

So what value do we give?  We offer confidence, competence and compassion for our callers in their time of need, regardless of the nature or priority of their emergency.  What do we obtain in return?  Happy callers tell their experience to their friends, neighbors, co-workers, family which work their way back to city or county administrators, commissioners, councilpersons and department heads through shared participation in civic organizations, church or other social events.  Happy residents are happy voters who are happy to fund municipal departments that add value to their lives.

Personal selling allows us to adapt to the situation, engage in a dialogue with the caller, so we can build relationships with the caller to ensure they receive the appropriate service and that their problem is resolved.

According to the 2012 Forrester's Customer Experience Index, 89% of customers are likely to buy from a competing company.  This may be why we offer poor customer service on administrative calls -- as government employees, we are the only option!  Who is our competition?  What other choice do our callers  have?  They're stuck, right?

But let's look at it from a different perspective: Customers who believe they are receiving poor service and believe they do not have options will be disgruntled and loud.  They may move away, negatively affecting our tax base, or they may stay and appeal to administrators and elected officials for reform.  Our customers deserve good service and they do have options when they feel they are being mistreated.

The same Forrester study reported that 69% of customers say they prefer live assistance over the phone because they feel their questions can be fully addressed, and 80% of companies want to use the customer service experience they offer as a way to differentiate themselves from their competition.  According to a 2013 study by LivePerson.com (a company that connects clients and companies online), 82% of people say getting their issue resolved quickly is the number one factor to a great customer experience.  According to an internal American Express customer survey conducted in 2012, 26% of consumers said they experienced being transferred from agent to agent without any resolution to their problem.  A 2011 article in Return on Behavior Magazine, 55% of customers would pay extra to guarantee better service.

Finally, according to customer service professional Ruby Newell-Legner, author of the book Understanding Customers, it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience.

Personal selling is expensive and labor intensive, since guaranteeing a live person is on-hand to address and resolve your concern requires actual people rather than deploying an automated system (salaries, benefits and a comfortable work environment, are just a few of the associated expenses).  So the investment your agency makes in you is, in turn, an investment they hope you are making into your community.

Beyond Being 'Polite'
It is pretty easy to see the connection between providing high-quality customer care and receiving high-quality support from your community.

We must navigate call guides with measured ease, using the questions as a guide for fluid conversation rather than items to check off a list during a hostile interrogation.  With only one chance to make a great first impression upon which we can build rapport, callers must know we acknowledge and understand their concerns, not solely gather information so we can dispatch the "real help."  Often, that means listening to the caller long enough to determine their concerns so we can adequately determine how to deliver the right type of help -- whether that means dispatching responders or connecting the caller with an outside agency or civil legal service.

We have to fight the urge to blindly transfer a caller concerned about their faulty water heater, power outage or missed garbage collection date to an unstaffed voicemail without explanation because their call isn't an emergency.

Offering a higher level of care relies on a variety of outside factors: proper supervision, adequate staffing, proper training, access to relevant information, functioning technology to ensure proper receipt and transfer of calls, and adequate pay and benefits.  These aspects should be considered by all administrators who have a hand in providing high-quality, personal customer service.

However, we are ultimately responsible for ourselves.  We can control whether we smile while speaking with a caller (you do know callers can hear you smiling, right?) and whether we take the extra five seconds to explain a process or acknowledge a concern.

For more information on offering great customer service, read John Miller's book, QBQ! The Question Behind the Question, which focuses on what you can do to help others.  Another valuable resource is retired Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini's book, Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service, which explains the unique world of customer service in the realm of public safety.

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