Dedication to Customer Service

How dedicated to serving your public are you? We seem to pay a certain amount of lip service to “serving the public, 24/7, 365” in our mission statements. I always hear how proud we are to “serve”, but do we draw the line at putting out fires? Carting them to a medical facility? Or are you in an organization who will put someone back in bed or stop a leak until a plumber can get there?

I hear about all-hazards response all the time, but do we draw the line at “hazards”, or do we raise the bar a little? While I don’t advocate anyone in our jurisdiction calling 9-1-1 because they need help completing their tax return, if a situation really does affect our customer that they had to dial that number, aren’t we charged with understanding how this is perceived as an emergency before saying we won’t help?

My wife owns a flooring company. While a floor product delivery may not constitute an emergency issue to you, to her company, when a customer needs a product someplace at sometime, if it isn’t there, it creates issues that may effectively stop the completion of the project, be it a remodel or new construction.  This week, a delivery had to go from the manufacturer directly to the project location in another state.  To the trucking company, excellent customer service was a non-issue: After neglecting to send the materials in a truck with a lift gate, they decided, “Oh well, you’ll just have to wait until we can get a truck to do that later.”  Later being three days later.

They had a pretty blase attitude about the whole thing, despite the fact that they were contracted to deliver something, they had an obligation to deliver it at a certain time and place, and being the subject matter experts on shipping, should have probably realized that they weren’t going to just hand-carry 3900 pounds of product off the truck (especially since they had to use a fork-lift to get it on there). Then to compound the issue, they weren’t very careful about how the product was loaded and they damaged some of the pieces. Again, “Oh, well…”

Dedication to customer service requires a “can do” attitude; it might seem to be outside your scope of practice, but depending on what your marketing strategy happens to be – and make no mistake about it, your mission statement and vision is your marketing strategy when you are fighting for ever-dwindling tax funds or donations – your organization will be faced with very specific situations in which you will have to stretch your resources to “make it happen”.  In our case, we rented a truck, picked up the material from the trucking company and delivered it ourselves.  The customer was completely thrilled.

In my wife’s company, we hope our efforts will be recognized in customer loyalty and a willingness to pass the word on. In emergency services, we hope that the care we take with each challenge is shared loudly when budget time or the annual fundraiser comes around.  You can draw the line where you choose, but in these times of limited funds, can you afford to ignore the added value of extraordinary customer service? It is extra effort that will distance you from the rest of the pack.  When a decision must be made between funding an analysis of the migratory path of earthworms in your community and cutting firefighters, that’s ammo you can’t afford to ignore. The next time you are drooling over your wish list and realizing you can’t afford things, remember the choices you made as to where you drew that customer service line.


  • It is exactly the feelings of that trucking company that I think most people think of when they hear the words “customer service.” When we get those folks who seem like they hate their jobs and we should be tipping them for their efforts of punching my order into a computer, then letting someone else bring me my food.
    Or a trucking company who figures, “Who else will they use?” so bungles an order, or the Fire Chief who sends rigs out lights and sirens to help Erma open windows, then wonders why he’s low on resources at an incident.

    I think we need to get away from “customer service” and more towards “doing your job.” If they were customers, they could seek out alternate services to accomplish their tasks. Services especially designed and trained to carry out the task needed.
    This doesn’t mean we don’t help the guy out front with a flat tire, or the woman at the market who locked her kid in the car, but when the guy calls 911 to change the flat 3 miles from the station, or Erma calls to get her keys out of the car without hazard, no, that is not the job of the fire department, those are not our customers, they have resources in the community to access and should do so.
    Sorry for the long comment.

  • I’m afraid that customer service in the first-responder “business” has led to a loss of mission as applied in the agency.

    As a customer, you bet I want service. And preferably polite service, but it’s more extreme than that. This is not a sweater in the wrong size, it’s my broken arm or burning house. Customer service is too pale a term for what I am going to need.

    The way customer service is handled routinely (I don’t say for your wife’s company) is through the medium of bean-counters. It is measured by sales, compared to Last Week/Month/Year. Customer Satisfaction Surveys are very unreliable, in large companies and in many agencies. People lie, or they discount their own inputs in the process.

    People who do not know the profession tend to judge by factors outside professional skill. We know our car works when we pick it up. The guys who swear over the motor are carefully kept away from the desk staff, who are polite. That doesn’t work in emergency service. The level of discourse on all sides is fraught with panic, and there are few levels of separation.

    I know if my car works when I pick it up from the shop-I don’t know how this success occurred. Do I know my arm is set or my house has stopped burning after dealing with the FD? You bet I do. But compare at completion: the time for swearing over my car is over. That’s completed customer service. In the wake of a broken arm and a burned house, the swearing and crying have just begun. The process is incomplete and you guys leave at the dawn of a new harrowing realization.

    The satisfaction level is not comparable. So in some ways, the customer service standard is not applicable. This is especially true when customer service “satisfaction standards” are applied, or quotas that a public can look at and compare to their own experience. Bean-counting is necessary, but certain types of it will never give the right answer to an agency unless the purpose of the agency is skewed greatly.

    I do appreciate, however, that how I (the public) am served matters to you (the FD). I just think customer service is a term that leads in practice to many abuses in the police and fire professions.

  • truck6alpha says:

    I’m in agreement with both Happy Medic and Ann T.’s comments in principle and practice. But the realities are that the populace doesn’t perceive our service as necessary if it doesn’t affect them today. Call it cynical, but unless your home is on fire or you have had someone experience a medical emergency, we just aren’t on everyones’ radar.

    I guess from a “customer service” standpoint, we have the luxury of a relative monopoly when you call 9-1-1, but from a purely human relations aspect, we should be treating the people we serve with a whole lot more dignity than I see out of some of our colleagues.

    Unfortunately, this subject is a whole lot more in-depth than I can cover in under 600 words and my approach might have been overly simplistic. A lot of the changes will require society to examine their own readiness for disaster and to realize that when they call us for an inconvenience someone else is losing out on the necessary resources for their emergency.

    Thanks to both of you for your comments.

  • Dear Mick,
    I do think what you are trying for is admirable. I do hope to be treated with politeness. Further, I think community outreach is the best way to get fire department presence on the public radar.

    I think I am mostly afraid of the customer service model as a burden on the front line. I used to feel it when the new “latest model” of customer service interaction came from above. How much more challenging it would be with people who have real troubles, immediately in the vicinity.

    “Society to examine itself” is a concern of mine also. We have a road to walk, for sure. I don’t see too many of us ‘publicans’ walking it.

    I always enjoy reading here.

  • Mick,

    This is a very good post with so much to develop off of.

    The problems with customer service in the fire service is that the initial philosophy from some 20 years ago began with many flaws. For one, as a mid-Atlantic firefighter, the terminology appeared to have its roots in the west coast, as far as I can remember having first learned about it personally. Traditional subcultures identifiably differing by geography made the selling of customer service hard. Secondly, the approach and intended targets of customer service were misguided. Initially the term within the fire service was used as a means to address burnout, civilian interaction and public image. Customer service was reactive instead of proactive; we learned that we had to respond to Erma because she simply called 911 but more importantly to do so kindly. The approach was a poor soft sell marketing strategy that did not address the root of service abuse. Finally, customer service had very little time to develop or mature in the fire service due to the subject becoming a widely offered magazine and trade show topic.

    Today the fire service tries to use customer service to market itself and address cultural issues from nearly twenty to thirty years ago. We tell ourselves that we must do more than put out fires; we tell elected leaders we can’t do everything; we tell ourselves that we need to win over every citizen; and we tell Erma to stop abusing us for things that aren’t true emergencies. Unfortunately we do each of these simultaneously under the philosophy of customer service, and most often in the wake of an emergency.

    We would do well to take customer service out of our operational language, overhaul it and give it a proper place in our administrative language.

    Bill Carey


    For example, what would early customer service have said to this young lady? – ‘No worries ma’am, it’s what we do.’?

    “A 25-year-old spelunker was rescued from a western Massachusetts cave yesterday – for the second time, much to the annoyance of authorities who have spent at least $4,000 to save her.

    “If this had been her first time, OK. Crap happens. But she got stuck once and she went down the same hole,” said Amherst Fire Chief Tim Nelson. “We’re going to do what it takes to get her out. … But at the same time, you put some very skilled guys in harm’s way because you pulled a bonehead move.””

    Bill Carey

  • truck6alpha says:

    Points very well made. Although I’m fond of the “natural evolution” method of solving some of these problems, we intervene much to early in some cases.

    I guess if we had a perfect world and people actually exhausted their resources before calling us, we would have better ground to stand on, but anyone with two weeks on the job knows the concept is rife with abuses by the civilian population.

    However, for FHZ I have had to choke my inner cynic and say that in many cases (at least in my jurisdiction) we are fortunate to have an educated population that avoids much of the abuse. That’s not to say we don’t have any (we certainly do), but not to the extent that many communities experience it.

    With 99% occupancy this weekend putting our Island at a population exceeding 120,000 and anticipated high heat warnings, we should be able to test the theory very soon. Thanks to all of you for your comments.

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