Customer Service: A Bad Concept?

I was thinking about customer service in our profession and considering recent conversations by some of our colleagues recently who reject the term.  A bit of enlightenment came to me while listening to a reading to a segment of the radio program This I Believe.

The subject was Ruth Cranston, author of World Faith: The Story of the Religions of the United Nations. She spoke of achieving the insight that all of the world’s religions, despite their differences, were united in very similar tenets of how to live with our fellow man.  Even when there is constant disagreement with how we go about our daily lives, she posited this about the commonalities of religious belief:

They [the world’s religions] taught the unity of all life; the interdependence of all men; love and service to fellow man; help, not exploitation, of the weak and backward. They taught nonviolence and non-injury. They all taught purity of life and of motive, simplicity of life too, and that true riches are within. They taught the worth of individual man and the ability of every man to rise to higher states of development than we are now experiencing. They taught the immortality of the soul and the building of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.

Her suggestion was that despite the worship or belief in which we practice, we experience several common denominators that should bring us closer together rather than farther apart.  While a lot can be taken from that paragraph, it seems that like I say constantly in my forum here is that we as emergency service providers have more commonalities than differences.  In fact, those of us who are true believers in what we do as a profession probably understand that the phrase “customer service” is just a name we put on a concept in order to define it.

Of course, the belief of a higher calling to serve is about those who are truly in this and believe in this as a profession of service and enjoying the benefits of the occasional adrenaline rush, in contrast to those who are in this for the adrenaline rush and enjoy the occasional effort to serve, and even then, if that subject comes up at all.  I say that because it is my observation that a majority (if not all) of the problems we have in emergency service can be traced back to those who fail to see this career, whether you are paid or volunteer, as one in which we should serve rather than to be served.  It is this entitled mindset, that we are automatically due respect because we wear the badge, which causes problems.

The term customer service is probably pretty cynical, when you think about it, because it might suggest to the casual reader that the ideal we seek is all about making sure our profession enjoys the financial benefit of such service.  In fact, as emergency response personnel, the term “customer service” embraces the concept of all that is considered good in mankind, in that we realize the worth of others and we seek to serve those in need of help, despite their social status.  While we can quantitatively point out that having a customer service attitude benefits us in public support, there should be a much more altruistic reason for our embracing that belief.

There are two schools of thought in the “anti-customer service” camp.  One, of course, is that the public doesn’t have a choice, therefore they are not customers.  The second goes along with my statement that what we do is so much more than a client relationship.  I have argued that the public does have a choice, as Chief Alan Brunacini did much more so before I have here.  But the latter discussion bears some serious consideration.  Is the concept of customer service too simplistic? Customer service could be construed as providing a real effort only when we stand to gain from that interaction.  It might be perceived that the service we provide is done only because we expect a return on investment.

While remembering conversations with Chief Brunacini as he advocated the benefits of customer service mentality as a method for obtaining taxpayer support, I also recall that he never said that the concept was exclusive to that expectation.  If you remember, the overarching mission was to “Be Nice”.  While that’s good for marketing, it’s not something you can force down people’s throats and expect it to happen magically.  He advocated a cultural shift in his leadership that was summed up in two simple words, therefore easy to remember and easy to implement.  The customer service mentality, likewise, was easy to relate to.

Our job as leaders is to communicate our mission.  That communication requires not only our shouting it out there, but the return acknowledgment that understanding has been achieved.  The mindset of “customer service” is palpable.  We understand it and we know what is good customer service and what is bad.  We can easily empathize with a customer who is frustrated with a certain way in which their matter is being handled or appreciate the sincere gratitude experienced by a customer who is receiving excellent service.  For the purposes of defining an accepted approach to interaction with the community, it helps to be able to frame those interactions in a manner in which we are familiar.  So while, yes, our delivery of service is much more than the interaction of a salesperson and a client, it provides us with concrete objectives by which we can measure our outputs.  It is pretty easy to say, “Fire Went Out” and check the “Good” box.  It is much more difficult to say, “Obtained Confidence of Taxpayer”.

Our job can be seen from a purely pragmatic standpoint, one in which we have been tasked to provide a service and we must efficiently produce results.  Or we can say that our job is that of serving humankind with compassionate and ethical assistance when they are most vulnerable.  In either case, the ultimate measurement is the same; as Cranston implied, reinforcing “the interdependence of all men”; loving and serving fellow man; and helping, not exploiting, the weak and needy.  It is our charge to insure whichever path we choose, we do so with the understanding that we are there to serve.

6 Comments

  • Jim Still says:

    Chief,

    Great seeing you the other day. It had been a long time.

    There was a great article in the April 2010 issue of Fire-Rescue Magazine (page 86) titled “Putting the Service Back in the Fire Service” by Chief Jeffrey Johnson (President of the I-Chief’s) that goes right along with your latest article.

    Keep up the good stuff!!!

  • Larry Hinds says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Having been a quality assurance officer for 10 years I have long been an advocate of taking care of customers. Where I work we provide both fire and EMS service and and when it comes to fire response I see the adrenaline rush and service provider mentality demonstrated. However, when dealing with EMS calls the same focus,intensity, and committment becomes more daunting. In addition to standard suport mechanisms (equipment, training, compensation, etc) leaders must be aware that internal customer recognition is paramount to optimum performance. It only takes a good word and modest effort to acknowledge good performance but sadly this is something often overlooked.

  • truck6alpha says:

    Thanks for commenting, guys.

    Yeah, the thing is that if we were to do the job like it’s meant to be done, we wouldn’t need to have words in our lexicon like customer service. The long and short of it is to perhaps just embrace the Golden Rule.

    Stay safe.

  • “The long and short of it is to perhaps just embrace the Golden Rule.”

    That needs to be on every Department’s extensive list of mission statements and value bullet points.
    Why do we need to adopt business models and their lexicon when it can be summed up so clearly and easily?

    Great article.

  • Phil Selberg says:

    In embracing the customer service concept, we must acknowledge that our “customers” would be academically defined as “captives.” The term customer implies an economic choice that is absent in our field. Semantics aside, understanding that we are the only choice our customers have makes treating them with the dignity and respect they deserve that much more important.

  • James says:

    I believe your front line fire officers should place customer service as a number one priority. The fact that our customers have no other choice leaves a huge burdon on us to do the right thing.

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