By Les Baker
Published Monday, September 17, 2012
| From the November 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Providing customer service at a high-quality level has become a prevailing theme in the fire service over the last decade. Although I do not plan to address the philosophy of customer service here, I do want to explain how it relates to motor vehicle collisions (MVCs).
As emergency responders, we experience a wide range of emotions at an incident scene. Whether we’re on an emotional high from the excitement of a complex, fast-moving scene or an emotional low related to the personal losses of those involved, we may not feel like engaging with the public. I’ve witnessed this and have been personally guilty of showing a lack of empathy toward victims, bystanders and/or family and friends. However, I know—as we all should—that it is imperative to understand the consequences that the incident may have on these people, physically and mentally. In a very short timeframe, they have experienced something that will have significant short-term effects and can even be a completely life-changing event. And a fire company—the front-line representative of the department—has the opportunity to interact with these folks in a positive manner during this difficult time.
Customer Service Initiatives
There are countless versions of customer service initiatives based on the goods and services provided by the organization, and these initiatives should be tailored to the specific organization in order to reflect their mission and goals. The City of Charleston developed and implemented a set of customer service initiatives that applies to all city departments and employees—and there is a direct relationship to the Charleston Fire Department and our interaction on an MVC scene. I have used these initiatives as the basis for this article because of their generality.
Following are the tenets:
Respect Others: Always show respect and courtesy to our customers and to our fellow employees. Protect the privacy of those involved. Even with the need to expose patients for medical treatment, limit the number of emergency responders who interact with the patient. Use tarps or sheets to block patients from bystanders and/or passersby as appropriate. Members should avoid taking a lot of photos; even if the member is non-essential to the scene, the public may not understand that and could conclude that they were taking pictures rather than treating the patient. Be cautious in the use of pictures, whether it’s for training purposes, department publicity, social media, etc. The way these pictures are used is a representation of you, your company and your department.
Be Knowledgeable: Know your city and its rich heritage. Use a request for directions or information as an opportunity to add to the customer’s experience. Your ability to create that experience begins with what you know. Understand the particulars of your response area. Be able to give directions to the hospital, local automotive shop, recovery company that took the vehicle, numbers to the fire department for reports, etc. Some departments have developed handouts with this information that could be compared to “After the Fire” pamphlets or brochures. For some departments, a large part of their customer base is visitors/travelers who may not know information that’s sometimes taken for granted by a local. As an example, Hilton Head (S.C.) Fire and Rescue created a handout for the family and friends of those being treated on the extrication scene or transported. It provides a map of how to get to the local medical facility and general guidelines about further steps.
Own the Moment: Take ownership of customer requests, complaints or suggestions. Practice good communication skills when it comes to complaints and suggestions. Don’t pass the responsibility to others and risk not addressing someone’s needs. Follow up with the individual on your actions. People expect us to make decisions and do something, regardless of the conditions surrounding the incident. After the incident has been mitigated, educate family and friends using the scene as visual assistance to help them understand the extrication process and why you took the steps you did. Attempting to address issues may prevent an editorial in the local paper or trash-talking within the community. This is a lesser, but important, role that may even prevent a lawsuit.
Personalize Your Service: Provide a warm and enthusiastic greeting to every customer. Smile, make eye contact, introduce yourself by name and use the customer’s name at any opportunity. Listen with empathy and never talk down to a customer. Be positive in every interaction. Assist outside agencies with their responsibilities. It’s not typically considered part of our job to help with tasks such as assisting law enforcement retrieve information or helping the recovery personnel sweep the roadway. However, unless there are other emergency needs, remaining on scene for a few extra minutes provides opportunities to develop relationships, use apparatus as traffic control measures, and help others clear the scene quicker.
Be Ambassadors of Your Department: Display a spirit of pride and stewardship for department property. Always talk positively, communicate ideas and concerns to the right person, and act and dress in a manner that projects a professional image. MVCs require the same professionalism we display with all other tasks. Ensure apparatus and equipment are in good working condition, personnel are adequately trained, and they are wearing an appropriate level of PPE. Represent your department proudly and do not relate any concerns from the incident to the public. Save them for after-incident critiques among your peers.
Be Responsive: Always follow through on customer requests with a sense of urgency. Keep our customers informed and anticipate their needs whenever possible. Say what you can do, not what you can’t. Requests may include retrieving a pocketbook or stuffed animals, waiting an extra five minutes, etc. Address any further needs of the occupants by giving them a ride where they need to go or standing by until someone they called gets there. You would not want be left on the side of the road waiting for a ride, especially if weather conditions were not favorable. Try to fulfill requests as appropriate, and be up front and honest about your ability to accomplish requests.
Customer service is an important part of the fire service. Beyond superficial reasons, such as avoiding litigation and justifying our means, it’s a way to show the public that we really care and are concerned about their needs. Emergency responders should take every opportunity to provide victims with the level of customer service we would want in return for our family and friends.
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