Public safety and customer service go hand in hand. As many of us know, our customers are the ones that keep us around. Whether it’s a fire, vehicle accident, medical, or a public education event, we are here to serve our customers. When I first became involved in the fire service I had a mentor who taught me an invaluable lesson. No matter how bad your day is going when you respond to someone in need, their day is far worse. That lesson has stuck with me throughout my career and several years ago I came up with the acronym C.A.R.E. as a way to help myself and others keep focus on customer service.
This acronym can be applied to any call for service we go on, public education event we attend, or any other interaction we have with the public.
Compassion is defined as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. I think we can all agree that in one form or another we all share that common belief. Being compassionate comes in many forms, for me it begins with keeping an open mind. What seems mundane to us is a worst nightmare for someone else. Our job is to be there for our customers in their time of need, not to judge them.
From taking the time to help a person reach something on the shelf while you’re getting dinner at the grocery store to giving a stuffed animal to a scared child on a call, being compassionate is one of our biggest missions. Our customers look to us for comfort, support, and direction. The public in general looks to us for professionalism, kindness, and the occasional good deed.
One example of this is a cardiac arrest I ran a few years ago. As our crew walked through the door we found a middle aged male lying on the floor pulseless and apneic. We quickly learned that the patient was in hospice care and had a DNR order. After we confirmed that he was deceased, I asked to sit with the family on the couch and said “I am very sorry for your loss, is there anything we can do for you?” The patient’s wife asked if we could move him back to his bed. After confirming it was okay with law enforcement, we carefully moved the patient back to his bed and placed a blanket on his lower half.
As we were leaving the patient’s wife said, “Thank you, I just didn’t want anyone else from the family seeing him lying on the floor like that”. Obviously we can’t move all of the deceased customers we see but in this case we were able to comfort the family and alleviate their distress.
Attitude is the one thing that can make or break us. You only get one shot at this and if your first encounter with a customer is a sour one, you have just lost the battle before it ever began. Now I will be the first one to admit that there are some people out there who deserve a nice dose of reality, but it’s always better off done with a smile. Taking time to diffuse tensions will benefit you by creating an open line of communication. Leave your attitude on the rig and don’t let it out until you are away from the public eye.
We all have bad days but what we need to remember is that we are walking billboards for our service. Our apparatus, our shirts, and sometimes even our personal vehicles proudly show our profession. They also associate us with our service and having a bad attitude can shed negative light not only to our organization but the fire service in general.
Everyone knows that it’s comforting to be reassured. From a loved one telling you everything is going to be okay, to your officer in charge letting you know that you’re doing a good job, reassurance does wonders to make people feel better. Making sure that our customers know what we are doing and why we are doing it is no different. Think back to your last good working fire, did you perform ventilation or overhaul anything? These things are all standard operations for us but think of the customer, all they see is a bunch of people tearing up their home and breaking their belongings.
A Battalion Chief I know makes every attempt to talk to the homeowner and explain what crews are doing while on working fires. He has found that it is far better to be proactive and get the customer involved than to be reactive when they approach you upset because they don’t understand what we are doing. Reassuring our customers, their families and friends is a fundamental job for us and when done properly it can help the customer feel as though they have some semblance of control.
Expectations are different in various parts of the country. In some rural areas it is acceptable to have long response times and if property loss is high its just part of living in “the country”. If the same scenario played out in a metropolitan city customers would be (and most of the time are) up in arms. Whatever the expectations in your area are, learn them and exceed them. If your customers are accustom with long response times, examine ways to shorten them such as “first responders” or advanced response vehicles that can get someone to the scene quickly.
One of the biggest compliments we as firefighters can get from the public is the satisfaction in knowing that they are happy with our services. A few years back a citizen approached us at our station and said that there was a kitten in a tree down the street. After the normal “cat in a tree” jokes, we realized that the citizen actually wanted us to go get the cat. It had been a while since we had used the aerial and we decided that it would be good training in positioning and using the 109-foot ladder.
We contacted animal control and after a short wait, we began to set up the rig. As I was climbing up the ladder to a kitten perched on a limb close to 50 feet off the ground I remember saying to myself “this is insane, I’m getting a cat out of a tree”. As I looked down I noticed that a group of approximately 30 to 40 citizens had gathered below. As I reached the tip of the ladder and grabbed the kitten (who was less than pleased at my rescue attempt) I heard cheers and clapping.
After passing off the cat to animal control several people came over and thanked all of us for our hard work and taking the time to rescue that “poor helpless kitten”. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that we don’t routinely find deceased cats in trees so I’m fairly certain that he would have found his way down, but it was a compliment nonetheless. That day we exceeded the public’s expectations and even though it was training for us, all parties involved learned valuable lessons.
In my opinion, there is no golden rule to customer service. You are always going to run into that one person who will never be happy no matter how hard you try. One of the best things we can do is to attempting everything and expect nothing. By keeping customer service at the forefront of our mission, we can not only better serve our customers, we can better ourselves as well.
Never stop learning and never stop challenging yourself to become better tomorrow than you are today