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White Collar Customer Service in a Blue Collar Job

Photo Credit: Alan Baker

Customer service has been a buzz word in the fire service for decades now.  As the fire service has turned from a blue collar, public servant job towards a white collar business, we’ve lost the true meaning of customer service as it relates to our duty.  Management styles from business have begun to infiltrate the fire service and standard metrics from business have been used to determine the level of the job that we perform. One large metric is citizen complaints. Customer complaints carry a lot of weight in the business world and as the job has turned towards the white collar, they’ve begun to carry more weight here too.

We focus more on the feel good side of the business over the work and performance side.  With the advent of social media and cell phone cameras, we are inundated with the “do good things” that guys of our very nature like to do.  We are public servants. We like to help people. That’s why most of us signed up for the job.  Now days, things that would have gone unrecognized, such as mowing a yard for a patient that collapsed while mowing his yard and was taken to the hospital, make national news because it feels good.

What doesn’t feel good as national news is the very nature of our job.  The down and dirty work.  The training, the being prepared for a fire.  As the fire service has transitioned from a trade or craft, to a more white collar line of work, we’ve lost the identify of tradesman.  A tradesman eats, lives, and breathes his trade.  He strives to be the very best. He takes pride in his work.

The public has minimum expectations for all industries. For us, it’s save my life and save my stuff.  That’s what they want. That’s why they see our existence.

As Sam Hittle puts it, “If you go to McDonalds and they mess your burger up, do you complain? Yeah. We expect the guy making cheeseburgers to be thinking about making cheeseburgers. We have minimum expectations for cheeseburgers.”

The difference is, the average consumer knows when to complain about their cheeseburger.  The average citizen does not know when to complain about our fire ground operations.  So the metric of complaining, that we hold so dear as a modern fire service, is not used here.  We mess up. We use timid tactics. We quote 2 in/2 out. We burn their house down.  They don’t know any different. They assume that we are competent and capable, so no complaint is filed.

Think, for a second, if you will. Imagine that a citizen called 911 because their house was on fire. Your company, your department responded.  You put their fire out.  Now imagine, if a different department (one you hold in high esteem) responded and put their fire out.  Would that citizen call you again if they had a choice? If not, you probably have some work to do.

We focus so much on customer service and providing service that meets their expectations but the truth is, they don’t know when we do not meet their expectations as a professional fire service.  All they know to complain about is when someone is mean to them or talks to them in a harsh tone of voice.

We need to be professional. We need to address them with a courteous, professional attitude. But, being professional is more than being nice.  It’s coming into work, ready to work.  Focusing on the job at hand, not your side job.  Training, studying, working out.  Be prepared for that fire and stop making excuses for your safety and/or poor performance.  While they may not see the work you put in,  if you truly want to be professional, then do what it takes.

I leave you with a quote that I think sums it up perfectly.

“I’d rather 2 angry a******* show up and pull my kids out than some nice guys that burnt my house to the ground, ‘but the yard looks nice.’” - Clyde Gordon

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