Putting the Service into Fire & Rescue

customer service

customer service

What does “Customer Service” mean?  How is it different if you are not a hotel, a restaurant, a department store, or a travel agent, airline, or railway company?

We are all familiar with the term where we, as customers, expect (indeed we purchase!) services from these typical “service industries”.  But do the principles of customer service apply just as much to other organisations, although perhaps less obviously?  Specifically, are there customer service principles which apply in the emergency services, including of course the Fire & Rescue Service?

Below we take a look at the 4 principles of good customer service:

Principle 1: Who is the Customer?

This is easy to answer – or seems so, at first glance.  The customer is anyone who uses our service, right?  Yes, of course, however the potential customer is anyone who might use our service one day, and that – for the Fire & Rescue Service – means anyone at all.

The implications of this spread out like ripples in water after you drop in a pebble.  Put at its simplest, it means that individuals who are in the service are never “off duty”.  At anytime, anywhere, you will be interacting with people who could easily be “customers” tomorrow – at a community event, as witnesses to a road traffic collision, even (although hopefully not) as casualties.

The reputation of any organisation for the level of its customer service is in the hands of its individual representatives – how they look, how they behave, how they interact with others.  The reputation of the FRS is amongst the best in the country – it’s a big responsibility!

Principle 2: The Fried Egg

“Customer Service” is not the same thing as the goods or services produced and provided by the organisation.  A restaurant produces meals and waiter service, but “customer service” is something extra, less tangible, more to do with courtesy, friendliness, approachability, and helpfulness.

A doctor provides diagnosis and treatments, but the “customer service” element of the doctor’s job is more to do with how patients (or prospective patients) are spoken to.

This is why we refer to the “fried egg” principle.  Think of your core service as the yolk with all the important customer service stuff as the white around the edge.  Your core service, of course, is central.  But the organisation relies on the customer service bolstering the core service on all sides, to project and uphold its reputation and public image.  Furthermore, the customer’s perception of how well the core service is provided is often affected by the quality of the peripheral customer service (think of the doctor again).

Principle 3: Moments of Truth

“Customer Service” is not earned by one amazing action or “good deed”; it is built up from many small actions combined to construct a consistent positive experience.  Every contact a customer (or potential customer) has with any part of an organisation counts as a “Moment of Truth”.

Consider how many “Moments of Truth” you experience as a customer during even a simple transaction like buying from a supermarket:

•    How easy is it to park?
•    First impressions as you enter the store?
•    How easy is it to find/reach what you want on the shelves?
•    What do the staff look like, and how are they behaving? (including the ones you don’t deal with personally)
•    How long do you wait at the checkout?

Even though the customer may not be consciously counting these “Moments of Truth”, each one will be a “brick in the wall” so to speak.

It’s worth thinking about the kinds of interactions that take place between your organisation and customers (including all those potential customers).  Where are the “Moments of Truth”?  Are individual staff members aware of them and of their importance?  Are “Moments of Truth” being consciously and positively managed in the Fire and Rescue Service?

Principle 4: The Interval Customer Service Chain

“If you are not directly serving the customer, you’d better be serving someone else who is!”

In all organisations, some individuals deliver to customers “at the point of service”, others are responsible for ensuring those front line individuals are able, equipped and resourced to deliver as expected.

Consider any musical or theatrical production.  What we, the customers, see and hear on the stage is only the end of the chain.  Behind the performers are lots of individuals in the background, people manning the box office, marketing the event weeks before in the media, organising rehearsals, booking venues.

A successful “customer experience” depends on each link in the service chain supporting those at the front end.

In the Fire and Rescue Service:

•    Where are you in the chain?
•    Who depends on your contribution, in order for them to deliver a good service to their customer (i.e. who is your internal customer?)
•    Who do you rely on, before you can deliver to your customer?
If you’re not happy with the support you get from behind you in the chain, it’s worth talking that through with the individuals who are supposed to provide that support.  It’s worth looking together at how different support from them would ultimately enable a more effective customer service at the front end.

If someone is ahead of you in the Internal Customer Service chain, then initiate a conversation.  How could you support them differently in order to provide even better service to customers?

Conclusion

Examples of ineffective customer service are all around us – everyone can think of at least one recent experience.  What causes inadequate customer service, what are the pitfalls we need to address?

Causes of poor Customer Service:

•    Individuals are not aware their job has a customer service element.
•    Individuals discount the impact of internal customer service.
•    Individuals are recruited and trained for only the functional elements of their jobs, not for the customer service elements.

The Answer for Organisations:

•    Raise awareness of what customer service means in your organisation.
•    Relate this specifically to each individual’s job role, spelling it out in the job description and role profile.
•    Assess and appraise managers and job holders on the customer service element of their roles.
•    Train people not just for the functional/operational part of their jobs, but for customer service too.

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