By Jay Shaw
What are you when you put your uniform on? Are you a fire officer, a firefighter or do you even contemplate how many different hats you wear in one shift? What if I told you that you are salesman, a communications officer, and a customer-service clerk all wrapped up in a fire helmet of whichever colour you just happen to wear? Several years ago I wrote a paper for a fire-prevention management course I was taking at the Justice Institute of BC; Rita Paine was my course instructor. I had an opportunity to use some customer-service skills the other day and it reminded me of the fictional paper on which I just happened to get an A. The purpose of the paper was to write about customer service in the fire service and describe what it meant to each of us.
My paper started out something like this (in a thick, old-school Boston or New York accent): “Ms. Paine, Ms. Paine, are you kidding me? Customer service? You must be talking about that great new Italian place down the block, now they’ve got great customer service! They got this ravioli that is to die for. Customer service in the fire department, I’m not sure what you’re talking about Ms. Paine; I mean, put the wet stuff on the red stuff, right? We wuzz at this fire the other day, and the homeowner was kinda’ upset. So I told him, hey guy, you’ze a probably going make some money off this fire, eh? I nudged him in the shoulder and told him his insurance company will take care of him and he should cheer up because no one died.”
The reality is that you are many different things to many different people when you put on the uniform. Sometimes, when I see an opportunity for great customer service, I wonder if we in the fire service would be better served if we had training in how to actually deliver it. Customer service in the restaurant business is not all that different from what we do. A good friend of mine has owed a successful downtown eatery for almost 15 years and he believes that customer service is basically the No. 1 thing he teaches his employees, as the cost to acquire new customers versus keeping existing ones is about a 10:1 ratio. Basically, if you keep your customers happy and content, you will save money. The secret is in understanding what you are selling, how to sell it, and how to deliver an experience that leaves the customer feeling good about what just happened.
So how does this translate into public service for us? Well, if we first look at any call we respond to – emergency or not – as an opportunity to provide our service, that would be a great first step. It might mean that we need to reconnect with the fact that taxpayers are our bosses and reiterate what that means to us in the halls. Maybe it means we need to read our mission, vision and value statements that are placed in the fire halls and in our policy books and binders.
The second step is knowing what we are selling at any given call we go to. In sales terms, this means we are knowledgeable about the products, and we know how to sell them. Customer-service staff who are trained well always seem to get us to upsize the order or buy into the extended warranty in a way that we feel good about. For firefighters, this means we have to be knowledgeable about our products (the gear and tools we use) and how to use them if any mitigation action is required. Basically, we are selling our training and experience, but the kicker here is the customer in this case has already bought and paid for it. So imagine getting poor customer service from anyone, when you’ve already given them your money! That’s right, I’d be pretty angry too if I already paid you for your services and you treat me like dirt.
Let’s face it – in our job, when people call, it is proven that it usually one of the worst times in a person’s life. Something is going terribly wrong and something bad has happened. Anytime this is the case, there is an opportunity to sell our services, and even up-sell if we know how to do it. Have you ever explained to the construction guy why it is important to not silence and clear the alarm off the panel before we get there? Did you take five minutes and teach someone how to replace a battery in a smoke alarm, or the difference between the two kinds of units?
I had a captain a few years back who received a string of calls over several months when people kept dying on us. Sounds morbid, but this captain was a pro at reading and understanding the stress levels of the family members and explaining to them what had happened. I can recall at least three times when he was the person who told the spouse that his or her husband or wife had died; every single time, he took the time to help the grieving spouse process the information. I asked him if he had training in grief counseling and he said, “No, I just think it needs to be done with a little bit of heart.”
Customer service is what we do. It’s not the would-you-like-fries-with-that kind of gig; it’s way more complicated. The essence of taking care of people by understanding who your customer is – either externally or even your own internal stakeholders – and responding to the needs from a perspective of serving, is a universally known concept.
So if your ever in Winnipeg, head down to Soups, Sandwiches and More at 428 Graham Ave. for the best lunch ever, that comes with a side of great customer service, and where the owner trains his staff to understand one simple concept: “Make your customers like you, and they will take care of us for the long haul.” I think Rita Paine would agree.
Jay Shaw is a firefighter and primary-care paramedic with the City of Winnipeg. He holds a master’s degree in disaster and emergency management from Royal Roads University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @firecollege