BY ALAN BRUNACINI
We have been discussing how we describe the word “nice” when we talk about delivering positive customer service. In the past three columns, we outlined basic behaviors in which we can engage to create an effective connection to the person we are serving. I am certain I have exhausted the very patient reader by recounting my experience in watching firefighters helping and interacting with Mrs. Smith and then outlining the behaviors we have observed.
We have talked (a lot) about the basic foundation of establishing a positive relationship between the customer and the fire department-that it is simply sending to that person the personal and authentic message that we respect him/her. This is not complex, but it is very powerful. When we relate respectfully to the customer and the customer’s situation, we establish a positive connection with that person. Lots of times, what we say first can establish or destroy the relationship with the customer for the remainder of the time we spend together.
We have always said that what we do on the fireground in the first five minutes will determine how the next five hours go. The same is true when we deal with customers. It is interesting to really examine and think about what we say and how we behave in the very beginning, when we first establish contact with others. A real simple courtesy is to introduce yourself and ask the person’s name. Exchanging names is always an authentic, respect-based gesture. Using a person’s name personalizes the person and what you say; it is a very basic way for the helper to acknowledge the identity of the person being helped.
We also have described kindness as a critical part of the “nice” puzzle. We continually hear from our customers about the memory they have of how the firefighters extended kind treatment to them. When we watch kindness in action, we see caregivers using deliberate actions, speaking words in a certain tone of voice, using body language, and wearing facial expressions that effectively connect them with the customer. Extending genuine kindness is not a mystery; it is a set of observable, practiced, repeatable human behaviors on the part of the caregiver.
Caregivers also use the action of their hands to create and connect supportive assistance that solves the customer’s problem and their feet to position themselves in between the problem and the person being threatened. The presence of the firefighters, many times touching a customer in a supportive way, creates the most authentic communication we can send. I know it is touchy-feely to talk about holding someone’s hand or putting your arm around the person, but I have read a ton of letters from citizens who were in distress who remembered a (high-touch) firefighter doing just that. In those same letters, Mrs. Smith never mentioned that the firefighter arrived on a brand new (high-tech) 1,500-gallon-per-minute, absolutely dazzling triple-combination pumper that was a picture of modern firefighting technology. I went to customer service school mostly by reading Mrs. Smith’s letters and listening to what she did say and what she didn’t say.
Another key behavior observed was the consideration the firefighter extended to the customer. We are the local first response agency that typically can get to the Smith residence more quickly than anyone else. The quick access the customer has to us is the very first considerate connection that exists in our relationship. When a customer calls us for assistance, we generally ask only two questions: “Where are you?” (so we know where to go) and “What is the problem?” (so we know who and what to send).
In our regular lives, we all listen to at least 30 minutes of awful recorded music when we call and get put on “hold” when we attempt to contact an organization that brags about delivering world-class customer service. After the first five minutes of hanging onto the phone, we begin to get the distinct feeling that there is absolutely no degree of consideration being extended to us, the waiting (and many times frustrated) customers. We, on the other hand, answer on the second ring. You talk to a real live human being-very short question/answer period, and bingo!-we are out the door on our way to Mrs. Smith’s place. When we arrive, we immediately customize what we do to fit the needs of the person and the situation-more delivery of real live actual consideration.
The fourth, really critical piece of “nice” is the whole human dynamic of patience. I continually read and heard about how appreciative customers were of firefighters’ treating them with patience. Many times, our customers call us because they lost control of a physical, medical, or mental condition in their lives. One of the many parts of being in that uncontrolled situation is that the person loses control over his very own connection to time; she relates that sometimes things around her (based on stress and trauma) really slowed down and almost stopped; other times, they were so fast that time became an actual blur-everything, including time, was threatened by distortion.
A major way to help someone gain control over personal time is to physically and patiently connect with that person, reassure her, and describe how you will assist and make that person safe based on your recourses and capability. Based on that patience-based connection, firefighters provide support, reassurance, and security. The basis of this capability is how the customer trusts us; patience and trust go together (we generally don’t trust someone who treats us impatiently).
When we physically and emotionally engage with the customer, we establish an effective connection to controlling the person’s time and recovery. We probably do this in a very natural way and don’t think much about doing it, but when we read how people on the receiving end of time distortion describe the value of being treated patiently, we see how critical it is for us to understand what our customers are going through and how we can physically and emotionally help them.
I can personally relate to this time-distortion process simply because I am way past the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) entry age limit. I am now confronted with the world moving faster than my time frame can keep up with. Young/smart/nice people who explain electronics, tattoos, pop culture, e-mail word abbreviations, and the absolutely amazing names of contemporary singing groups continually coach and assist me in understanding the brave new world around me. Many times, they take control of my time frame; coach me on a current event; and then, when I finally understand, patiently return my control over time back to me. These young experts display all four of the words that describe “nice”-including (most of all) being patient.
I really don’t look up words very often, even though it’s pretty easy to quickly Google them on the screen (wow!). While I was thinking about writing this month’s column and was trying to figure out how to describe patience and how to demonstrate it, I looked up the definition of patience-“the capability to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.” Please read this three times.
When we think about what we do for the majority of our careers, we mostly wait, which basically involves delay. We are action oriented and generally (and thankfully) anxious to use our skill, resources, and system to deliver service. We self-actualize when we put water on the fire. For most firefighters, the action phase does not occur frequently enough to fit our personal and professional needs. In the more than 50 years I have been dealing with thousands of firefighters, I never heard one of them say, “We have too many fires.” Therefore, the “delay” part of the definition really connects with our dealing with how our tactical activity is served up to us.
The next part of the definition involves trouble and suffering (in fact, we could say we are the Trouble and Suffering Department). We do physical labor; that is our major capability, and this is how we convert out-of-control conditions to under-control conditions. This is our specialty, and doing fast, many times dangerous, work is the historic beginning of our service. We can quickly deliver teams of workers who can do very smart, skillful, well-organized manual labor more effectively than any other organization.
Another way we now deliver service to our customers is by doing emotional labor that supports the human parts of the incident. When Mrs. Smith has a fire in her kitchen, we send the workers into the Interior Sector with water and tools to physically evict the fire. The incident commander also establishes an Owner-Occupant Support Sector, which delivers emotional assistance and support to the customer while the fire is going away. Fire control is the core service; customer stabilization and recovery are the added values. We must effectively combine physical labor with emotional support in a highly patient way to meet the entire needs of Mrs. Smith’s fire situation and her personal recovery. When we deal with her after the event, she appreciates the firefighting and really remembers how she was patiently treated.
The last part of the definition is the toughest. It directs us to deal with the first part (delay, trouble, and suffering) without becoming angry or upset. This is where my usual old fogey lecture comes in. We do okay with service delivery as long as it comes up to the level of our skill, training, and qualifications, which is currently very proficient and high and something we should be very proud of. Many times, the problem going on in our customer’s life at the moment she calls does not fit into our “legitimate” service delivery definition. This is when we get out of balance with the part of the definition that says “to not get angry or upset.”
If we can really capture the spirit of patience, it will make us personally well-adjusted and professionally effective in a way that no other part of defining “nice” can. (That is the reason we should all read the definition three times.) It is easy to pontificate about having saintly patience while comfortably writing a column. It is quite another to actually and effectively be patient at 3:30 a.m. when Frequent Flying Crazy Old Virginia calls us for the third time that shift. This really becomes show time for our professional and personal patience.
I have no worldly idea of how firefighter judgment day is going to occur, but I will wager that Old Virginia is going to be involved in some way and that the conversation will center around how patient we were with her.
Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.