BY ALAN BRUNACINI
In recent columns, we have had a wide-ranging discussion (including diners!) about how we must make positive customer service a regular part of virtually everything we do. In fact, we should develop the standard organizational routine of asking ourselves how whatever we are doing at that moment contributes to effectively serving Mrs. Smith. If what we are doing does not in some way serve her, we should simply stop doing that and start doing what does serve her. The “Does this help Mrs. Smith?” question should be how we evaluate just about every activity we engage in. The answer to the question should separate the beef from the baloney.
I have in previous columns described my preoccupation with just tactical stuff and how long it took for the customer part of what we do to finally do forcible entry on my thick skull. The two–operational/tactical effectiveness and positive customer treatment–are absolutely connected, and we are beginning to understand that we have not done a complete job until we have completed both of those parts.
Doing both parts of the job seamlessly requires that we develop versatility on every level of the organization that really uses the considerable capability of the human, hardware, and system resources that reside in every fire department. In recent times, our service has moved toward a service delivery model in which positive customer care is automatically integrated into every part of our traditional tactical service. This has been a very positive change that has been easily integrated into, and has actually improved, the positive relationship we have historically developed and maintained with the community we protect.
Any customer service discussion will quickly produce the word “nice,” and Mrs. Smith consistently uses it when she describes how she was treated when she received our new and improved “standard service.” I have related the very interesting experience I had when I blurted out to the troops “Be nice.” They blurted back, “Whaddaya mean by ‘nice’?” Watching our A+ “nice” examples, we came up with the basic behaviors of respect, kindness, consideration, and patience as the pretty simple, but highly relevant, answer.
When we had the “respect” discussion with the companies we observed, they described the actual dynamics of delivering service in the street to anyone and everyone who called us for help. They consistently connected to the customer in a positive way from the very start by “not looking down” on that person or his/her situation, as they put it. The A+ guys/gals created conscious behaviors that involved words, tone, expression, and body language that sent the customer a positive interpersonal (respectful) message. These behaviors were not mysterious and were highly observable to us when we watched service being delivered by our firefighters.
The troops said that they initially engaged the customer by asking questions about the customer’s situation and how they could make the situation better; they then critically listened to the answer, which is highly respectful and creates a positive front-end connection between Firefighter Smith and Mrs. Smith. The troops told really insightful stories about how many times in the beginning they thought one set of things was going on but then after they started with a question and carefully listened to (heard) the answer, they saw that what was really occurring was quite different from what they thought was occurring based on their initial evaluation. This technique seems to work in most human interactions.
Closely connected to respect was the next word we used to answer the “What is ‘nice’?” question: consideration. In our business, we see people who are out of balance with the control they have over whatever the problem is. Those problems range from being threatened by something (or somebody) that is just about to murder you–like a fire–to a problem that absolutely lives only in your imagination. Part of being a firefighter is that we routinely must help our customers whose needs range along a very active and sometimes pretty crazy scale where the situation ranges from immediately fatal to imaginary. The way we effectively consider the customer and the situation becomes the basis of how we ultimately serve that person.
I am now going to go off on my usual (some may consider “way-out”) tangent here to discuss the best description and definition of “consideration” I have ever encountered. I was present in the early ’70s when my fire department became involved in the very early development of the paramedic program. Little did we know how that fairly modest beginning would turn out!
The division I then managed was responsible for connecting to the medical, hospital, ambulance, nurse, and doctor community to enlist their support for the “new” EMS service. Up until then, I lived in the fire station with my buddies (all guys). Now I had to go out in the brave new 1978 world and deal with the “regular people.” Wow! Some of them were women, and they all had their own rank structure. An assistant chief (me) did not fit into their organization. They wanted to know who in the world I was. I told them that we could get our firefighters to “their” patients way before they could get to them. Ben Franklin had set us up in the neighborhoods, and we used that capability to reach Mrs. Smith.
We developed and implemented a program that was the longest in duration and the highest in academic level training in our history designed to prepare our firefighters to deliver advanced life support. The original program was more than 1,200 hours of very intensive classroom training. The program was conducted by medical educators and clinicians (mostly doctors). The program was (and still is) very advanced.
Although I was the boss of the division where the program resided, I had no medical training on any level, much less the educational level that was delivered to our firefighter-paramedic students. I was, still am, and always will be very impressed with the ability of our paramedics and the impact they have on helping sick and injured people and routinely saving many of those customers’ lives.
Our medical response system is very effective because it uses our traditional resources. We had decentralized locations; fast response; highly accessible, highly skillful and trusted personnel to quickly deliver a cross-trained, dual role (fire/EMS) to a customer who has a problem that many times requires the considerable skill and ability of that medic to solve. Simply, we could get to Mrs. Smith before anyone else could.
As the paramedic program became implemented (and institutionalized), I had the interest and opportunity to watch paramedics deliver service in the street. During my daily rounds, I would listen to the dispatch channel to see if I could “take in” an EMS call. I would quietly respond and watch the medics treat Mrs. Smith. Given that I had virtually no medical treatment capability, I would typically stay out of the way and watch and listen to the treatment drama.
Sometimes if I were close to where the call was, I would arrive fairly early in the event. Many times I would get to see/hear the initial contact between the medics and the customer. I must admit that I had a preconceived idea of how that initial interaction would occur based on the regard I had for the paramedics’ level of technical skill. I imagined that the paramedics would engage the patient using all the language that matched their advanced capability. I was ready to hear some really high falootin’, sophisticated medical lingo that was consistent with the level of language I heard (and was really impressed with) when I stood in the back of the classroom during my visits to the ALS training program. I expected to hear lots of “ectomies”; “hypo”/”hyper”; and medical “ictus,” “endos,” “oasis,” and “monos.”
You can imagine how deflated I was when (over and over) the first thing that came out of the medic’s mouth was, “WHERE DOES IT HURT?” I must have said to 25 of our beautiful paramedics, “We sent you to school for a year and a half so you could ask Mrs. Smith, ‘Where does it hurt?’ ” I loved their answer, “Ya, Chief, sometimes they tell us!” This response required me to retreat back into what it takes to actually treat people out in the real world–not in a classroom.
My bubble then continued to shatter when I heard our young street doctors ask question #2: “WHAT CAN I DO TO MAKE IT BETTER?” Simply, #2 was as nontechnical as #1. I also noticed that the medics listened critically to the answers to both questions and were very responsive to what the customer said. They related to me that their really listening and then responding to what the customer said established a positive connection from the very beginning and sent an authentic message that the medic was there to make the customer more comfortable while the medic solved the medical problem.
As we continued to develop more effective ways to communicate with each other as we expanded the customer service program, I pondered over and over the initial customer contact language of the medics. What I eventually figured out (slow learner) was that the two basic questions really defined and acted out not only what consideration really means but–even more important than the definition–how we should act out being considerate. There really is no more functional question than “Where does it hurt?” to consider when helping someone because the answer creates a straight line directly to where the problem is for that person. Then asking “What can I do to help?” creates an effective chance for the helper to customize a response in the terms of the person being helped.
Engine 1’s treating Mrs. Smith in a considerate way sends a powerful message to her that those firefighters are helping her in a way that matches the needs of her situation; those needs involve a critical combination of very personal things on her part and very professional things on our part. We must develop the understanding and ability to skillfully combine those two consideration-based parts of our relationship. One part involves her needs; the other, the details of the service that must be delivered to meet those needs.
The basis of consideration is an authentic level of communication between the helpers and the helped. This requires “TLC”: talk the language of the customer. To speak this language effectively, we must learn to combine our very rational words with her very emotional words. Until and unless we become bilingual in this way, we will never really effectively connect to the person we are helping. We will never consider the customer until we can establish an emotional link–that link becomes the basis for how we are going to help that person. Listening to our young medics ask “What can I do to help?” shows Mrs. Smith that we are there for her. I learned a lot from our street “psychologists.”
Watching and listening to the young medics caused their basically medically untrained boss (me) to also become a lot more bilingual because it taught me to instinctively skip the lecture and ask, “Where does it hurt?” and then continue to leave out the speech and ask, “What can I do to help?” You also have to be smart/trained enough to handle the answer.
Developing this ability required me to spend more time trying to understand what was going on with the other person and less time on myself. Doing this made my life a lot easier and saved me from a ton of stupid scars.
Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.