“Nice” School

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

In recent columns, I described how, in the ’90s, our service collectively increased (although sometimes awkwardly) our awareness of how we interacted in a more positive human way with those who called for and received our service. As we continued and expanded that discussion, we became smarter about getting feedback from the customer in the customer’s terms and then developed improvements in how we actually delivered service based on what the customer remembered and related about the time spent with us. I guess we could say that doing this made us better readers and listeners and that that simply made us smarter. It is always wise to look at and use what happened in the past to improve what we do in the future. We had routinely reviewed how we delivered tactical service, but we had not before looked in a concerted way at how we interpersonally related to those who received that service.

I had the opportunity to do some modest writing about delivering and improving customer service early in the program. In the beginning, as we began to present customer service material, we got an interesting reaction from a lot of firefighters. They were uncomfortable using the word “customer.” We had historically referred to those we served/saved as “victims.” I had many conversations inside and outside my department in which firefighters articulated that discomfort. We had never mentally connected to serving “customers” and had developed a 250-year habit of calling them victims. Ben Franklin probably called them fire victims in the beginning, and we just kept using the term. We did not mean to use the victim term in a derogatory or disrespectful way; it was just a habit, not a definition.

Two of the typical comments that emerged from that discomfort were that those we served were not customers because “real” customers pay for the service they receive—after the firefighter (typically very smart person) would say and then process that comment, he would get a little grin and say something like, “Taxes support what we do; so I guess they sort of are customers.” The other standard response was that customers have a choice of the service provider and that the people we serve are stuck with us (their local fire department), so we are really “monopolists.”

The “monopolist” comment generally produced a spirited discussion that included a description of the unfortunate things that happened to very arrogant organizations that felt they were the only ones in their business. A lot of such unhappy stuff has recently occurred within the public sector. The current recession has caused a whole new examination of the relevance (read: mostly cost) of every service—even the very traditional, popular, and very expensive ones like ours.

A bunch of arrogant firefighters stuck in their comfy recliners whining about the anguish of the next “system abuse” call provide a target-rich opportunity for a nutty city manager roaming around on a “monopolist” hunting expedition. Those same firefighters should clearly understand that that nutty hunter will proudly put up the stuffed heads of those dead “monopolists” on the wall of his office after he cuts them out of the shrinking budget. He will also get a standing ovation at the next city manager meeting when he shows pictures of his recent taxidermist art. Now is the time when we should be concentrating on being nice to every person we encounter and critical of every dollar allocated to us.

As we have observed before, most of the customer feedback we received involved how that person and their family was treated. We learned that solving their problem got us in the door. That problem solving became the foundation for our opportunity to treat the customers in a way they remember. The customers used the very simple and very powerful word “nice” a lot when they described that treatment. We used the word “nice” a lot in our discussions and, as I related last month, early in those talks someone asked what we meant by “nice.”

When the “What do you mean by ‘nice’?” question was asked, I stammered and blurted out some answer that reflected that although I used the term a lot, I had not really processed a very clear description of what firefighter behaviors would add up to being nice. After the question was asked, I retreated to a meeting of my trusted colleagues for direction (something I did a lot). A collective response from the group was that none of us had a very practical, discussable, or teachable definition of nice, but we all thought we could identify it when we saw it. This led to our describing where we routinely saw it inside our department.

The group made a list of individuals and fire companies who were well known for relating to the people, places, and things they served in a very positive (nice) way. The exercise of identifying those inside our own organization whose performance/behavior we wanted to first showcase and then spread out was an interesting experience. Rather than hire a consultant to study what we were doing and then advise us or pack up and go look at what they were doing in the Timbuktu Fire Department, we just went down the street and observed and recorded how Engine 14 under the command of Captain Nice took care of Mrs. Smith. That company was using local resources to serve local customers in a way that consistently produced a “Wow! Outcome”—-simply, what they were doing was working.

Many times, it makes sense to bring in a person with new eyes (like a consultant) and sometimes to go see what another system is doing, but whatever we learn from the person or the expedition we must bring back and make work in our own department. Lots of times, what we are looking for is right under our noses, and we have the ability to take advantage of our own local consultants. In this case, E-14 and Captain Nice are right down the street doing what we want the whole department to model every time they go out the door. The challenge is, will the boss lead the process that recognizes effective performers inside that boss’s system and then build a program around that recognition? That capability is based on the respect that boss has for task-level performance, where service is delivered, and the ability of that same boss to observe and listen to those who deliver that service.

When the boss acts like a talent scout, it sends the very authentic message that effective performance is valued and will be used as an organization model. Sadly, many organizations are very awkward in managing the talent of their own members, and most bosses were not treated that way when they were workers and are not now treated that way by their current boss, so they do not have a natural, inherent set of practiced skills to take advantage of internal organizational (people) capabilities. It was fun (for me) to be involved in the project of identifying the customer service stars and then spreading out that capability of the “nice” routine to the rest of the department.

As the customer service project evolved, I tried to identify the reasons that some firefighters and officers seemed to naturally behave in a way that was described as consistently being nice. The more we interacted (and the more I paid attention), the more we identified how critical the boss of the group was to how they treated the Smith family. Our looking at how effectively we connected to Mrs. Smith on a personal basis directly related to the emotional intelligence of the crew that showed up to help her. Effective bosses on every level provided direction, training, and leadership that influenced how their troops managed the emotional dynamics of delivering service as much as how they laid hose and raised ladders.

We had historically called on the leader of the group to lead tactically, and we had a lot of background in training and managing tactical competence. Essentially, everyone in the department had an adequate level of tactical competence, and there was a lot of system support to maintain that capability, but we had never identified that how we related to the customer on an emotional level was as critical as how we related to the incident problem on an operational level. The front end of this project required us to look at how critical it was for bosses to model and manage the emotional part of what we did. This effort quickly reflected that some bosses did this a lot better than other bosses.

As we continued to observe how the positive individual/company models operated, we began to see some critical behaviors over and over. Focusing on how recurring behaviors connect to effective performance fit into my experience as a boss. Although I had always admired all the science that attempts to explain human behavior, I have never been qualified in any way to really apply that science very well (understatement) in a very practical or usable way.

Based on that very personal limitation, I have connected to and made sense out of mostly observable (mostly no brainer) behaviors to try to explain and understand the wonders of the human world—particularly as those behaviors connect to how we perform. I mostly evaluate people with my eyes, so if can’t explain why someone does something, at least I will try to explain to myself the observable effect the behavior that was involved had on the outcome. My simplistic approach to explain how the world around me operates has also provided direction to me as a lifelong (C minus) student of my own effectiveness.

As we continued to observe the happy examples of positive customer service, a set of basic behaviors started to take shape. We also noticed that when our customer contact did not go well, those behaviors were absent. I guess we could say simply that positive behavior displaces what the customer sometimes describes in negative terms. That reality fits perfectly into our Mom telling us that if we would do what she told us was nice, we would not have time to do what she called mean. Wherever we looked, we saw how absolutely accurate her direction was.

When I start writing this column, I generally have a fairly focused message or subject I intend to cover; but, consistent with the title of the column, I quickly become truly unplugged and write about whatever pops into my head. Sometimes as I begin to hallucinate, I chase around a set of recollections that relate in some way to the subject. I do not do this to keep you in suspense. I do it because my plug is generally loose, and I just keep going as it rattles around. Next month, I will tighten the plug and talk about the four behaviors we saw in every E-14/Captain “Nice” picture we looked at.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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