In his nationwide best-seller Megatrends, John Naisbitt captured our attention by telling us what many in private industry have known for some time—America’s days as an industrial economy are over. The majority of this nation’s private industries have turned away from producing a tangible good — a product—to producing services.

Service, in fact, now accounts for 60 percent of the gross national product and 70 percent of U.S. jobs. Private-sector management practices have evolved to meet the challenges this transition presents. “The new era of service management will call for a return to the most fundamental principles of leadership and in many cases to a rethinking of the organization’s basic reasons for being,” observe Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke in their book Service America.1

Dr. Camille Cates Barnett, city manager of Austin, Texas, notes, “Budget deficits are forcing governments to cut and postpone needed programs at a time when the country can ill afford their loss. Is there an alternative to the axe? Yes. Improve how government work is done, to get real savings and better services. Right now, forward-looking public organizations are taking a page from the private sector and introducing Total Quality Management to save money while enhancing existing services, win praise from citizens impressed with service quality, and add new services citizens want and need.”

Service management is catching on in the fire service, too. In the Austin ( I’X) Fire Department, we have introduced Total Quality Management as a process—“Build Austin’s Standard in Customer Service (BASICS).” Also, marketing and total quality management modules have been introduced in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.


Total Quality Management in the Austin Fire Department stresses service management, as defined by Albrecht: “a total organizational approach that makes quality of service, as perceived by the customer, the number one driving force for the operation of the organization.”2 Service management initiatives in the fire service typically face three opposing challenges. Some think this concept doesn’t apply to their organization because it is too abstract for an industry as technical as ours. Others challenge its relevance by saying, “A customer service strategy is important only when there is competition; I have the only fire department in town.” Others say that service management is not an original concept. They point out that their departments already have made service its primary goal. It’s right there in the mission statement on the side of the truck: “To protect and to serve.”

If you believe that “a total organizational approach to customer service” is too complex, consider the advice of noted management theorist Peter Drucker, who suggests the process be begun by asking, “What business am I in?” This question might seem simple on the surface, but in instances where no specific product comes off the assembly line, answering it may present some confusion. For example, we re in the fire department business; there’s no confusion here—unless, of course, the organization dedicates most of its resources to fire control while saying its most important mission is fire prevention. Or, what about the business conflict in an organization that identifies itself as a fire department when half of its service runs are medical in nature? The Austin Fire Department has determined that its “business” is safety: We’re in the business of providing the service of safety to our citizens.

Can we get by with calling government a service? We’re all familiar with the jokes about government. If Will Rogers were alive today, he’d probably still get a laugh with his line, be glad you’re not getting all the government you’re paying for.” In the past, the fire department’s cause of protecting life and property was a sufficient basis for selling its ideas and needs to taxpayers and elected officials. In the 1990s, however, numerous “noble” causes are competing in the same marketplace for limited municipal dollars.’

I IKvolunteer fire departments have known for years that there is a very direct relationship between community relations and funding. In municipal government, more layers are added; but the customer, the voter, still controls funding allocations.


Marketing has become a hot topic for many progressive fire chiefs. A number of departments have instituted public education programs and have assigned public information officers to improve their visibility in the community. Unless these departments are careful, however, these very actions taken to improve community relations might instead impede efforts to implement quality customer-service management. The presence of a department member dedicated to building public relations could lead other organization members to reason: “Somebody else is taking care of the customer; I’m off the hook.” This attitude can present serious problems because managers do not control the quality of the “product” when the product is service.

I saw an example of this recently while in the drive-through line at a fast-food chain restaurant. I noticed a colored poster on the wall above the biscuit oven. At the top of the poster was a picture of a tray of dark brown biscuits. Its caption read, “These biscuits are overdone.” A second picture on the poster showed a tray of lightly colored biscuits with the caption, “These biscuits are undercooked.” Ihe last picture was of a tray of golden brown biscuits. As you might expect, the caption read, “These biscuits are just right.” The biscuits are a very basic product of the restaurant chain. The chain executive developed specific, uniform quality-control standards for the product, the biscuits; but the manager has no control over whether the employee baking the biscuits in every store, and on every shift, will serve “just-right” biscuits to the customers. Quality is in the hands of the workers who deliver the service.

Managers can affect the quality of service only indirectly, by inspiring and motivating the front-line people serving the consumer. In fact, the higher up one goes on the organizational ladder, the farther removed from the customer he/she becomes. One interesting interpretation of the total service management concept suggests turning the organizational pyramid upside down so that the customers—in our case, the citizens—are on top. Management, itself, then must become a service aimed at supporting the front-line workers as they serve the customers.


Austin’s BASICS plan, notes City Manager Cates Barnett, embraces a “team mission” of quality customer service. Among the plan’s provisions are to provide professional training opportunities for workers in all the city’s departments and to instill pride in each employee while helping the “city team” to build upon quality customer service. Key plan components include the following:

  • Managing “moments of truth.” If your organization is identified by red trucks, you might assume that firefighting is the basis tor your reputation. We know that only a small percentage of your time is spent in actual firefighting. The effectiveness of your tactics may be evaluated by your chief but seldom by the public. Citizens are more likely to form their impressions of the tire department and other municipal departments on the basis of the single encounters they have with the department and its representatives. These encounters — moments of truth —may involve variables such as observing a firefighter’s wrinkled shirt, a receptionist’s poor telephone manners, or the department’s red cars lined up in a diner parking lot. Moments of truth can present themselves any time firefighters are in uniform —whether we are driving a city vehicle or giving directions to a citizen.
  • Unfortunately, it is easy to miss opportunities for favorably impressing our customers. These “missed” opportunities, in fact, can create negative impressions that express themselves in budget discussions, bond elections, or privatization proposals. Our employees are department ambassadors any time they are in public. When responding to a fire emergency, for example, it is natural to focus on the occupants of the burning structure. Hut what about the members of the public we meet at the intersections on the way to the fire? They are our customers, too.

  • Knowing and understanding our community. A critical part of any marketing strategy involves matching department services with customer needs. If you were addressing a conference of public fire educators, for example, you would not teach them to “stop, drop, and roll.” Similarly, a presentation to elementary school children should reflect their limited vocabulary levels and attention spans.

A customer service-oriented approach measures quality of service from the customer’s, not the department’s, perspective. Be careful, though, because customer expectations are a moving target —they change constantly. The public has grown in sophistication; we must relate to our customers in a manner that reflects this change. The public has come to expect—and critically evaluate—innovative services they once were just happy to have. Consequently, even though we have no competitors that directly offer an alternately acceptable product/service, we still must market and justify our services to the public on an ongoing basis. However, consumers should not be made to expect more service than can be delivered; unfulfilled expectations lead to disillusionment. Keep in mind also that the public’s perception is different from ours. Citizens are not concerned with the day-to-day problems within our organizations, and overconcern about internal departmental issues often leads to a bureaucracy designed to solve the department’s—not the public’s—problems.

  • Making sure that the department’s systems are “customer-friendly. ” Fundamental to BASICS is a belief that systems should be supportive, flexible, and easy for the customer to access and understand. Each process should be designed for the convenience of the customer rather than the service provider. In evaluating its systems and procedures to enhance cost efficiency and customer service, an organization should look for the following: complex processes that are difficult to understand and require the customer to visit several locations, organizational structure designed to force customers to speak with several employees on the same subject, and overly long forms that require information no longer used.
  • Employees are looked on as an important customer group. They, after all, determine how successful management policy will be. Employees treated with dignity and respect are more inclined to treat customers in the same manner. Customer satisfaction involves an organization’s ability to introduce three elements into its management style: leadership, teamwork, and continuous improvement. Austin Fire Chief Bill Roberts regularly tells department members that they are part of a team committed to continuous improvement.

Some strategies that have helped Austin implement meaningful new policies include reviewing forms and letters for eye appeal, technical jargon citizens may not understand, and opportunities to streamline procedures; calling our offices on the phone to evaluate customer service-related variables such as the number of times the phone rings, how long a caller may have to wait on “hold,” and the attitude and helpfulness of the employee; evaluating programs and processes in a nondefensive manner; providing individualized attention to our customers, such as calling them by name; listening to employees who can relay the attitudes of consumers about specific rules and methods of providing services; giving employees positive feedback when they do something right; developing a value statement built on feedback from all members of the organization; and building credibility for the new department objectives through managers’ example and behavior.

The fire service really is “one up” on private industry—service has always been our business! As we chart our course for the future, quality service management should not be seen as a process that has a beginning and an end. It is an ongoing effort to draw on emerging management trends to increase a department’s effectiveness, its customer satisfaction, and its employees’ pride and image.


  1. Albrecht, Karl and Ron Zemke. Service America!: Doing Business in the New Economy! (Homewood, Ill.: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1985).
  2. Albrecht, Karl. At America’s Service: How Corporations Can Revolutionize the Way They Treat Customers. (Homewood, III. and New York: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1988).
  3. Paige, Phillip L “Focus Groups: A Way to Know Your Customers.” Eire Chief. Apr. 1990, 58-62,

No posts to display