Planning & Shaping Cities: Customer Service

Posted on July 25, 2018

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Planning & Shaping Cities: Customer Service

This is the monthly blog by AJ Fawver, the Planning Director in Amarillo, Texas. She’ll share her perspectives on land use, planning, and community development in this series. Learn more about AJ from her GovLove interview!

We hear the words “customer service”, and often think of waiting in line at the bank, calling a hotline for information, shopping for groceries, or something similar.  However, choosing a career in local government instead of the private sector does not exempt us from the responsibility for customer service.

We just need to talk more frequently about how we approach and improve upon it.  An important part of that is realizing that our customers are varied and we cannot approach them all in exactly the same way.

It is crucial that we recognize the unique needs of each customer type and plan ways to be responsive to them.  While not exhaustive, here are the customer types you are likely to encounter most:

  1. The Experienced Professional – this would include developers, architects, designers, engineers, surveyors, contractors, consultants, and real estate professionals.  They will typically have been through your processes before and be frequent customers, who come through on a regular basis and are quite familiar with your organization’s past and present.
  2. The Concerned Citizen – this would include property owners, home owners, business owners, or renters.  They may be concerned about how a land use application or subdivision affects their neighborhood, how it affects drainage or traffic patterns in the area, or what it does to property values.  They may be a citizen who is an engaged committee member interested in a specific issue, or simply one who wants to help better their community.
  3. The Partner, or Potential Partner – this includes non-profit organizations, steering committees, special interest groups, schools, financial institutions, universities, and others who are seeking to work together towards a common goal in tandem with a local government organization on an initiative, policy, or program.
  4. The Novice – this includes homeowners seeking a permit, the first-time business owner, someone transacting property, or agents.  They typically do not deal with regulations and development on a regular basis, and may only get involved as it pertains to a specific project.
  5. The Internal Customer – this includes other departments within the organization, the executive team, and your board members.

Now that you’re thinking more about the different types of customers local government professionals encounter – all impacted by the work we do – here are a few tips to consider in improving how you and your staff approach customer service.

  • Speak Their Language.  From the website to the applications, the presentations to consultations, all customers are coming to you seeking answers. Utilizing jargon, referencing acronyms and incorporating complex terminology doesn’t help anyone.  In fact, it can be off-putting and make it appear that you are not being entirely forthcoming.  It also can prevent the customer from engaging in your conversation fully, leading to confusion and frustration.
  • Listen – Really Listen. There’s a great quote by former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”  Take it to heart.  Ask questions.  Make eye contact.  Provide them multiple ways to give feedback – in person, by phone, or via email, for example.  Demonstrate that you have listened to what they have to say by summarizing it and asking for confirmation, or by promptly responding.
  • Start Fresh Each Time.  Sometimes, after a confrontation with an angry, upset citizen, we default to defense mode – and operate from there, bracing ourselves for the next negative encounter.  This is dangerous.  We never know what contributes to someone’s mood or why they may feel as they do.  Nonetheless, by starting fresh with each customer, or with the same customers each time, we can develop our skill at navigating these situations and potentially develop positive relationships.
  • Present options.  Options are always easier to hear than a hard “no”.  Is there more than one approach that could be used?  Could the project be modified in a way that might work?  Are there creative ways to modify plans or policies?  Is there an example of an innovation solution in another city that might address the situation for your own?  Is there a range of options or tools that could be applied?  Try to find multiple solutions, even if one option is more likely to be successful than another.  Feeling that there is a choice will have a more positive impact on the customer.
  • Set and Manage Expectations.  Anyone can play by the rules – provided that they know what the rules are.  Never take for granted that someone is familiar with a process, or that they know what is required.  Understand that timeframes are critical, and illustrate what the timeframe is for their particular project/request/initiative.  Outline who is involved and when they can expect a resolution.  Explain what criteria guide a review or decision.
  • Be Able to Answer, “Why?” if Asked.  It isn’t always sufficient to explain that a requirement must be met.  Many of your customers want – need, even – to understand why that requirement exists.  It is both a teaching moment, and a trust-building moment.  It is a much more elegant approach than the “because we said so” approach.
  • Be Unafraid to Investigate.  Sometimes, take a minute to look into something just a little more – especially for an obscure or unusual situation.  The best case scenario?  You find a solution that initially escaped you.  The worst?  Your customer knows that you put in extra effort to be certain.
  • Be a Shepherd.  Again, perception is reality – especially for your customers.  Instead of simply referring your customer to another department, for example, make the introduction and hand them off.  Guide them through the process, and make sure all their questions are answered.  Provide them with forms or links to documents they will need.  Consider a pre-application meeting to help flesh out bigger issues before they submit the paperwork to reduce the number of surprises.  Proactively engage other departments or executive team members who may be affected.
  • Give the Bottom Line.  Just as we need to be able to answer “why” when asked – we also need to be able to bottom line things for our customers.  When commenting on plans or communicating conditions, keep it simple.  They typically will want to simply know what is required on their part to clear the hurdle.  Be straightforward to help them get there faster.
  • Demystify Board & Commission Meetings.  There’s nothing worse than sitting in a meeting which you know is crucial to your project and not following what is transpiring.  Make sure your customers don’t have that experience.  Advise them on what will be happening, when it will be their turn to speak, and consider creating a graphic or flowchart articulating the overall process of approvals.

We definitely have responsibilities on behalf of the community and our organization to carry out through the enforcement of regulations, codes, and guidelines.

That doesn’t mean we cannot improve the way we carry those out, ensuring a higher level of customer service that makes us more approachable, and leads to customers spreading the word about their positive experiences with others in your community.

What are your tips, techniques, or practices?  I’d love to get your insights on what has worked well for your organization in delivering excellent customer service.  

Questions? Want to get in touch with AJ?

Connect with her on LinkedIn or send her an email.

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