In today's fast-paced, competitive marketplace, we all know that businesses must provide quality products backed by great customer service to be successful. Emergency services are no different; we're in the business of delivering essential services that meet or exceed customer expectations. Our effectiveness in this regard ultimately determines our success in maintaining community loyalty, support and trust.
But how well are we meeting the needs of our internal customers—the men and women who work within our departments? How are we ensuring their continued participation, dedication and commitment?
Fire departments are organizations; by their very nature, organizations are designed to be interdependent. Each internal unit—from accounting and payroll to vehicle maintenance and training—depends on other units for the services and support they need to get their job done. We create these internal customers to make our organizations more efficient and effective.
At any given time, these relationships can change or be reversed. A firefighter may be a manager's customer for the timely purchase of supplies; The next moment, the manager may be the firefighter's customer in terms of leading a tour group through the station.
The key is to recognize the need to respond to each internal customer's needs just as we would the needs of our external customers.
Even in a well-organized, productive fire department, there are dozens of things that could be implemented or improved to make everyone's job easier and more enjoyable. Several years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled "Poorly Treated Employees Treat the Customer Just as Poorly." If that's indeed true, treating our internal customers poorly could result in a decline in overall performance in the department.
While this is concerning for all, the fact that many of these transactions may be external-facing can be particularly problematic; these events are more and more subject to a high level of scrutiny. Left unchecked, this can have a negative impact on the entire organization and its delivery of services to the community.
What can you do to improve internal customer relations? Five proven steps create a roadmap for success.
Get everyone in the organization thinking about each other as customers and recognizing their interdependence – This isn't as difficult as it may seem. The key is to constantly remind each other of the internal customer concept, especially early on. Verbalizing this relationship can help. Ask such questions as:
- As my customer, what do you need from me?
- What can I do more of/less of/differently—or not do—that would help you, as my customer, do your job better?
- What can I do to help?
Develop a way to identify and deal with obstacles or distracters that affect internal cooperation and teamwork – A good quality-improvement system might include customer-service facilitation and training, surveying members about their positive and negative focus experiences, structured interviews or the appointment of an internal focus group to identify obstacles and solutions. The key is to list the impediments that cause people to fall short of their potential and come up with a plan to eliminate those impediments.
Change your processes, procedures and guidelines so the units in your department are responsive to the needs of others – Eliminating or changing identified obstacles and distracters is perhaps the most significant step your organization can take to ensure that internal customer service becomes a way of life. This positive action will provide tangible results that members of the organization can see.
Make excellent internal customer service an expectation and a way of life within your organization – Once a system that focuses on cooperation and teamwork is in place, management must make sure customer-service expectations are clearly understood and must continually reinforce positive results. Discussing customer-service values at group meetings and during performance reviews underscores the organization's priorities.
Recognize and reward outstanding internal customer service – This can be done through verbal reinforcement and group commendations and in a formal manner as part of an ongoing recognition and reward program.
We all know that people tend to do business with organizations that provide good service. In fact, customers often pay more money for products from a company that treats them well.
Likewise, when we treat our internal customers well, we can expect a happier workforce, reduced volunteer turnover and overall a more effective and responsive organization.
In the end, this translates to providing better service to the community. And isn't that what we're all about?