Governments, too, offer customer service

July 14, 2011|By ART CALLAHAM

Last week, my brother-in-law spoke at the Hagerstown Rotary Club meeting. His topic was "Business Policy is Personal." Although I did not hear his presentation, I asked for a copy of his talking points so that I might incorporate some of his thoughts in this column.

His opening for the presentation went something like this: "Business policy is personal because policy affects many people at many levels within and outside the organization; for example, leaders, managers, employees, customers, partners, competitors and such."

For the sake of this column, I'll broaden the concept of policy to include rules and procedures, yet not laws. Laws in this context are rigid; policy, rules and procedures speak to some degree of flexibility. It is this flexibility that I want to address.

Also, let me broaden the scope of policy to include government policy as well as business policy. All citizens of a governmental jurisdiction are customers of that government just like the users or buyers of goods and/or services are customers of a business. Which brings me to this statement: "Government and business policy affects customer service on a personal basis."

Let me use a couple of instances to illustrate how policy can be personal when it comes to customer service.

A couple of years ago, I went to a local golf course to play with my regular group. That day, I wore a shirt with no visible collar. The golf pro approached me and said that it was the course's policy not to allow golfers to play in shirts without a collar. As the pro approached, the first thing I noticed — even before he said a word — was that he was carrying three golf shirts with collars. After he explained the course policy, he went on to ask me to pick one of the shirts in his hand, pointed me to the locker room to change and then said, "Have a great round."


Last year, I traveled to a course about an hour and a half south of here to play. I wore shorts that were made of denim. Once again, a golf course employee approached me and said, "You can't play here in those shorts; it's against our policy." The employee turned and walked away with not even a suggestion about how to mitigate my situation. I guess you can figure out where I play golf today.

I am not naive to think that all policy, rule or procedure disputes can be solved as easily as handing over a "loaner shirt" to someone who is attempting to operate outside the policy's limits. However, I am practical enough to know that many policy, rule and procedure disputes can be settled with a little emphasis on customer service.

Sure, I know that the department store chain Marshall Field's has gone out of business and has been acquired by Macy's, but the founder's famous quote — "right or wrong, the customer is always right" — remains a foundation block for good customer service everywhere. Field also said, "Good will is the one and only asset that competition cannot undersell or destroy."

Good customer service and good will both focus on a positive attitude, flexibility and a vision to succeed. Both must be staples in business as well as government, if either is to be successful.

In government, just like in business, success is "how can we do that;" while failure is "we can't do that."

In my brother-in-law's summation of his presentation, he presented a card issued by a previous commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The card was given to all of the Corps employees. It reads: "Permission Slip. Ask yourself: 1). Is it good for my customer; 2). Is it legal and ethical; 3). Is it something I am willing to be accountable for? If so, don't ask permission; you already have it. Just do it!"

Loaner golf shirts, on-the-spot waivers of bureaucratic technicalities, paying it forward and assuming some risks are just a few examples of business and government building good will and practicing good customer service. Like successful businesses, our government — at every level — needs to remember that you can't oversell good will or have too much good customer service.

Art Callaham is a local community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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