At your service

August 06, 2008
Written by Tim Beebe
Aug. 6, 2008

thelightersideTim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

"What do you mean, my laptop screen isn’t covered?” I sputtered, gripping the phone, blood pressure rising. “I have extended warranty!”

My mind flashed back to the salesman who sold me the computer. What was it he said . . . something about the warranty covering “everything.” Or was it “nearly everything.” Either way, you’d think a laptop screen would fit in there somewhere.

A voice brought me back to earth. “They said the screen isn’t covered,” the service person repeated. My face grew hot and the room began to spin. The next two minutes were a blur, but I vaguely remember threatening to call the manager, the owner, the bank that held their mortgage, the Prime Minister, Alan Brunacini, and the Queen of England. The old, “be-nice-or-I’ll-tell-mom” tactic. The service person meekly said he would see what he could do, and hung up.

Speaking of Mr. Brunacini, he was the one who got firefighters going on the idea of customer service. The Phoenix Fire Department’s mission statement is simple and inspiring: “Prevent Harm. Survive. Be nice.”

We’ve taken the “be nice” concept to heart over the years. Customer satisfaction surveys. Connecting fire victims to the Red Cross. Giving Mrs. Smith a ride home from the grocery store in the pumper. The idea fits well with the fire service. We like it when people like us.

But occasionally people don’t like us. Like the cottager who confronted me during a practice by the lake. He stalked up like an angry rooster, coming nose to nose with me.

 “What the #$@% are you guys doing out here?” he yelled.

It seemed obvious enough – firefighters in turnout gear, portable pumps roaring, water spraying everywhere – but I replied, “Uh, we’re training.”

 “I know that,” he shouted, his eyes bugging. “When the #$@% are you going to stop?”

“Soon,” I said, wondering if another beer would thicken his breath to its flammable range.

He stalked away, and I noticed that he looked like an angry rooster from behind too. Oh well. They say popularity is overrated anyway.

I’m learning that a vital part of customer service is telling folks the straight goods, right up front. Inform me that the laptop screen isn’t going to be covered before I sign on the dotted line. Warn the neighbors that you’re going to make some noise down at the dock tonight.

Our message might not always be what people want to hear. Try telling your customers you probably won’t arrive in time to rescue them if their house catches fire. It seems a bit like a computer salesman saying, “never mind the screen – the motherboard and hard drive aren’t covered either.” But if this is reality, as it is in my community, we need to tell people. Hopefully it will give them another good reason to maintain their smoke alarms and practice their escape plan.

When we teach the flashover course, we sometimes slip this concept in. I chat with the students while we watch smoke spread across the ceiling and curl down the walls toward us.

“So, from the time of ignition how long do you figure it takes you to get to the fire?” I ask. I’d love to have a polygraph hooked up to the guys for this one.

 “Six minutes,” one fellow replied.

“You mean, the smoke alarm goes off, the people get out, they call 911, your dispatcher pages you, you respond to the hall and gear up, then drive to the fire and are ready to walk in the door with a charged line in six minutes?”

 “Yep.”

Most are a little more honest. Or a little less deluded. If they stick around long, they all learn that the clock is always against us, especially in rural areas.

Customer service is tough when your neighbor is watching his attic migrate to the basement during a fire. Or when a patient at the crash scene asks why they quit doing CPR on her husband. Our people skills get strained to the breaking point when our best shot wasn’t good enough. But if we can use these experiences as education tools for others, then maybe we’ll make some good come out of disaster.

You may be wondering what happened to my poor laptop. The company called back later and said that the extended warranty would cover the screen after all. What changed their mind? I doubt that it was my polished interpersonal skills, although if I had used some it would have caused less stress for everyone. Perhaps it had something to do with the Queen of England. Nobody likes to be on her bad side.

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

-Sir winston churchill

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