A comment often made, by both residents and members of council, is that the city should be run like a business. I think that when people say that, whether they're part of council or not, they mean that we need to be conscious of spending money wisely, investing in the long-term, and looking for the most efficient way of operating, whether it's running facilities or maintaining infrastructure.
What isn't usually discussed is one of the basic tenets of running a business - providing good customer service. I had an experience last week that illustrated to me how many of our city employees don't realize that one of their responsibilities is providing good customer service, as they are usually the front line in dealing with the tax payer, who is the customer for the many services that the city provides.
I got a notice from the city over an assessment issue, with a phone number to contact if I wanted more information. Since I wanted more information, I dialed the number. The following conversation went like this.
City employee: "Financial Services."
Me: "Who am I speaking to?"
City employee: "Financial Services."
Me: "I know that. Who am I speaking to?"
City Employee (rather rudely): "Who's this."
Me: "Councillor Lee Atkinson, and I'd like to speak to XXX (the individual who had signed the letter)."
City Employee (slightly more pleasant tone): "He's in Regina." At this point, I would have expected an offer to take a message, an inquiry as to what I was calling about, in case someone else could help me, or at least some information as to when the individual who had signed the letter would be back, or possibly all three. I got nothing.
Me: "Okay, I'd like to speak to Joe Day (the director of Financial Services)."
City Employee: "He's in a meeting." Again, no interest in why I was calling, or any interest in helping me with whatever my problem is.
Me: "Never mind, I'll call the City Manager."
I hung up, angry because I had followed the directions in the letter for further information, and was not helped one bit by whoever answered the phone. This is a good illustration of what I'm often told by frustrated residents who have contacted City Hall with a question or concern - not much help, and a reluctance to identify oneself, so that a person may be told one thing one day, and a different thing the next, but can't tell who the individual was who provided information that may have been faulty.
When I shared this with Andrea, a long-time government employee, she was amazed. The standard in her workplace is that you always identify yourself when you answer the phone, and if you can't help the person on the other end, you find someone who can. Their guideline for response to phone inquiries is within 24 hours. Since I never received a response from the Sanitation Department to an inquiry I made about roll-out garbage bins more than two weeks ago (I finally just went directly to Council with my request), I'm pretty sure that no such standard has been set for city employees.
I suppose that some employees might think that providing good customer service doesn't matter, because it's not like we have any competition in our business. That being said, it is more efficient to deal with a customer's question the first time it's asked, rather than making them keep trying - you're saving not just their time, but also the time of other city employees who might answer the phone next time, or the time of people up the line who may eventually have to step in to deal with an increasingly annoyed customer.
It's also just plain good manners. We have signs posted at our cashier stations, warning people who are there to pay water bills or parking tickets that they need to be respectful. That's more likely to happen if the respect also happens the other way.
Some of my council colleagues have raised suggestions that the city needs to develop a slogan or a brand to help sell ourselves. I would suggest that if we start with the people who are the first line of customer response, ensuring that they are polite, helpful, and don't think that their job is done until the customer is satisfied, that would be a much less costly way of building our city's reputation, with the people who really count, the people who live here.
Me? I'm still waiting for an answer to my question.
"You can get through life with bad manners, but it's easier with good manners." Lillian Gish