Friday, November 25, 2011

Extreme Customer Service

I hope that everyone had a happy Thanksgiving.

The season of celebration and bustle that marks the arrival of high holy days for numerous religious denominations is upon us once again. I'm remembering more and more about how much Pittsburghers, like so many others across the country, are largely creatures of habit; Thanksgiving means family, turkey, and football, and with it the associated travel across the region or the nation.

The roads were not as busy with rush hour traffic on the way home from work Wednesday afternoon, but there was sufficient congestion caused by what seemed to be drivers appearing to be unfamiliar with the nuances of navigating the Pittsburgh area in a vehicle.

As those of us from this area know, finding your way through the Burgh can be as much an intuitive exercise as it is a cognitive one. These factors often confound the cool, electronic mind of the GPS receiver, and those wide-eyed, weary travelers who depend upon it.

That being said, be careful out there this weekend. Many of you will most likely be planning on attending services at the many temples of what I like to call The First Church of My Stuff.

In recent years the high priests and priestesses of the retail industry have elected to begin their convocation of cash earlier and earlier on their highest of holy days, Black Friday. Unfortunately, many of them ran out of zero-dark-thirty time to be the first to offer that bauble or gadget at a ridiculously low price.

As a result, some businesses are commencing their annual assault on the debit and credit accounts of consumers on Thanksgiving Day itself. Perhaps retailers are betting that the warm, fuzzy, comfortable feeling generated by the combination of l-trytophan and carbohydrates will help to set aside any trepidation about spending too much.

Caught in the middle of this morass of humanity are those who ply the retail trade - myself included - and those who are charged with answering requests for emergency assistance on holidays and every other day - hey, that's me too.

I'm working as a Cashier this weekend. Over the course of 2 years in 'big box' retail, I've been formulating some general rules based on my individual experiences, which those handling checkout duties can use to help them deal with the everyday realities of the profession:

Murphy's Laws of Retail Cashiering

1. The customer approaching your register will have their cell phone ring as they arrive, and will endeavor to carry on two independent conversations simultaneously.

2. The most time-consuming, complex, and/or tedious transaction will occur approximately 2 minutes before the end of your shift.
  • A corollary to Rule 2- The customer involved with that transaction will have many questions, asked in an English that is for them a second language - a distant second.
3. The majority of legible UPC barcodes will be presented to you at an angle of between 180 and 359 degrees from the location of your scanning device. The remainder will be illegible or not in the SKU database.

4. The smallest items in a cart to be unloaded and scanned will be scattered randomly, and located underneath several sheets of cement board, plywood, drywall, or a combination of similarly sized and weighted goods.

Despite these challenges, in order to be successful in serving the customer you have to be prepared to calmly deal with all of these situations, and the numerous other complications that arise with the job. I've managed to deal with this kind of stress by remembering a few things:
  • Each customer gets as much time and attention as they need - one at a time.
  • The customer is not always right, but the customer is always the customer.
  • It's not about life and death here. It's about stuff, plain and simple.

Of course, in my other job the last of these tenets doesn't apply. It can be about life and death - in many circumstances. There is one rule I know that applies very well:

Murphy's Law of Random Synchronicity
Emergency calls will randomly come in all at once.

I won't get into the debate about when to call 9-1-1 - the news media seems to have a handle on that - but there are some things that citizens can do to help 9-1-1 operators provide access to critical services as quickly as possible:
  • First and foremost, know where you are. There are 130 municipalities in Allegheny County. A post office does not count in most cases - places like Wexford, Gibsonia, and Allison Park exist only in terms of where to send the mail.
    The Sewickley zip code (15143) is used in all or part of the following municipalities:
    Sewickley, Edgeworth, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Heights, Aleppo Township, Glenfield, Haysville, Sewickley Hills, Leet Township, Bell Acres, Franklin Park, and Ohio Township.
    Depending upon where you are and the services you need, there are six different places that could be involved in the process of delivering those services. The more you know and can provide to a call taker, the quicker they can be mobilized.
    Technology only goes so far, especially when using a wireless phone, or phone service that uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), such as Vonage or Magic Jack.
    If you're on the road, know which road you're on. Try to remain cognizant of the last exit, mile marker, or intersection. Take note of businesses or other landmarks. If you have a GPS unit, know how to obtain your Latitude and Longitude from it.
  • Stay calm and speak clearly.
  • Be sure to listen carefully and answer all of the call taker’s questions to the best of your ability.
  • Do not hang up until the 9-1-1 call taker has obtained all of the information that is needed.
Customer service in 9-1-1 also differs from the retail environment in that the greatest impediment to effective service delivery can often be the customers themselves. As a public safety communications professional, I have attempted, succeeded greatly, and at times failed to address these challenges to the satisfaction of customers, both internal and external.

I mention this because relationships with internal customers - co-workers, field personnel, and managers - are at least as important as the essential interaction with those external customers in need of services. That's a common challenge with any workplace, but even more so with the critical nature of public safety operations.

As the perceived demands of the holiday season begin to intrude upon us, I'm looking forward to remembering what this season really represents, along with the rigors of mastering an old job in a new setting, and hoping for success on the multiple fronts I've mentioned above. Above all of this is my wife and family, both here and across the country. Is it any wonder why the holidays carry with them more stress than joy for a lot of us?

Enjoy the weekend and the season ahead.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Municipal Miasma -
The Pain is in the Process

I've been a citizen of Pennsylvania (again) for just 8 months; it's taken me some time to re-acclimate to the way things are done across the myriad layers of government at work here.

Something that is hastening this process is my getting back into the business of public safety communications. I've been in training for the last month. One thing I've been learning is the nuances of dealing with 130 separate municipalities, some who dispatch themselves and others who are a mix of being dispatched by the county 9-1-1 center and other municipalities or public safety agencies.

One quick example; there are five municipalities in Allegheny County where depending on the type of resources you need (Police, Fire, or EMS), three separate dispatch centers will be involved. Four of these five communities are in the Quaker Valley School District. In case you were wondering, Edgeworth is one of them.

More about that later. Today I'm interested in the recent election results, and their potential impact on my own community, Leetsdale. If you need to see a timeline of what has been reported about the recent history of borough government, check out this overview from June by crisis communications expert Dan Hicks. He's got some interesting things to say about the whole Penn State situation as well.

Voters this past Tuesday followed the entreaties of four candidates who banded together under the name Concerned Citizens of Leetsdale, and elected three of them to four-year seats and one to a two-year seat.

This action gives these four citizens (Melanie Dunn, Joe McGurk, Linda Michael, and Jeff Weatherby) a majority on Council come January. According to statements made by the candidates to Sewickley Patch and other local media, they intend to waste little time in undoing some of the current Council's actions over the last couple of years.
This will largely center around the following:
  • Eliminating the positions of Borough Manager and Junior Clerk.
  • Re-creating the position of Borough Secretary/Treasurer.
  • Promoting the current Senior Clerk to the re-created Secretary/Treasurer position. This employee, Elizabeth Petalino, served in this capacity previously until Council eliminated her position in 2010 and created the position of Borough Manager.
One question I had for these candidates at one of their get-togethers before the election had to do with Ms. Petalino, whose demotion, along with what could best be described as a unique recruitment process for Borough Manager, seemed to be the primary focus of the Concerned Citizens campaign.

My question related to succession planning; who, if anyone, would be prepared to take over in Ms. Petalino's stead if there were no Junior Clerk or Borough Manager? Mr. McGurk stated that a part-time person would likely be hired to learn the duties of Secretary/Treasurer, with the intent of eventually replacing Ms. Petalino upon her retirement.

I should mention here that the current Junior Clerk is Sandra Bajsec, wife of councilman Mike Bajsec, whose term will be ending in January. Ms. Bajsec's seemingly imminent departure appears driven more by a need to assure that all vestiges of her husband's influence are eradicated from borough operations, than any effort to streamline those operations and/or reduce costs. It sounds as if the councilmembers-elect know they need someone like a Junior Clerk - they just don't want her.

At this point I'm struggling to look at this from the perspective of positions and processes, which is what I'm accustomed to. The bulk of my government work experience, at least in the Human Resources arena, involved a formal recruitment and assessment process, conducted in a way that assured all qualified applicants a fair shot at being hired.

Pre-employment testing, an interview with several stakeholders, and a thorough background investigation (including a home visit) were the norm for positions in public safety. This process was exhaustive and needed to be, considering the significant access and responsibilities being entrusted to the successful candidate.

One could assume the same things would apply to recruiting and hiring someone to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of a municipal government. Then again, I am trying to compare what I knew from Colorado with what exists in Pennsylvania.
I promised I would not dive into those comparisons, so I must turn to what is here and now, and try to understand what may be the short tenure of Leetsdale Borough Manager Paul Scimio.

I've spoken with Mr. Scimio only a few times. In those interactions I found him engaging, articulate, and somewhat excited about his work. How he actually ran the borough's daily operations is something I can't speak to. He did, however, at the October 13 meeting of Leetsdale Council, when he endeavored to highlight some of his accomplishments during his one-year tenure. These include:
  • Reviewing and consolidating borough insurance policies, saving money.
  • Changing borough phone service from Verizon to Comcast, saving money.
  • Spearheading the refinancing of the borough's bond indebtedness, resulting in a savings of $108,000 this past year.
  • Helping to coordinate the resolution of an addressing conflict on a borough street, shared with Leet Township, that was affecting public safety response.
  • Securing an insurance settlement for a damaged police vehicle.
  • Putting forth an insurance claim for the loss of trees in Henle Park.
  • Securing a private donor to help pay water bills at the Henle Park Splash Pad.
It has also been stated by some in the business community that they appreciate the ability to be able to access someone in borough government who can act as a point person for their concerns, direct them in the way of navigating the necessary processes, and basically be the face of government operations on a daily basis.

However, additional questions about the borough's actual needs begin to raise issues that transcend the personalities and politics that seem to have dominated the controversy up to this point, and impacted the processes in ways that citizens last week appeared to have collectively deemed unacceptable.

According to a publication from the Governor's Center for Local Government Services, "More than 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s municipalities have populations
under 5,000, a size generally accepted as the point where full-time municipal management becomes feasible".
Leetsdale has a residential population of about 1,100.

A Post-Gazette story after the May primary elections took this a step further:
Issues beyond population have to be weighed, as well. For example, Leetsdale has about triple the number of people working within its boundaries as residents, due to a pair of industrial parks, a copper mill, Quaker Valley High School and a shopping center.
As I've written previously, Leetsdale is perhaps the most dynamic of the 11 boroughs and townships that make up the Quaker Valley School District. The influx of workers, students, and material goods in and out of the borough, and the various layers of government that provide essential services to them, is of sufficient complexity that it requires someone of authority to be readily accessible, research and respond appropriately, and report comprehensively to the citizens and their elected officials.

How the new council addresses those needs will say a lot about exactly how much Leetsdale is poised to make changes in its operating philosophy.

In a Sewickley Herald article from August 2010, Councilman Bajsec was quoted during a council meeting as saying that the process of advertising for the Borough Manager position for one day in the Beaver County/Allegheny Times was due to a desire "
to allow people 'familiar' with the borough to apply". Perhaps the true intent was to exclude anyone not possessing that 'familiarity', which appears to be centered on having grown up in Leetsdale, or lived there for a lengthy period of time.

Regardless of Mr. Scimio's experience, competence, or performance over the last year, the circumstances surrounding the creation of his position and his ascendancy into it has tainted those accomplishments, and created sufficient cause for concern among citizens as to precipitate the results of last week's election.

Nonetheless I believe that Leetsdale, like its nearby counterparts, needs a competent and experienced Borough Manager. This needs to be someone with sufficient educational and professional credentials, who can look at the borough's operations from a fresh perspective, not necessarily one steeped in the strong tea of the status quo.

Positions and processes need to be more important than personalities and politics.

That being said, all we as citizens can do is hope for the best from our newly elected officials. For me that includes thinking outside the traditional boxes, among those being the man-made lines that serve not only as municipal boundaries, but also at times barriers to more effective and responsive governance for all of us.

Best wishes to our new soon-to-be council members, and for those already on council that will also be charged to effectively represent the citizens of Leetsdale.

Have a great week ahead.