Embrace the Opportunity

Sometimes customers get angry, but that doesn’t mean you can’t please them.

You no doubt deal regularly with people who think the public works department’s primary objective should be to serve them individually.

These people think caring for the street and infrastructure in front of their home, nearby park or whatever their interest may be is top priority. You know the type — the people who love to point out that their taxes pay your salary, as if their checking account is electronically debited weekly and the funds wired straight to your pocket. The angrier people are, I’ve found, the narrower their view of the world.

I’ve worked with other editors who were so focused on rules that they lost all perspective on the most important thing: serving the reader. I’ve gotten letters from readers who were outraged by stories that didn’t explicitly promote their narrow interests. I’ve dealt with people who would argue at length against fact because acknowledging reality would damage their fragile egos. The thing all these people share in common is a lack of understanding of the big picture.

The companies and municipalities we work for are all bigger than us. We’re just a part of it — often a very small part, and some people just need to feel more important than that.

When it comes to customer service, sometimes you need to let those people feel like they’re more important. Like you really are there just to serve them. You could put them in their place, but to what end? In most cases it serves no purpose. They’ll just go on being angry at the world, worried someone else is getting more than them. And they’ll continue to be a thorn in your side.

It certainly won’t work in every instance, because some people just don’t want to learn, but education about your mission and a tactful explanation of how you’re carrying it out is often the key to resolving these issues. Some people simply don’t get it, and if you can help them see the light, you’ll not only resolve the immediate issue at hand, you’ll gain an ally.

You are all public servants, and sometimes servants get treated like just that. It’s by no means fair, but it’s also an opportunity to share what you do, explain its importance and maybe turn that interaction into something positive.

One of my very favorite things in the greater scope of journalism is when an angry reader calls to question something they read in a story. No, I don’t like being yelled at, but I like being engaged and discussing my work. Maybe they have a point, or maybe they just have no understanding of what goes into putting a publication together — where the stories come from, how they’re chosen, why certain topics are covered while others aren’t, etc.

In my newspaper days, I saved every angry letter and note of criticism I received because I got more out of them than I did the thank-you notes. They made me think, and they either reaffirmed what I was doing or made me reevaluate certain choices. Both are positive. And when I can answer an angry caller, explain myself and completely turn the conversation around by the end, it’s pretty rewarding. The caller has been heard, the complaints considered, and everyone feels better.

You won’t resolve every issue, and you won’t have everyone thanking you by the time the conversation is over, but if you look at those conversations as opportunities, you might just learn something about your utility, your customers and what you’re doing right and wrong. That’s a good step toward continued improvement.

Enjoy this month’s issue.

Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Luke Laggis, 800-257-7222; editor@mswmag.com.


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