What I Learned from the Fire Department

A couple of months ago a house down the road from us burnt down. I rushed to the scene to see if I could help, (and also, admittedly because I was curious,) and watched as the fire brigade arrived, sirens blaring. Without hesitation, a few firemen began hosing down the burning house from their fire engines, while the remainder of the crew hooked up the rolled-up hoses to the water mains.

Calmly, but with grim and determined looks on their faces, they bravely fought the flames supporting and communicating with each other in a most organised manner. It took about 30 minutes to finish the job, and they packed up their kit and drove away a while later.

As I sadly watched the whole shocking process unfolding, it struck me that there was a lot that we can learn in the world of customer care from those firemen.

Running towards a disaster is without a doubt one of the most difficult things to learn to do. Fire-fighters must train and retrain to overcome their natural instinct to move away from a fire. Running towards a fire is unnatural, especially when it is an especially big and bright one, but they know that the only way to extinguish a fire is to move towards it rather than away from it. And customer complaints are sometimes really big fires in our business world.

Ever since 11 September 2001, firemen have justifiably become the acknowledged heroes in the world, and this is as it should be. In fact, all over the world, emergency services consistently rank higher than most other industries when it comes to customer satisfaction. Maybe it’s because they help desperate people in dire circumstances, and do it professionally and urgently. Maybe it’s because the connection is usually face-to-face between human beings rather than through a call centre or an automated self-service system.

I mean, I’d be flabbergasted to get a response with a pre-recorded message saying, “Please note: This call will be recorded for quality control purposes. If you have a life-threatening emergency, please press 1. (Please note that if it is not a life-threatening emergency we will prosecute you.) If you need the police services, press 2. If you need the fire services, press 3. If you need an ambulance, press 4. If you need the traffic department, press 5. For all other emergency services, please wait while we try to connect you to an operator.” (Do you think this doesn’t happen? Try calling the emergency number of our cell phone providers.)

What can we learn from fire departments and other emergency services?

  • Most companies in most industries are completely incapable of dealing with customer emergencies. Their response is mostly one of indifference: “Get in the queue, and if we feel like it we may help you, but only after hours of arguing with you about how wrong you are.” The firemen could not have been more helpful and responsive to their “customers.” They came quickly, finished the job, were compassionate and reassuring, and left with a smile.
  • Firemen and other emergency services people are also incredibly well trained. Running towards a fire is unnatural, especially when it is an especially big and bright one. They know that the only way to extinguish a fire that is burning brightly is to move towards it rather than away from it, and they practice over and over again. Customer complaints are sometimes really big fires in our business world. Are your people trained to take care of them?
  • The firemen didn’t make life more difficult for their customers by bureaucracy, endless questions, forms to fill in, and so on. In fact, as far as I saw, they didn’t even ask the house-owner to sign anything afterwards. You call one telephone number, they arrive quickly, and do their job very efficiently and to the highest possible standards. It’s very easy to interact and transact with them.

It just so happened that a few days later I took my car in for a service, and I saw a really irate woman pulling in. She raced up the service drive to a full tyre-screeching stop, and stepped out with flames shooting in all directions. The technicians and service advisors scattered to the winds, leaving nobody to put out the fire.

“You guys just fixed my aerial and it does not work!” she shouted at nobody in particular. “Now I had to come back here and waste my time so you can sort it out again!” The people who were supposed to help her all looked away shiftily, hoping that someone would talk to her.

Eventually, a reluctant and embarrassed service advisor plucked up the courage to try and help, but it was too late: the damage had been done. As it turned out, however, it wasn’t even their fault. (Many vehicles today have a button somewhere near the dashboard that retracts and extends aerials.) He showed her, and now she was angry and embarrassed. “I had no idea there is a button on the dash” she said. * “I’ve owned this vehicle since it was new ….” I could almost hear the technicians snickering in the background.

As I watched, I recalled how those firemen a few days before had done exactly the opposite of what I had just seen, and I reflected on how different this could have all been.

Here is how the firemen would have handled it: An obviously angry customer screeches to a halt in the service drive, climbs out and begins shouting ferociously. Within seconds, a well-trained fireman rushes up to the ominous ball of flame, donning his fire-resistant coat and helmet as he gets there, and meeting it head on. He hears the customer saying: “You incompetent idiots! If you can’t even fix this simple problem, why should I even trust you with my car in the future? And to top it off, I am losing time out of my day, and now I might be late for my important meetings and other stuff and it is going to cost me money!”

Grabbing the hose, the service advisor fireman says: “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. I can see that something is not quite right here. Can I take a very quick look inside the car and see if it is something simple?”

Fireball: “I certainly hope so!”
Fireman:_ “Here we are, right here,”_ as he presses the button on the dash.The aerial goes up, and there is the sound of flames being extinguished as though by a giant fire extinguisher.

As he finishes up with the fire cleanup, telling the customer he loves her, saying sorry – again – for the inconvenience, and inviting her to come back and see him personally the next time, the other people look him over for scorch marks. When it becomes apparent that he has none, they asked him how he did it.

First, he apologised and acknowledged that something was wrong. “I’m so sorry. I can see something is not quite right here.”

Second, he asked for permission to investigate. “Can I take a quick look inside the car and see if it is something simple?”

Third, he apologised a second time for her frustration, empathised with her, and told her that he loved her. Then he invited her back and told her to ask for him next time.

She became one of his best customers that day and bought him a gift of biltong and chocolates next Christmas. (Maybe.) The other people at the dealership continued to flinch when she came in.

Dealing with complaints and problems is not a difficult thing – if you know how. We like using a simple formula to help people remember what needs to be done. It’s called LESTER, and goes something like this:

L – Listen and
E – Empathise.
S – Say sorry – even when it’s not your fault. Repeat later.
T – Thank them for bringing ot to your attention, and tell them you still love them.
E – Explain what you can do to sort it out.
R – Rectify with a win:win solution.

Try it out sometime. You’ll be surprised at the results.

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