Emerging Generations in Local Government – 18

We’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what Assistant City Manager Rick Usher had to say about Cookingham’s 18th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Josh Gregor. Josh is a Revenue and Taxation Specialist III with the city of Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon.


Guidepost #18:

Always take the chip off the complainant’s shoulder before you let him go. This will be a hard task in some cases, but use every resource at your command to make friends out of potential enemies.

My first job out of college was as a representative of the Arts Education and Access Income Tax in the City of Portland. Customer service-wise, it proved to be the equivalent of learning to swim in the deep end of the swimming pool. You won’t find more chips on shoulders or flat-out complaints than working the front-lines of a highly controversial income tax. During the peak time of the program the number of incoming phone calls one representative can experience in a day is in the triple digits. Most calls are informational and/or for the purpose of making a payment over the phone, but on occasion you get someone who is fired up and searching for an outlet for their frustration. In most circumstances, the reason for the hostility is solely based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the program; however, there are inevitably people who are going to contact you with a heavy chip on their shoulder.

It is very hard to take that chip off the complainant’s shoulder, but I believe in, and use, these three guidelines and always strive to maintain them when interacting with others, regardless of the circumstance:

Be Friendly – Try to never deviate from a friendly attitude and tone when you are carrying out a public service. Anything less makes it seem like you don’t care or are bothered by having to interact with them. I have experienced people who are seeking out an argument and if you display any sort of combativeness, the interaction will gradually escalate into something worse.

Be Helpful – Not everyone interprets information in the same way, so actively attempting to find the right solution is the key. There is always a solution. Even if the person just wants to be heard and understood, you can be helpful by providing them that opportunity and letting them know you understand their frustrations.

Be Confident – You have had the training and there are resources available to you. Heck, maybe you created the policy or program yourself. Any way you look at, you are in a position of authority. Sound and appear confident! Even if you aren’t 100% sure, you always have the option to find the exact resources and cite them word for word. Whether on the phone, through email, or in person, I will often place people on hold and locate the exact wording of city code to help me achieve the utmost level of confidence.

Keeping these three guidelines at the forefront of your mind can help prevent negative encounters and achieve what Cookingham was striving for in his 18th Guidepost—making friends out of potential enemies.


The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

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