I recently went in for a haircut and said, “just trim it so that it lays down nice.” When the young lady finished, she had cut it way short in a way that it was spiking up on top… if I had added blue sunglasses and an ear stud I could have gone to a costume ball as Bono! I had told the stylist what I needed… but instead of truly listening she interpreted my needs through her 20 something lens of what she thought it should be. The net result was that I came out looking like an insecure baby boomer trying to relive my 20’s.
As I was reflecting on the prospect of going out in public looking like Bono, it brought back memories of a similar experience I had with a city hall staff a few years ago.
I was considering the purchase of an atypical infill residential lot to build on that had some unique challenges. Whether the lot would work would be determined by the side yard setbacks. So I called the city’s development services department and asked “what are the side yard setbacks?” The secretary said she would have someone call me. I got a call back about 48 hours later from a development services representative and I asked again “what are the side yard setbacks?”
This time I was told “I am sorry but to answer any development questions, you need to come in for a development review meeting.” So within another about 48 hours, a secretary called me and scheduled me for the next available date for a development review meeting – which was approximately three weeks later.
I showed up at the conference room where the fire marshal, the building inspector, a zoning representative, a planner and the development services director were all in the room. I sat down and they asked what they could do for me. I said, “I need to know what the side yard setbacks are.” So the planner looked at their map and responded with a number that made it clear this lot was not able to be developed for me.
It had taken me a month and a meeting with five city officials to get a 30 second answer to a very simple and straightforward question.
Later, in a separate context I had a conversation with the development services director and she asked about my experience with the city. She was stunned (and even a little offended) to learn that I did not consider it a very positive experience. She said, “It was excellent customer service – we had a room full of people there to address any concerns you had and we were able to answer your question immediately and with clarity. How could you not consider that excellent customer service?”
The development services director had viewed the customer’s needs through her lens of providing a reliable process instead of through my lens as the customer. Yes, her city hall-centric process was reliable and accurate, but it took me a month and required me to schedule a live meeting at city hall to get a 30 second answer that should have been handled with a single phone call. A city hall-centric process can easily deceive staff into believing that just because it is reliable and accurate that the customer is being well served.
It is not accidental that one of the 12 core values of Servant Leadership is listening. Mystery shoppers, customer surveys, focus groups, social media and even just asking are all great strategies to improve your organization’s listening skills. Take advantage of them.
You may be surprised at what you discover – and how easy you could improve citizen relations just by making sure your organization is doing a better job of truly listening to customers.