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But What Is Customer Service, Anyway?

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Rob Ford: everywhere, to serve you better. Photo by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.


Customer service is, along with the halting of gravy trains, the rallying cry and rhetorical signature of Rob Ford’s administration. And we have a general sense of what he means by that, primarily as exemplified by his “I’ve always called everyone back” refrains. But that is unsatisfyingly vague—we still lack a clear articulation of the principles that underpin this service-oriented approach to governance.
Fortunately, someone has stepped up to help add some substance to the generic notion of customer service, and the person is the City of Toronto’s Ombudsman, Fiona Crean.


On February 1, Crean released her annual report—a fascinating document for many reasons [PDF]. Among its highlights was this: the City has customer-service guidelines, which lay out some standards for City staff when responding to residents. For some reason, the City has not been particularly forthcoming about them. They live, right now, on an internal website, but, Crean laments, “despite my recommendation, they have not yet been posted for the public.”
Crean, helpfully, decided to include a copy of these standards in her report. Here they are, in full:

The City’s customer service standards of returning voice messages within one business day (24 hours) are applicable to internal calls as well. Ignoring a call or e-mail from a staffer is unacceptable. Please follow the following basic customer service practices as part of your regular business practice:

  • If you’re at your desk, answer your telephone. This results in fewer calls overall and better outcomes for the caller, whether that caller is a City resident or staff person.
  • Return calls—always. Leaving calls unanswered does not inspire confidence or support the image of a professional, responsible organization. Return calls within one business day. This doesn’t mean that you have to supply all of the information requested. Simply acknowledge the call and let the caller/sender know that you are looking into the [matter].
  • Clear your voice mail box regularly. Hearing the ‘Sorry, this mailbox is full’ message leaves a caller at loose ends and even angry.
  • Record a suitable personal greeting. The personal greeting should be courteous and give the caller as much information as possible.
  • Invite callers to leave a detailed message—that way you can call them back with an answer rather than a question.
  • Be sure to activate a vacation message on your e-mail and record an extended absence message on your phone if you are going to be away for a day or more. It is a good idea to provide a co-worker’s name as backup while you are out of the office.
  • Be helpful. If you can’t answer a caller’s question, try to find the answer or the right contact for them. Don’t just transfer the caller blindly and hope that the next staff member can help.

City of Toronto Customer Service Standards for voicemail and e-mail:

  • Voicemail response delivered by the next business day (24 hours).
  • Telephone service delivered through a maximum of two people. Every staff person should be willing to search out the appropriate contact person and advise the caller.
  • E-mail protocols are in development. Division Heads and Deputy City Managers will develop protocols to address operational needs and at the same time recognize the importance of excellent customer service.

Fairly standard, fairly basic, and fairly hard to argue with.
Also, not Ford’s invention. They were composed, so Crean tells us, in 2007.
Of course, having guidelines is not the same as adhering to them, and we can say from our own experiences that the response levels we’ve seen among City staff is extremely variable. There is certainly room for improvement, and we commend Ford’s dedication to that goal. We hope that he heeds Crean’s recommendation, sees they are promptly posted on the City’s public website, and works to ensure they are followed.
That being said…
The standards outlined above are good ones and should be adhered to, but they are also, in an important sense, superficial. True commitment to service—and let us repeat for the record that we object vehemently to the “customer” part of that formulation—would include guidelines not just for responding to residents but for actual service delivery: What’s the maximum wait time for a bus in Toronto? How close should each resident be to a community centre? How quickly should an ambulance get to your home when you call?
These are the real service questions, and they have no easy answers. They require public conversations about just what it is we want, and what we’re willing to pay for. They will not be addressed when someone from the City calls us back but says that, sorry, I’m happy to answer your questions politely and promptly, but no, that bus doesn’t run at night any longer. The promptness of the call may be commendable, but the degree of service that’s been provided is questionable at best.
We have seen no indications that such guidelines are forthcoming. It is true that they do have the unfortunate effect of pinning the administration down to specific commitments, which might in turn require it to spend money it hadn’t foreseen, in order to deliver services that, as it inconveniently turns out, cost money. But Rob Ford is very dedicated to helping the residents of Toronto, and so hopefully we are mistaken and will see real, clear commitments—not just to phone calls but to actual services—soon.
He did run on that, after all.

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