October 24, 2018
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Town manager calls for mandatory customer service trainings

Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly
Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly
York Town Manager Steve Burns.

On York Town Manager Steve Burns’ computer, there is a sticky note where he has penned a four-step conflict resolution process. He said he refers to it constantly when he gets a call from someone who is irate, as a reminder to himself to try to separate the anger and emotion from the kernel of the issue.

“I try to be deliberate when I listen to people, to understand what they’re really asking for,” he said. “I’m still working at it, but I hope at the end of a conversation, most people feel like they’ve been heard.”

It’s a skill every town employee who has any interaction with the public should learn, he said. And he said he intends to see that they do – because across the board, many do not respond to residents in a way that promotes great customer service.

In his 2018-19 budget, he intends to include funds to hire an outside trainer to hold mandatory sessions with town workers. He anticipates spending of no more than several thousand dollars, but the benefit will far outweigh the cost.

He gives as an example the numerous calls he received after the wind storm last weekend. “If someone calls me to chew me out because their electricity is still out, I could say, ‘Look, that’s CMP’s problem. I can’t help you.’ Or I could show some empathy. ‘You must be cold, I’m sorry about that. We’re working with CMP to resolve the problem.’”

He said as he listens to a town employee talking with someone on the phone he often finds that the employee is curt or unhelpful.

“Because people don’t know how to listen, they don’t respond well to the public,” he said. “I can understand if someone is really busy and feeling rushed and they’re short. But others do have the time and they still respond that way.”

Listening, he said, “is a critical piece for communication. It’s conveying that you understand what they’re asking for. A lot of times, you might not be able to get the information they want. But if you listen deliberately, they’ll feel like they’ve been heard.”

He said the town has 100 regular employees and several hundred more seasonal workers, and very few have no interaction with the public. Public works crews, for instance, may be excused from taking the training but it will be required for everyone else.

“I know I’m still not great at it, but there are people who aren’t even aware of how they sound,” he said. “It’s not unique to one person or one department. I saw it as community development director and I’m seeing it as town manager. It’s a particular piece of customer service skills I want to emphasize.”

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