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For-Profit or Not - We All Should be Satisfying Customers 

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

The owners of a restaurant in a community far, far away, decide they need more customers. Business has been dwindling. They think it’s due to the economy or to increased competition. In reality the food quality and service levels have declined, and many customers have not been satisfied with the value they receive at this restaurant. The owners decide they need better marketing to get more people in the door. The fallacy of this strategy is that increased marketing will expose more people to the less than stellar food and service and the business will not grow. 

We all should be about satisfying customers, whether or not we work in or own for-profit businesses or are part of not-for-profit institutions and even government agencies. One way or another, someone is paying the bill for us to continue operations and we should be making sure our customers, constituents or taxpayers are satisfied with the value they receive from our services. I’m going to use city governments as an example, but the principals apply to all units of government, local, state and federal. They all should be treating constituent businesses and individuals as customers not subjects to be governed. This is not about one particular community. I’ve observed this lack of customer service in the Kansas communities in which I’ve lived, large and small as well as a large city in Washington state. 

We hire city managers that have had no training in customer service nor entrepreneurial thinking. Most I’ve known about have never owned a business of their own, struggling to make payroll each period while doing their best to satisfy their customers and keep them coming back. It’s not really the city manager’s fault. The training and culture of city government is to, well, govern. Keep the citizens in line. Make sure the ordinances are followed and the bills are paid. 

This lack of customer service training is not unique to government education and training. Most all professional training and education in all the major fields such as medicine, law, accounting and insurance is all about the technical aspects with little or no attention to customer satisfaction. 

Cities and counties sponsor all kinds of efforts to bring new people and businesses to their communities. But, like the restaurant’s increased marketing campaign, if cities are not customer friendly the word will be out, and new people and businesses won’t come and the ones that are already there will not be satisfied customers. 

Example. A business buys a larger building to expand and proceeds to re-establish an interior wall that was removed by the previous owner. The fire chief, who happens to be a customer, sees this project and the business owner soon receives a call from the city attorney demanding that the business owner file a building permit. It’s one thing to debate whether or not a building permit should be required in this case, but really, is it good customer service to pay the city attorney $250 per hour to call the owner and scare him into getting the building permit? I could fill this column, in multiple parts, with similar stories but I’ll let this one suffice for right now. 

The number one objective in a city’s economic development and recruiting effort should be to change the culture within all of city government to one of treating constituents like customers and not as subjects. It’s not that the cities don’t have a job to do in making sure ordinances are enforced. After all, the reason we agree to the ordinances in the first place is that we don’t want our neighbors to be allowed to have something like a full-blown chicken operation next door. Rather, it’s in the way the rules are enforced. 

How do we change the culture in city government? We can train everyone in how to think like an entrepreneur. The really successful entrepreneurs see their role as providing solutions to customer problems in the best and most innovative way possible, creating satisfied customers. 

No doubt running a city is a balancing act using scarce tax-payer resources in the most efficient way possible to provide the city services necessary for a healthy and prosperous community. If the constituents felt like satisfied customers instead of subjects, their communities would grow and there would be much less grumbling about taxes paid for city services. 

Jim Correll can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellksThe views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Fab Lab ICC or Independence Community College. Archive columns and podcasts at jimcorrell.com. 

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