I was recently reading a piece by a gentleman named Olivier Blanchard called Brand Management: The Asshole Effect. I was so excited while reading it because in a parallel life to my EMS career, I worked at a popular coffee emporium. I was expected to and enjoyed providing awesome customer service (it’s possible that my caffeine addiction helped me fulfill that achievement). About half way through the article, I had an “AHA!” moment. I realized that this is not just about business as we traditionally recognize it, but can also be applied to agency reputation and customer service within EMS.
Whether popular culture in our field regards EMS as a business or not, it is a business and we need to keep the money coming in to continue operations. We are a service provided to citizens. Smiling at a patron while wearing my trademark green apron and handing them a paper cup filled with their caffeinated prescription is the same as smiling at a patient seated on my stretcher while wearing my clean and neat uniform bearing my agency patch. I am representing my brand. I am promoting my agency’s reputation.
Mr. Blanchard posits that every “customer” facing agency with the least amount of a-holes wins. Essentially, this means that people make a positive association with an agency for every positive experience they have with that agency. Similarly, for every negative experience, people make a negative association with that agency. Traditionally, if a customer has a great experience with a company they may tell 1 friend. If a customer has a bad experience they will tell at least 10 friends. With the advent of the internet the 10 friends receiving bad information about your agency has increased exponentially. This theory does not only apply to customers we interact with directly, but everyone in the vicinity that might witness the event. One glaring example involves modern technology. I am sure most of you have had some experience in the street with witnesses or family members with cell phone video cameras. Some are just busybodies who want something cool for YouTube, but others have malicious intent and ambulance chasers on speed dial. Civilians are not our only “customers.” Our fellow responders such as police, fire, emergency management and hospital staff are our customers, too. What if an asshole (I know you have one in mind) was on that scene representing your agency?
I used to work at an agency that was regarded as “elite” by some in our area. We had expensive uniforms, nice ambulances with cool reflective lettering, and more toys than you could count in our garage. Our positive reputation as an agency didn’t last long because no one checked the a-hole count. One fine afternoon, my per diem partner and I responded to a little old lady with flu like symptoms at her home. She had difficulty walking more than a few steps and lived on the second floor so we had to carry her down the stairs. I set up the stair chair and assisted her to a seated position and secured her to the chair. My partner and I move toward the stairs with our equipment and patient in tow. I positioned myself on the stairs to carry the bottom of the chair and let my partner know I was ready. I waited about 30 seconds and stated I was ready again. 30 more seconds passed, I leaned over and looked around the chair to find him texting away at the top of the chair. He was totally checked out of reality. The police officer and the bystanders on scene saw it, too. Our real “customers” now viewed our agency as a joke.
Customer Service at its Finest
Pride. Respect. Professionalism. Honestly, those are not adjectives I conjure immediately when I think about EMS. The adjectives that come to mind when I imagine describing my chosen profession are: lazy, slovenly, and unqualified. Let me make a disclaimer: There are some shining examples of pride, respect, and professionalism among EMS agencies and individual providers, and looking disheveled does not make you unqualified for your job, it makes you LOOK unqualified for your job. Being an a-hole is not limited to verbal communication. Visual communication speaks volumes. Every time you wear your shirt wrinkled or untucked, every time your boots aren’t tied, every time your truck is dirty, every time you text while you are on a call indicates that you don’t care about the “customer’s” experience. It indicates that you, and your agency by proxy, are a-holes.
Resolving this issue should be important to EMS agencies, although experience shows us this is not always the case. (This is when people start to send me hate mail.) The reputation of an agency is of the utmost importance because it influences all aspects of the organization. The most obvious of these is related to securing funds. If your agency uses fundraisers to secure operational funds for continuity of operation, you must have awesome “customer” service. Who is going to GIVE their money to an organization they regard as a bunch of jerks? The same goes for attracting new members or employees and retaining your current staff. People volunteer or work for and agency for a variety of reasons, one of which is to belong to a group they believe in and identify with. Even one a-hole can cause others to find new employment or volunteer at another agency or lead to a dedicated member resigning. Now you don’t only have to find a new “body,” you have to pay for pre-employment checks such as a background check and a physical and new uniforms and training. If you think the politicians in your town aren’t your customers, then you need to talk to agencies that have been cast aside, not by poor clinical performance or low response statistics, but because of poor customer relations. Some politicians will reroute 911 service to the provider of their choice and then your agency is nothing more than a social club with fancy jackets.
Mr. Blanchard proposes the awesome service you provided 10 years ago is soon forgotten, what is important to people is what you did WRONG last week. We must provide awesome customer service continually! 20 years ago, before the widespread use of the internet and smart phones, it was easy to contain the fallout from the a-holes that afflict your organization, but now one small misstep can tarnish your agency exponentially. Be aware of your behavior, and if you are part of the leadership structure, be cautious of who you hire or accept for membership in the first place.