I spent my teens working in retail. I can remember dealing with angry, impatient people as I worked to fill requests, scan items and find products. I had to smile even when people got under my skin, keep my tone of voice neutral and make sure the customer was satisfied with the service they received. Some people I made happy; others I didn’t … it was really a toss-up any day of the week. The mission was clear, however: Make the customer happy.
Working retail is an acquired taste. As a matter of fact, the taste of retail work I had was a bit sour, and I can remember promising myself that I would never go back to that type of work again once I got out. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to put themselves through the wringer every day just to make some customer at the store “happy.” It felt like the ultimate test of patience, day in and day out.
Fast-forward a few years and I became a third-generation police officer. I had known from a very young age that I wanted to be just like my dad and make the move into law enforcement. I always had amazing respect for the men and women who wore the badge and knew that being a police officer was my calling. I had this pristine image of what it meant to be the police, before I was the police, and I was certain that everyone else had a high regard for the police, too. It was this glorified thinking that made me feel like I would never have to focus on customer service again. People would be happy to see me, respect me and simply be in awe of my mere presence. Well, the last part might be a bit of an exaggeration, but there is a little truth in there.
Measure your quality of service by how well you treat each person you encounter during your shift.
Learning the job wasn’t quite as easy as I thought it would be. It was a true test of my abilities on every single call, every single day. It was extremely gratifying work some days, and on others it was the grueling, pick-your-heart-up-off-the-floor kind of work. I found out quickly that some people loved us, some people truly hated us and others fell somewhere in between. Some people were easy to deal with and others were more difficult than I could ever imagine. To say that you need thick skin to work in law enforcement is a bit of an understatement. I’m sure you can agree. While the thicker skin can offer a layer of protection from the barrage of verbal, psychological and physical attacks that we face, it can also get in the way of keeping a good attitude.
During one of my shifts as a new officer, I had the occasion to respond to a family trouble (if I had a penny for every family trouble…). A husband and wife were arguing over some really insignificant thing and I just couldn’t buy in to how or why the police got called out on this. So, what was my response? I told them both to grow up, said something about them being ridiculous, made sure the peace was kept and went on my way. Later on during the shift, my sergeant called me into the office. He informed me that the couple from the family trouble had called in to make a complaint about how rude I was. Long story short, my boss was able to put water on the fire and offered them an apology.
The apology, however, did not come from my boss. Part of the solution to the complaint required that I would respond back to the home and apologize myself. While not thrilled with the idea, I did as I was ordered and returned to the home. For a young cop, it was a humbling experience to look this couple in the eye again and apologize. As insignificant as this set of circumstances might seem, this was the catalyst that changed my attitude regarding customer service in law enforcement.
This may seem obvious, but I came to the realization that people don’t call the police because they are having a good day. We are inserted into people’s lives when things are falling apart, where chaos is erupting and when emotions are running high. We also have the unique ability to insert ourselves into the lives of others during routine investigations and traffic stops. These types of contacts are anything but routine for those we stop and can turn an otherwise good day for someone into a bad day.
Someone wiser than I am once told me that we are, in a way, selling our reputation to the community. While the people we deal with on a day-to-day basis are not actually buying anything from us, we are supposed to be providing a service to them. Service in law enforcement can come in a variety of different forms. It may be the arrest of a domestic batterer, stopping that red-light violator or dropping by the block party to play catch with the neighborhood kids. I would challenge you, however, to measure your quality of service by how well you treat each person you encounter during your shift. In all citizen and violator contacts we make, we should be striving to enhance the perception of law enforcement. As they say, perception is everything. This is an especially important concept today, when it seems that some people are just looking for a reason to make your job harder. Don’t give them one.
Sir Robert Peel himself recognized almost 200 years ago that the police are the public and the public are the police. As such, we are inseparable from the very people we are charged with policing, even when it seems that sometimes we are miles apart. We owe a duty to, and are responsible for, providing quality (customer) service to everyone. If we are service-oriented and focus on the “customer,” chances are that our jobs will become a lot easier and complaints like these won’t be an issue. With the negative perceptions of law enforcement seemingly looming over us, we have an opportunity to change them one contact at a time. Let’s get to work.