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Survey finds city staff helpful, needing more empathy

POSTED January 13, 2012 8:50 p.m.

Historically, customer service in Turlock's building, planning, and engineering departments has been notorious – for all the wrong reasons.

But those departments appear to have turned the corner, according to feedback received from a city-conducted survey.

“There is a huge improvement from five or six years ago,” said one anonymous respondent to the city survey.

The survey, conducted by Turlock Regulatory Affairs Manager Michael Cooke at the bequest of Turlock City Manager Roy Wasden, saw Cooke phone every customer who formally interacted with Development Services in October 2011. For some departments, customers from as far back as summer were phoned, in hopes of obtaining a greater number of responses.

“The idea is to find out how we're doing, and how we can improve, just like any business,” Cooke said.

“Unless you get feedback from your customers, you don't know how you're doing.”

Of 36 customers contacted, 24 participated in the phone survey, answering 12 multiple-choice questions on the quality of existing service and an open-ended question asking for suggestions to provide better service.

Responses were overwhelmingly positive, with employees lauded for their courtesy, professionalism, and knowledge.

One customer credited engineering employees for offering assistance, even though the front counter was closed for the afternoon. Another saw a building inspector come in after the close of the work day, just so construction could proceed on a project.

“The substance of the report is extremely encouraging for everyone in Turlock,” said Councilman Bill DeHart.  “… Complements to the employees who worked very hard to get those results.”

There's still room for improvement, though, per the report.

Building inspectors were asked to be “less finicky.” Planners were asked to better explain why things have to be a certain way. And, overall, city employees were asked to provide more specific direction.

Through discussion, city staff came to the conclusion these responses tied back to one underlying problem: employee's failure to see issues from the customer's point of view, and to help work through those problems.

“It seems at times they want a little more handholding than we're willing to give,” Cooke said. “Sometimes we need to help people a little more through the process.”

The survey results have inspired new dedication to problem solving and empathy. The city hopes, in the future, employees will take an active stake in a project's outcome, working to ensure all potential roadblocks are cleared.

The new tactic, developed in response to survey results, shows the query's value, according to Wasden.

“It's something we'll continue to do, to ask that question, 'How can we do a better job? How can we deliver that service?'” Wasden said.

But even as the city looks to implement its new partner-focused customer service, some survey respondents are already looking forward to a more positive future.

“I am very happy about the progress and I am optimistic about the future,” one respondent said.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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