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The Customer Service Challenge: Police vs. Nordstrom

Author: Ryan Dedmon, Anaheim PD Communications

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-09-10
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“The Customer is Always Right” has long been a cliche’ used in the customer service industry, prompting businesses in the private sector to provide the highest quality of professional service to meet customer satisfaction.  So how can we apply this principle to law enforcement without turning police agencies into Nordstrom’s?

Last weekend, I was driving on my way to work early one morning.  I left my house at 5:20 A.M.; it was still dark outside at that time.  I went up the block and turned out on to a main street, coincidentally named Main Steet, to make my way to the I-5 Freeway.  As I approached a major intersection, I saw the strangest thing: a male transient was walking in the middle of the #2 lane pushing a shopping cart full of all his belongings.  He had some type of weird contraption mounted on top of the shopping cart that stood about 8-feet tall and had a 4-foot wingspan on each side.  I nearly mistook this for a slow-moving vehicle.  The street lights were still illuminated, but he was dressed in all dark clothing.  Granted there was no traffic at that early hour of the morning, but he clearly had no regard for any vehicles traveling on the roadway.  I decided to call the non-emergency number to the local police to report the incident before an inattentive motorist ran the transient over at 45 mph.

The police dispatcher who answered my call was less than enthusiastic to be working at such an early hour.  I gave her the location and a brief synopsis of the problem.  She answered by saying, “Okaayyy?”, followed by a long pause.  I interpreted this to mean she did not see what the problem was, so I further articulated why this posed a danger to not only the transient but also motorists.  She sounded frustrated that I would go to such length to report the incident, as if somehow this was my fault the transient was walking down the middle street.  She abruptly cut me off short and said she would send officers by to check, and then disconnected.  She hung up before I was able to give a description of the transient, not that he would be that difficult to spot, and my contact info in the event they might need to call me back.

As I continued on my drive to work, I began to wonder if I have ever treated a caller like that.  As a police dispatcher myself, I answer hundreds of calls during a single shift.  I have my bad days, sick days, and exhausted days.  And of course, things like working short-staffed, long shift hours, and mandated overtime do not help my outlook.  But are these issues valid excuses for the way I treat people who call for assistance?  Recently, I had to return two dress shirts to Nordstrom, a major department store in Southern California.  They were a gift that went misplaced for several months.  When I rediscovered them, they no longer fit.  I was delighted to see the tags still attached because Nordstrom has a store policy that allows customers to return merchandise, regardless if they have a receipt, as long as the tags are still attached.  Needless to say, Nordstrom employees treated me like a VIP customer during my exchange.

Employees at Nordstrom are customer service experts, second to none.  However, they have never had to calm a suicidal caller; they have never talked to a frantic parent whose baby stopped breathing; they have never talked to someone who just got shot, stabbed, raped, robbed, or assaulted.  They do not have to decipher a whirlwind of hysterical conversation like dispatchers; they do not have to roll around in the blood, sweat, and the beer like police officers.  In fact, a Nordstrom department store is probably the most ideal environment for customer service with its air-conditioned setting, professional merchandise displays in perfect arrangement, and classical piano music playing over the speakers.

However, law enforcement is not Nordstrom and the customer is not always right.  My coworkers and I have often stated that we do not have customers in law enforcement; we have “clients.”  The difference: customers voluntarily visit a particular business by choice.  An overwhelming majority of people who call police do so out of necessity because they require some type of service.  Police agencies are always looking for ways to improve the services they offer.  So how can we take customer service principles and give them practical application to law enforcement without turning police departments into Nordstrom?

After some observation, I saw the answer rather clearly: customer service starts with the individual employee, not with the organization as a whole.  As I walked through Nordstrom, I noticed each employee interacting with customers to provide service with a smile, and it was their collaborative teamwork that was making the Nordstrom department store so pleasant.

Granted it can be difficult and often challenging to come to work in law enforcement every day with a smile on your face.  We deal with the evil that most of the world would rather pretend did not exist in our society.  Exigent circumstances of life and death leave no room for error on our parts.  But take away all of the external factors and there is only one person who decides whether or not you will have a good or bad day at work, and that person is you; it does not matter if you are the Chief with years of experience, or you are the newest Cadet to join the department.  Doing little things, like being conscious of the volume/tone/inflection of your voice and taking an extra minute to further explain why or why not police can provide a caller with assistance, can go a long ways in determining how the public feels we treat them when they contact us for assistance.

If every employee at your department keeps this in mind maybe it will change the public perception of the professional services your department provides.  A positive public perception can change the way your department operates, not in regards to policy or procedure, but in regards to the programs implemented at your department to serve the community.  So maybe there is something Nordstrom can teach us and that is public perception of our services rendered can mold a community to support our work of crime prevention and suppression to keep all safe, and that public perception depends largely on how each of our employees decide to come to work. 

Ryan Dedmon is a veteran dispatcher with the Anaheim (CA) Police Department.  This article was originally published in his blog,


Photo: R D Larson, Reno (NV) 9-1-1 Communications. 9-1-1 magazine file photo.


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