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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 31, No. 20 * October 25, 1999

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Simple Gifts: Exceeding Customer Expectations

Today was the day that H.R. daughter, Rachel, left home to move into the dorms at the University of Miami. It was also, of course, a time of concern, excitement, worry and other emotions that generally spell “stress.”

It also meant filling three cars full of books, bedding computers, CDs and other college senior essentials, driving to the dorm and helping with the move-in.

A very crowded parking lot awaited us at the university on a very hot and humid day (a.k.a. more stress). In the midst of all of this, a university parking control employee, you know – the ones who write the tickets for expired parking meters – approached my car.

I expected the worst, though I didn’t think I was parking in the wrong place. As I rolled down the window, the employee said, “Good afternoon. Why don’t you park at the loading zone for a moment? It will make it easier to unload the car. I will make sure you don’t get a ticket.”

As I thanked the officer and told him how great it was that he made that suggestion, it occurred to me that there are great lessons for public administration in that simple act of concern and help.

One of the key issues for every public employee – whether a minimum wage student parking control person or the chair of the County Commission – is that even a small act of kindness can leave a lasting impression. Such an act can turn a stressful situation into a positive outcome. It can turn a tense, hostile situation into one that is defused and settled.
In effect, what that parking control officer did was exceed the customer’s expectations. In so doing, the impression left about the university was a positive one, despite the heat, humidity and crowding.

The idea of exceeding the customer’s expectations should apply to every public agency and every public employee. People who do business with the government, whether by choice or without any choice, get justifiably upset when they are greeted by an employee who acts, even without thinking about it and without intention, in an arrogant way.

Customers in a long line to get a driver’s license or record a property transaction, pay a utility bill, a traffic ticket, or apply for a job can probably think of several million other places they would rather be and other things they would rather be doing.

The same is true of the attitudes of internal service providers, such as Purchasing, Accounting, Building Maintenance, HR, etc., in terms of their own interactions with other agencies.

What a wonderful and unexpected surprise it is in such a situation to be greeted with a smile and a few words of understanding, sympathy or help instead of being greeted by a person who appears to be alive but displays the behavior of a programmed mechanical robot. The difference can make the wait in line seem shorter and the memory of that brief public agency interaction much more positive.

How do you install the “exceed the customer’s expectations” way of doing business?

First, you make it part of the few very basic set of core values of the organization, articulated and embraced by not only the agency director, and ideally the elected officials, but by every manager and every supervisor in the organization. It is also a good idea to include the concept in the agency mission statement.

Communicate the importance of the “exceeding expectations” concept by ongoing and consistent training for everyone in the agency. The newest employees, as part of their first moments in the agency, need to hear from the manager, and see in day-to-day action, the fact that the employees of the organization understand and apply the principle.

The managers have to be role models. If they are robots, if they are arrogant, is it reasonable to think that their subordinates will believe what they say about this core value to exceed expectations? The answer is clearly no. They will watch the example set by the manager and duplicate it.

This core principle should be imbedded in performance expectations and linked to rewards. Perhaps, some kind of “great service” award could be set up to rapidly recognize customer service excellence.

Although some agencies may have a performance bonus system, it often will take months for the necessary paperwork, memos, approvals and other formalities to occur, so that the employee can be recognized. Time and complexity dilute and lessen the meaning and value of recognition.

Empower directors or managers to immediately authorize a day off with pay or a day’s pay for an observed great act of service. Although these rewards are valuable, the real value is in the recognition that an employee saw an opportunity to leave a positive impression and seized it. The rewards can also take other forms, such as a free lunch with the director, a close parking space reserved for a month. Even a simple “thank you” is very important.

Providing this type of reward and recognition, however, must be done in a consistent way without favoritism or unlawful discrimination. When decisions about who gets recognized are not job-related, the effectiveness of the whole idea of the program will be reduced.

When selecting and promoting persons to be new supervisors, a short-lived, but critical window of opportunity is present for the managers to instill in this newly empowered person a very clear and a very basic understanding: do your job without arrogance, with a lot of communication and a sense of humor and with a sound understanding of the importance of our mission to exceed customer expectations.

While not being a fan of tattooing, this is a case where the H.R. Doctor recommends that we all have the phrase “exceed customer expectations” tattooed to the inside of our eyelids. Whenever we close our eyes for a moment or blink, we are reminded of this central core value.
When you do the things described above, not only are our customers pleased and surprised, but over time the morale and the workplace atmosphere improve as well. Expectations of positive relationships between colleagues are exceeded, complaints are down and the workplace is more enjoyable and equitable.

I hope I feel that way when I write my next tuition check to the University of Miami.

Best wishes from the H.R. Doctor. Visit my office at


Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor
e-mail at

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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