Customer Service: Keeping it Real w/ Random Acts of Kindness

My last two blog posts got me thinking…..The reason I am successful at my job lies squarely at the intersection of these two ideas — keeping it real and helping people out. And again, this is not about tooting my horn. It’s just some observations on being a public servant.

In the world of outfitter/guide permits, I often have to be the bearer of bad news. As in, “sorry, you need a permit but I cant’ get you one [insert stupid bureaucratic bs reason here].” Yeah, that’ll go over. Like a ton of bricks. To make matters worse, I tend to disagree with the stupid bureaucratic bs reason.

My solution? Keep it real. Be honest. In the past year, I have had a really good example of this. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I absolutely disagreed with a decision made by my line officer. So how do I communicate the “official” position while remaining professional?

Miraculously, I found a way to do so, even though for a while I was quite angry and frustrated. I am genetically unable to spew the party (or agency) line. And yet it was my job to tell these people, in essence, “sorry, your little problem isn’t really our priority at this time.” Nice message, huh? I decided on this: to be professional, yet completely honest.

I told these people straight-up that I disagreed with the decision, that I empathized with their position, and if they wanted to send a letter of comment (complaint), here was the address. And that honesty went a long, long way. Not for me and my street cred, though that was definitely part of it — but more for the customer service aspect.

Everyone knows about the government bureaucracy. They know all about the red tape. So when someone like me says, hey man, I’m really sorry. I know this sucks and I really fought for it but my hands are tied; here’s how you can complain — well, the people key into that. They can relate.

We are respecting them by being honest. By not telling them some bureaucratic baloney that couldn’t hold up to nothin’. And you know what? It works. They may go away frustrated, but not with me. And, I’ve empowered them by (diplomatically) telling them how to have their voices heard by someone higher up than I. They know that there’s at least one person on their side, advocating for their needs from the government.

Is this really so hard? No. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. Yes, there are occasional times when you might have to really think about your wording — in my case, I was so angry that it was really hard to remain civil and professional — but overall it’s very easy to be “real.”

I think too often we are used to hearing the party/agency line, and we stop thinking about keeping it real. This ideology is what separates the bureaucrats (in the negative sense of the word — sorry GovLoop!) from the public servants. The people who “just say no” to the public based on some flimsy excuse, rather than taking a few moments to help or explain.

Thinking about these things the last two weeks has actually empowered me to say something at work. Example: I received a proposal for a bike ride event. Well, the bottom line is that due to staffing shortages I am unable to process any new requests for this summer. The bureaucratic answer would be “go find some non-forest service lands to do this on, bye.” The public servant answer, however, was “I’m sorry, I can’t get you a permit this year, but let me try and help you find some alternate locations to use.”

The person I had to consult on this immediately gave me the bureaucratic answer. All my blog thoughts made me brave enough to say, “That’s true, but it’s not really very good customer service. A better approach is to spend 20-30 minutes helping this person find some alternatives.” And you know what? It worked — I actually gave this coworker some food for thought!

Hardly rocket science. And yet, I am constantly amazed at the lack of customer-service ideals we can have sometimes.

The moral of the story is this: while you are helping the public with those random acts of kindess (see last week’s post), don’t forget to be honest. Be a real person, not some talking head. The public will respect and appreciate you for it. And maybe then someone will tell you you’re his “newest hero,” just for doing your job.

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Craig Newmark

Works for me doing customer service at CL. Not easy, worse if you’re dealing with trolls.

Need to find a good way to remind everyone that “customer service” is service, and how to get organizations (of all sorts) to do more than give customer service lip service.


A lot of us forget that the other term for government employee is “public servant.” Maybe we should go back to being called that. It might help us remember to put the service in servant.