ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - July 2000

Issue Highlight - WWW
- Friends of mine showed me a letter recently that I thought you might find interesting. It might be a sign of things to come in this New Economy:

In This Issue...
Is Anyone Out There?
Increasing A Good Idea's Profitability
Internal Quality Audits
Every Summit Beckons A Conqueror
Finding Your Way Home In The Workplace

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Heard on the Street
Sites Unseen

Every Summit Beckons
A Conqueror

Scaling a Staff Training Summit in the Shadow of Mt.Ranier

    Whether in line at the DMV or at the take-out window of a fast food restaurant, it is not uncommon to encounter an impolite employee occasionally. But it has become increasingly familiar. In fact, customer service complacency seems to occur all too often

    When Nancy Tam Davis and Carol Cook, trainers for Pierce County, Wash., noticed poor customer service had begun to effect their organization, they did something about it. Through investigating the problem and its origin, they found that all signs pointed to one over-riding problem: training.

    Soon, they had embarked on a mission to provide an effective training program aimed at all front line employees—receptionists, office assistants, counter staff, etc. Through designing this interactive conference, the trainers experienced exceptional results.

When Nancy Tam Davis joined Pierce County, Wash., as a trainer about a decade ago, she knew she faced a big task. Located just south of Seattle, the county covers 1,790 square miles, from the Puget Sound to Mt. Rainier. Its 2,700 employees work in 51 facilities throughout the county, serving 700,000 residents in 21 incorporated communities, three military installations and an American Indian reservation.

    Davis, like many county employees, was guilty of being a bit complacent. “I believed we had no competition,” she recalls. “What could people do? Move to another county? Well, three of our largest population areas incorporated and are turning their backs on county services.”

    That was a wake-up call to the county to emphasize service to citizens, a call relayed back directly to Davis’ unit. In 1994, when asked to create a unit to coordinate organizational development and training, Davis and her assistant, Carol Cook, conducted a survey to identify current levels of training and training needs. They discovered that almost two-thirds of county employees felt they had difficulty getting needed training. The reasons most frequently cited were time, money and scheduling conflicts.

    Davis and Cook’s study found several paradoxes in their survey results. The people responsible for first contact with citizens—receptionists, office assistants and counter staff—typically received the least amount of training. Even more troubling was supervisors’ sentiment that funding for training was insufficient, while training dollars went unspent annually.

    “Over 20 percent of our training budget was being returned unused,” says Davis. “I went to the county executive and asked for 10 percent of that to let us try something. This is where the paradox met the potential.”

    Davis smiles. “When the going gets tough, we go out to lunch!” As she and Cook scratched their heads, Cook asked a crucial question: “If support staff are so important, why can’t they attend conferences and workshops like managers do? Better yet, why don’t we create our own conference?”

 Making It Happen

    Davis and Cook hatched a plan for a support staff conference for 200 Pierce County employees termed, “The Front Lines,” Together, they made up the people creating the public’s impression of county services. Davis offered upper management a straightforward guarantee: “A full-day professional conference with 14 breakout workshops, a keynote speaker, buffet luncheon and a transaction book for each participant, for under $40.”

    To make this work, they identified a team of support staff with outstanding customer service skills for their steering committee. Davis and Cook had attended many conferences, including AQP’s, which provided excellent models.

    Davis says, “The team shaped the theme, intent and design. They chose the workshop topics, which included communication styles, violence in the workplace, telephone skills, technology in the future and about 10 others. Our office’s role was to manage the background work and leave the visioning and design to the team.” The advisory group’s activity was limited to four meetings.

    By tapping into Pierce County’s internal training resources and inviting the county executive to be their keynote speaker, Davis and Cook held down costs. “Now we had to deal with time. We repeated this conference in full on a second day so a department could send half of their support staff one day, and half on the second day, and not bring a halt to the business process.”

 A Vision Into a Reality

   They used guerrilla marketing. “Carol researched all our employees,” Davis says, “and pulled together the names of everyone who might remotely fit a support staff category. We made up mailing labels, and routed our brochures directly to those employees.” Although a few supervisors objected to the end-run, Davis defused objections by citing her mission to build the capacity of Pierce County by developing employees.

   They made a positive impression on attendees by offering 15-minute chair massages. “That was a hit,” Cook says. “The line was long.” To refine future events, they surveyed the audience and learned that their buffet needed dessert (chocolate, specifically) to please attendees. “We never made that mistake again,” Cook laughs.

    Their positive results were not achieved without anxiety. “The week before that first conference,” Davis recalls, “Carol and I were looking at our budget to see how we could supplement funds. We had a few hyperventilating moments.” But they achieved full enrollment, and the cost per participant was $32.09. “You could hear our sighs of relief. For the first time in the history of Pierce County, we had 200 support staff attend the same learning event and experience no discernible drop in services.”

 A Reality Exceeding Expectations

    Employees felt it made a difference, rating it 5.25 on a possible 6-point scale. “We’ve now run this conference three times,” Davis says proudly, “and that’s the lowest rating we’ve received yet.” In 1996 Pierce County’s Support Staff Conference was recognized by the National Association of Counties for its “distinguished and innovative contribution to improving and promotion of County Government in the United States.”

    Davis and Cook, plus Heather Angove, a training specialist who joined their team more recently, say the real satisfaction has been hearing people on the front lines say things to one another like, “It’s so good to finally meet you. I’ve been talking to you over the phone for years.” Davis says, “In an odd sense, it was a reunion for people who had never met.”

    The success of the Biannual Support Staff Conference—today their biggest challenge is handling registration so everyone who needs to attend can sign up before the program is full—has inspired a series of similar events. Angove was brought on board to facilitate programs such as a Biannual Supervisors Conference (co-sponsored with a neighboring county) and a “tool-kit” series of workshops for supervisors. The enhanced value of training has encouraged specific county departments to use training programs as benefits: the road maintenance division guarantees workers 40 hours of training annually, and information services provides a customer service training program for all of its employees.

    When asked for their best advice about staging a conference for a large and varied staff, Davis, Cook and Angove all express similar sentiments. Cook says: “Bring the best of your support staff together to make it their conference. For us to plan it for them, would have lost a lot of the creativity that we had.” Angove quickly adds, “If we ask people what they need, they are pretty much able to tell us.”

    Working in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, Davis warmly says, can be an inspiration. “What can I say? We’re from the Northwest. Every summit beckons a conqueror.”
In Pierce County it’s evident that such challenges bring out the best.

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