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Customer service? Professional courtesy? Or Just plain taking the extra step?

How many times during the course of your workday have you run across a situation that leaves you thinking, "It shouldn't be this complicated"? The choice of labels for it isn't critical but, when customer service is lacking, the effects are immediate--and may be long-lasting.

During my active duty career, and now, as a retiree/contractor, I've had the good fortune to experience the operation of the financial management community within the Department of Defense (DoD) from many sides. The one constant has been the necessity for communication and cooperation.

As a soldier, I've experienced more than once the confusion and even anger that accompany attempts to seek solutions to problems through those entities within my military service that purported to be in existence for the benefit of the troops. As a budget analyst or an accountant sometimes dealing with other agencies, I've run across those times when I was left thinking of ways to simplify the process.

Truth be told, I seldom considered that I might have caused someone else to think about my shop or my service in those same terms. But, more often than not, the remedy for those periodic bouts with "the bureaucracy" would have been simply for the service providers to take the extra step.

The Extra Step: A Case in Point

Let me share an example. During the 1980s, the organization to which I was assigned had purchased over $2 million worth of modular furniture. The invoices accompanying the shipments bore little resemblance to the receiving reports I received from my logistics shop. After the first few shipments, the firm contacted me because they were concerned over nonreceipt of payments. I verified that the receiving reports had, in fact, been sent to the finance office, and each phone call resulted in essentially the same response: "The check's in the mail."

Although I had insisted that my young accountants follow up thoroughly with their contacts at the finance office on a daily basis, I had never taken the time to develop contacts of my own. I made the time simply to go to the finance office and spend some "face time" so that both those folks and I could become acquainted. I learned, over time, how equally frustrating the bureaucracy could be for them as it was for me.

In this case, the size and complexity of the receiving reports had intimidated the accounting technician in the finance office. Consequently, those documents wound up occupying space in a desk drawer. But, because I had taken the time to get to know the people in that office, it proved easier to identify the problem without pointing fingers.

I actually sat down with the technician and helped to work through the receiving report backlog. The vendor got paid, the technician became more comfortable with the process, and I had developed a professional association.

Was it my job? Technically, no. I took the extra step.

Sometimes It's a Matter of Finding the Right Contact

The advent of Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) operating locations (OPLOCs; now called sites) over the past several years provided a similar challenge. As a budget analyst with a medical activity, I was responsible for ensuring that our contract physicians were paid in a timely fashion. When I first started at that activity, our servicing finance office was located at another installation, which, by the way, had been designated for closure under the Base Realignment and Closure legislation. Coincidentally, the DFAS was busy creating OPLOCs.

Over a period of only two years, our servicing finance office/OPLOC changed three times. The inherent difficulties associated with relocating files, depending on which major command was supported by which OPLOC as a result of restructure (not to mention just obtaining point-of-contact phone numbers, or even being able to contact a live voice) made the task of getting my MDs paid a real challenge. During the entire process, it occurred to me that simply trying to find the right point of contact "shouldn't be this hard."

How many times have you received a phone call from someone who was looking for another office or even a different organization? How often have you received a call from someone who was looking for an answer that didn't fall within your area of responsibility, but the person didn't know where to ask? If you didn't know the number being sought, could you--and did you--at least provide an information number or a point of contact within your organization where the answer might be found? How many times have you thought, "If only I had a copy of their phone directory...?"

Instead of answering the question from a strictly yes or no perspective, take off the not-my-job blinders and, with an extra few minutes of effort, try to point the caller to a more useful contact.

Sometimes, the task is trickier than that. How do you help someone without getting unnecessarily involved in his or her problem?

For example, a mid-grade noncommissioned officer once called my office with a problem involving nonpayment of his emergency medical treatment bill. The TRICARE office at his installation had told him repeatedly that the check was in the mail. The emergency provider (a civilian hospital) had already threatened him with credit report action, and the bill had gone unpaid for almost a year.

Part of the problem was that the TRICARE office was itself undergoing reorganization, and records were being physically relocated to another installation. Again, finding the right contact was the key. It was easier for me to find a point of contact with my access to a few phone rosters than it was for the soldier who wasn't even sure where to go for help. I couldn't help with the credit issues but, with some extra effort and follow-up, I did get him talking to the right folks to get his bill paid.

Communicating Your Concern Eases the Customer's Mind

Often, the only thing that's needed is assurance to the customer that someone is acting or that something is being done on his or her behalf It's a simple matter of communicating with your customer. Whether it's being stuck in a traffic jam or waiting in an office for your name or number to be called, knowing the reason for the delay sometimes makes you feel a little more accepting of the situation. But, as the customer of a DoD service provider, we deserve someone's taking the extra minute to let us know why there is a delay and when it is estimated that we can be helped (or even better, at what time we can return for immediate service).

The bottom line: Even if you don't have all the answers, the perception that you're concerned about the customer and his or her needs often is enough to ensure a satisfied customer. Your willingness to take the extra step clearly will improve your customer relations. And, as they say, kindness often is returned many fold.

Cooperation--It's a Little Like Paying It Forward

We are all encouraged to do more with less--to improve our efficiency and use our limited resources creatively. It stands to reason that time spent chasing solutions to personal issues or tracking down the right office to resolve a problem can very well be time spent at the expense of mission accomplishment. When you consider that we all, military and civilian alike, are in the same boat, we can help each other attain our objectives by rowing in the same direction. Maximum use of limited resources is an attainable goal--and time is often our most valuable resource.

Michael R. Quirk is a financial analyst with Systems, Planning and Analysis, Inc, in Arlington, Virginia. A retired Army accounting NCO, he has worked as a budget analyst at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and as a consultant in A Defense Financial Manager, Mr. Quirk is a member of the Washington Chapter of ASMC. He resides in Gambrills, Maryland, with his wife Leeh and daughter Kira.
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Author:Quirk, Michael R.
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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