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Telephone etiquette - packaging it better.

At a recent Rotary meeting, one member, the vice president of a local bank, handed me his business card with a woman's name written on the back of it. He asked me to call he1r and discuss the way she was treated when she recently called the police to report a burglary of her car. My heart sank. "What now?" I asked myself. "Wouldn't it be nice to have a citizen pass on a positive experience with the department for a change?"

I made it a point to call the woman as soon as I returned to my office. She explained to me that the person who answered her weekend call was not very helpful. Trying to be diplomatic, she was obviously minimizing her displeasure.

I could sense her hesitancy, so I asked her to be specific and to tell me everything. She said that the person who answered her call told her that an officer could not come to her house to take a report. Instead, she was informed that she would have to call back on Monday to the Telephone Report Unit. "But it was not what I was told so much as the way the person told me," she continued. "It seemed that she could have cared less what happened to me. She did not even explain why the police would not be coming, nor did she give me the number of your Telephone Report Unit."

Naturally, I wanted more information, such as the date and time she called, but I sensed that she would have none of it. She claimed that it was not really such a big deal and that she did not want to get anyone in trouble. "And besides," she continued, "when I called the Telephone Report Unit on Monday morning, I spoke with a nice woman who was very helpful."

Does this story sound familiar? Certainly, many police executives could point to similar occurrences within their own departments. It appears that some individuals in public service have omitted the word "service" from their vocabularies. But after all, service constitutes a significant component of the law enforcement mission.

If executives successfully explain the importance of customer service, employees will try to be more helpful and will impress callers favorably, just as the person in the Telephone Report Unit did. Working in law enforcement does not eliminate the concept of customer service. Rather, service to the customer--the public--forms the essence of police work.

Service to the Customer

In their book, In Search of Excellence, Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., cite being "close to the customer" as one of the eight attributes that characterize excellent, innovative companies.(1) Employees working in companies like these "...learn from the people they serve. They provide unparalleled quality, service, and reliability--things that work and last."(2)

In the current economic climate, government agencies, as well as businesses, are focusing on "right-sizing." Every agency is battling for funds, and revenues are at a premium. The public mistrusts big business and government, so law enforcement agencies must start packaging their services better. These services include enforcing laws, investigating and preventing crimes, apprehending suspects, maintaining public safety, and conducting the myriad of other duties performed by Federal, State, and local agencies. Being the best, most efficient law enforcement agency will not save any organization if it lacks the proper packaging. In fact, people often judge an entire agency based on an encounter with a single employee. Undesirable impressions translate into skepticism and negativism toward all law enforcement employees and can lead to failures of proposed tax initiatives for public safety.

Everyone on the law enforcement team, from the dispatcher to the head of the agency, must understand and embrace the dynamics of what the public (the customer) wants and, in fact, demands. Law enforcement personnel can achieve such understanding quite simply by remembering the "Golden Rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I provide members of my team with a practical approach to this timeless canon. I ask them to imagine that their mother, father, or other loved one has traveled alone to an unfamiliar city. While there, a thief breaks into the vehicle and steals Christmas presents. I then ask my team members how they would want their loved ones to be treated by the police when they call to report the crime.

Finally, I ask what would be their overall opinion of that agency based on the one positive or negative encounter experienced by their loved one? How would they feel about the community? The answers given by team members reaffirm the importance of positive, helpful contacts with the public.

Get Closer to the Customer

I offer the following suggestions to law enforcement employees to help them to improve service and to bring them closer to the customer. First, treat every caller like a favorite member of the family. All employees should identify themselves by department and name and should try to connect callers with the individual whom they are trying to reach. Employees also should make every effort to transfer the caller to the appropriate person and avoid, if possible, having the caller place another call.

During all telephone conversations with the public, employees should be polite and express their desire to assist the caller, saying, for example, "How may I help you?" All employees should strive to be problem solvers. If the caller has reached the wrong department or agency, for instance, the responding employee should refer them to the appropriate one. Finally, employees should end conversations on an upbeat note, perhaps by giving callers their name and number and offering assistance in the future.


Law enforcement employees must begin to package themselves and their products better. They must express a genuine desire to provide quality service each and every time they answer the phone or greet the public, their customer. As for me, I am looking forward to the phone call that I know will be coming soon: It will compliment a member of my team for delivering excellent public service.


1 Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1982), 14.

(2) Ibid.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Bentz, David E.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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