• drpjfinn

Civility and the City: Part 1

Updated: Oct 13, 2019


Photo by MARK ADRIANE on Unsplash

One Day, Two Cities, Two Talks

I get a lot of requests to do speeches and workshops. Unfortunately, I have to turn most of them down. Whenever possible I try to accept invitations that involve people working to improve their communities. On Tuesday, October 8, 2019 I got two requests from groups I wanted to work with, which made scheduling a challenge. It was even more difficult because the talks were in two different cities.


My colleague Owen Brierley (an Edmontonian) and I (a Calgarian) have long talked about our love of our two cities. The cities have a long-standing rivalry, but Owen and I love both cities and have always talked about ways to connect the two so we could split our time between them. When I got invites from the City of Calgary and from Makespace (in connection with Edmonton Design Week) for the same day I contacted Owen and we decided to dedicate the day to serving our two cities and building in some projects before, during and after.


The plan was relatively simple: get downtown Calgary by 8AM, give an early morning speech, then head to Edmonton for a 3:30PM speech. We'd make the drive up highway 2 giving us a chance to talk through some of the ideas we were exploring. Then, the night before the talk there was a weather warning. We got a spring snow storm that started several hours before the speech, and continued until just before we got back to Calgary at 10PM that night. It added a little flavor to the adventure.


The Talks


Calgary: the talk captured in the video below focuses on customer service. When we think of customer service we might think of a barrista or checkout clerk, but the City of Calgary takes a much broader approach and uses the idea of customer service as a way to focus all attention on serving citizens (including co-workers) as customers. It's a fascinating approach, and one I wanted to try and support.


I am a big believer in public service. To me, if your job involves serving your fellow citizens you are at the top of the civic food chain. Unforunately, we tend to take those who work in service for granted, so I always worry about the working conditions for those that take on these tasks. The way I thought about this topic for this speech was by observing the proliferation of signs that say:


"Abusing our staff will not be tolerated."


I am sure you've seen these signs popping up everywhere. For me, I cannot help but ask, "what has gone wrong if we need to put a sign up to remind people not to abuse one another?" The question is a provocative way into a discussion about the realities of customer service, which is what I needed to discuss with this group. My work focuses on tactics for improvement, so merely talking about customer service, making fun of grumpy customers or spouting platitudes about the importance of customer service would be a waste of people's time.


The reality is that customer service is more important than ever, more difficult than ever, and the consequences of making an error costlier than ever. Memes and motivation ain't gonna do it, so I worked with their team lead over a few months to study the work of those involved, and got two rounds of updates as working conditions changed. The group I was speaking to contains people with vastly different training and responsiblities. They are all dedicated to doing their best, but they often find themselves working in new structures, with new teams and under new leadership. It's part of the business for them, but it also adds to the stress of a "customer service" approach to work.


I shared some tactics for people to use in their work. The approaches are research-based and I've deployed them before, but we picked these specifically for this group. As part of the work we captured the video below because a number of the team members were not able to attend because of last minute scheduling changes (not to mention that blizzard).


Citizen-customer service: in my work, I really do try and help. It's why I do it, and because of my belief in public service I take these invitations particularly seriously. People who work at the city are expected to be perfect, and tend only to hear from us when we are angry about something that has gone wrong. The reality of the situation is that this will never change. We take for granted those that care for us, and public servants are locked into work that serves without the ability to shout back at those who might insult or abuse them. That makes for some exciting customer service work...


Customer Service as a Super Power: if we think about the challenge of customer service and then connect it to contemporary social conditions I think we have a way to look at customer service as a super power. We all seem to be over-stressed these days, and for all our talk of "social" media I also worry that we don't have many people with whom we can really share our experiences. The result is that people who are struggling, and do not have anyone to support them, might take out their frustration on a customer service professional who cannot fight back. Rather than seeing that as unfair, why not consider how you can use those opportunities to care for those people and get them out of the emotional place they are trapped in. After all, they are our neighbors...and besides...we all take turns being that person that is overwhelmed and overreacts to a situation.


What if serving one another as skilled communicators could provide the building blocks for a better, brighter future?


The Antidote to Workplace Poison: whether the approach is relevant or not, I always want to try and engage people with how they can improve their work, and more importantly improve their lives. If you are spending a lot of time being attacked at work, you should make sure you have ways of getting rid of that before heading home. At the end of the day, it is not fair if someone yells at you for something that is not your fault, but it's not your family's fault either, so you should probably try and find a way to leave that stuff behind. In the olden days, folks used to blow off steam at the pub, but I think the level of stress and charged interaction is so high that we need more substantial approaches to improving our ability to interact with people in heightened situations.


Once the Calgary talk was done, we had to get on the road as fast as possible. We knew that driving conditions would be challenging and did not want to be late. In the next post, we'll explore the second part of our Civility and the City Tour.


Best Part: because I've done so many events like this I've come to appreciate those who know how to oragnize an event. This particular event was orgnaized by someone who went out of her way to get me all the information I requested (I study obsessively in preparation for events), and talk with me as the event developed. That on its own would be exceptional, but in the midst of our preparation my job changed and getting in touch with me was much harder than normal. She remained calm throughout, and stayed that way even when the event day turned into a blizzard. Working with someone like that makes me grateful, and to be honest is a much better example of "customer service" than I would be able to deliver.

What sucks*: the opportunity to present in the new downtown library in Calgary was great, but we were not prepared for recording (there was a snowstorm so we arrived too late to setup our rig), so we had to do our best to capture it on the fly. The result is that the angle is off and there is a hum caused by the proximitity of two microphones. Why this sucks: we were prepared to do a good job of capturing this presentation for our colleagues at the city, but the snowstorm delayed us so Owen had to sit at an angle and I was wiring my mic while I was being introduced. That's on me because I was the transportation for the day. Owen rolled with it like the pro that he is, but he ended up crouched down running cameras and then had to edit this hodgepodge because I didn't get us there in time to give him the material he needed to make his work easier.


*Whenver producing / sharing work, I try to highlight areas where I dropped the ball. I want to keep learning and I try to keep modeling the types of practices that support ongoing learning and iterative improvement in our work.

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