Treating Citizens as Customers: Conflict Resolution in the Public Sector

Two women shaking hands over a counter
I recently had a conversation with a friend who owns a landscaping company. We were discussing common leadership challenges and comparing his role as a private sector CEO to mine as a First Selectman. During our conversation, he related the challenging and emotional process he went through when deciding it was time to fire someone.

In his case, it wasn’t an employee. It was a regular customer. After considerable discussion with his field supervisors, he came to the difficult conclusion that dealing with the customer’s unreasonable demands and abusive behavior was just not worth the damage to employee morale, so he sent a letter terminating their business relationship.

The ability to terminate a relationship with a customer struck me as one of the more significant differences between private and public sector management. Public workers do not have the luxury of sending a difficult customer somewhere else. For better or for worse, they and the customer are in it together. In addition to the tried and true “my taxes pay your salary” refrain, public sector customer relations can be especially problematic in our age of increasing and sometimes unrealistic citizen expectations, not to mention the use of social media to quickly fan the flames of public outrage. It is critically important, therefore, to effectively defuse conflicts with upset citizens. Here are a few basic tips.

Stay calm and let them vent. Citizens want to be heard, so good listening skills are critically important. Do not interrupt, even if you think you have an answer. Wait for your customer to describe the problem fully.

Repeat or rephrase the problem. Ask questions. Take a few moments to digest what they’ve said and to be sure that you understand every facet of the problem. The customer may have more than one issue to resolve. Take notes, clearly define each issue and address each one separately.

Fix the problem, not the customer. Recognize and expect that some customers will be angry. Don’t try to change their behavior. Stay calm and focused on solving the problem.

Be empathetic. Let’s face it. Some laws don’t always make sense. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Let them know that you will do everything you can to help. But, be careful not to commiserate (“Well, I had that problem once, too…”). By focusing on finding a solution, you can avoid triggering a mutual gripe session.

Professional customer service training is an investment that can pay off handsomely in higher morale, staff efficiency, and positive community relations. Training is often available free or at low cost from public sector support organizations. With the right skills, your staff will be effective ambassadors for the value of good government.

Matthew Knickerbocker is the first selectman of Bethel, Connecticut, and a 2016 Post University Master of Public Administration graduate.

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