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Providing Exceptional Customer Service at Your Permit Counter

Providing Exceptional Customer Service at Your Permit Counter

We have all experienced both great and poor customer service. It is easy to take good customer service for granted; that is, until you encounter a frustratingly bad case that causes you to want to tear your hair out—such as being treated rudely by a sales clerk, being ignored by waitstaff at a restaurant, consistently getting the wrong items in a mail order delivery, and the list goes on. But what about when someone receives less than great customer service in a local government setting?

If you experience bad service in a retail or restaurant setting, for example, you can usually make the decision to not patronize that business in the future. It is harder for most members of the public to exercise that option, however, in situations where there is a need for them to interact directly with their local government officials.

This blog post is directed at providing excellent customer service at a city, town, or county’s permit counter. The reason why I am concentrating on front permit counters is because these are places where there is a lot of person-to-person interaction between members of the public and local staff. The City of Renton and Yakima County will be used as two examples of local governments that have taken it upon themselves to emphasize great customer service as a way to help make applying for a permit a positive experience.

The Importance of Customer Service at the Permit Counter

Providing excellent customer service at a local permit counter is critical, because:

  • Residents, property owners, and business representatives are relying on local government staff to help them navigate a complex process and hopefully obtain a permit in a reasonable amount of time; and
  • It provides a competitive edge in attracting good jobs and businesses that want to locate or expand in your community.

For most applicants, dealing with the local development review process at the front counter provokes anxiety and is often perceived as being mysterious and confusing. Recognizing this situation, several communities have successfully used a customer service approach to reduce stress, for both applicants and staff, and to strip away the mystery surrounding their permitting processes.

What Is Good Customer Service?

Good customer service at a permit counter is exemplified by staff people who are:

  • Attentive;
  • Respectful;
  • Helpful;
  • Proactive;
  • Good listeners;
  • Responsive; and
  • Have a positive attitude.

At a permit counter, you also want your staff person to be someone who knows the local development regulations/procedures and can clearly explain them to people with different levels of knowledge. Because front counter staff often need to educate the public about local development standards and the rationale behind these standards, it is important for them to be patient and to have good communication skills.

Create a Culture of Customer Service

What can a local government do to create and maintain a culture of customer service? One step is to ensure that your hiring process is focused on identifying people with strong customer service skills. For example, when looking for new permit counter staff, the City of Renton and Yakima County both seek out candidates with identifiable customer service traits, such as attentiveness. In addition, Renton gives extra attention to candidates with past work experience in organizations that emphasize the importance of customer service, such as Nordstrom or Starbucks.

Local governments should explicitly emphasize the importance of providing exceptional customer service. Both Renton and Yakima County’s permitting departments have developed written mission statements that do just that, and customer service is a commonly discussed topic at their respective staff meetings. In addition, for all staff dealing with the public, customer service training should be provided on a regular basis.

Be Solution-Oriented, But What if You Have to Say “No?”

If you’ve ever had to deal with a first-time applicant who wants to construct a building in a manner or location that does not comply with your zoning map or local development standards, you are not alone. But how should you or your staff deal with such a person? In such cases, front counter staff should ask questions and talk with the applicant about what he/she really wants to accomplish. Oftentimes, an acceptable solution can be found that will achieve the applicant’s objectives and meet your development standards.

In those situations where you end up having to say “no,” clearly explain the reason why and be empathetic. An applicant who has to completely rethink or abandon a proposed project will probably be unhappy about it, but ideally you want that person to walk away from the permit counter feeling that your staff did a good job in listening to what they wanted to do and working with them to explore alternative approaches.

To be successful, a local government’s development review process must have multiple components in place, including good and clear development standards, well-thought-out processes and procedures, a user-friendly website, and reasonable fees. But the importance of providing great customer service at the permit counter cannot be overstated. Applicants that have a good experience at the front counter are going to have a positive attitude about their local government, and builders/developers of good projects are more likely to want to do business with your community in the future.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, you can listen to the recording of our December 12 webinar, Providing Excellent Customer Service at the Permit Counter. This webinar and seleted others from 2018 are available to view for a small fee at our On-Demand Webinars page.

Questions? Comments?

If you have thoughts about this blog post, please comment below or email me. If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.

Author’s note: I want to thank Jennifer Henning, Renton’s Planning Director, and Jason Earles, Yakima County’s Zoning & Subdivision Section Manager, for their insights.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.