May – Sweat the Small Stuff

When is the last time you checked out your front counter or had a mystery shopper or neighbor check it out? This is where your good public relations start, so it is important. For most communities we work with, we set a rule of thumb that no customer should wait more than 15 minutes before being served, and it should only take a minute or two to sign in with a receptionist. When the wait reaches 15 minutes, a supervisor, or another planner, should come out to help out.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to check things out in my own community. The houses across the street from my son’s home are all single story with good unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean. My son’s house and other houses on his side of the street are two stories and concerned for blocked views if any of the single story houses add a second story. One just sold and the rumor is the owner is planning a second story.

I was downtown so I decided to stop by the city planning department to check things out.

  1. Planning is in a five-story development center building. Next to the elevator is a comprehensive directory sign which leads me to planning on the third floor – so far so good.
  2. Getting off the elevator, the receptionist is not immediately visible and is partially hidden around the corner, next to a guard who doesn’t look very friendly – recommendation, make the receptionist totally visible to the customer.
  3. Receptionist takes my name; ask what I am there for; directs me to waiting area; and says someone will call me – seems okay.
  4. While waiting I thought I might read a few handouts about zoning or planning but there is not a single one to be found – not good.
  5. I am sitting with four others looking at four staff booths, only one is occupied by a planner who is serving a customer. A couple minutes after I sit down the planner finishes with his customer and leaves saying he will be replaced.
  6. I ask the person next to me how long he has been waiting – 45 minutes – not good.
  7. We sit for 15 minutes staring at a vacant booth; no replacement in sight – no good.
  8. I go back to the receptionist and ask to speak to a supervisor. She calls one and says he will be out to see me in the waiting area. Five minutes later he arrives. After telling him our waiting story he sits down and starts helping people himself – good except it should not have taken a customer for him to see the problem.
  9. About 10 minutes later, another planner comes out, calls out two names of people who probably got tired of waiting and left, I am next.
  10. I explain my situation and that I want to check the zoning. First question is what is the address or parcel number. Without this she couldn’t help me. Okay, I am a planner and should have known better but I came unprepared. But, I did know the street and could find it on a map. However, no maps to look at so no service. – Suggestion, receptionist should ask for address or parcel number and if you don’t have it, suggest how to get it instead of waiting in a line for someone who can’t help you.
  11. Not wanting to waste my trip, I wandered around and found a map room. I figured they could pull out a map and I could locate the property. I didn’t have a wait here –good – but they are also automated and they couldn’t figure out how to show me an actual map. Finally, one of the clerks asked if I could find the property on an old commercial log book. They routed around for a few minutes and found one stored under a desk and then I found the property on that map. With this, they went to a computer and found the address I needed.
  12. With the address in hand I went back to the first receptionist who sent me back to the waiting area. The first person who I talked to saw me and said she would help me in a minute – good.  Turns out the property is single family with a 30-foot height limit. Although it is in the California Coastal Zone, there is no hearing unless you remove more than 50% of the walls; otherwise, all you need is a building permit.
  13. Bottom line, my son may be out of luck, but I did get some information for this article.

Sweat the small stuff.

the Management Doctor


Reader Responses

There is no substitute for an office visit. Unfortunately, I have learned that most permitting employees do not have a natural predisposition toward customer service. I have previously told you that I have sold more than 2,000 copies of my latest customer service book but almost none of them were purchased by planners. I have even offered free digital copies of the book to any planner and only 3 planners have taken me up on my offer. I only hope that you are continuing to offer your training workshops, and that APA is supporting your participation at the national conference. When you retire, customer service in local government will go to hell.

Thank you for your many years of service to planners and planning, and to the principals of customer service.

Bruce McClendon


Thank you as well Paul for your many years of service and your continued help in promoting good customer service.  I have to echo Bruce McClendon’s comments after serving for 30 years in local government and the last five years serving as a Planning Consultant.  I have worked for, consulted for or experienced some Agencies that try and put the customer first and succeed to some extent. Unfortunately there seem to be a number of agencies where this approach is not as apparent.  The first contact or a repeated contact at the counter that is not good is a moment of truth for an Agency.  How that time is handled can have a profound effect on not just that applicant but others that they know and have wide-spread implications.

Art Henriques


Customer service is not a sexy topic for planners, but it is crucial.  In Loveland, Colorado we work to help our planners (and other reviewers) build relationships with our customers and see themselves as partners in this process.  The applicants (developers) are building our communities, shouldn’t we be their partners?

Bob Paulsen


It’s not just planning departments that have poor customer service. Retail stores, which make their living pleasing customers, can be notoriously bad. About a year ago, I was thinking about remodeling my kitchen. I contacted a local kitchen design store (not a big box store) and made an appointment for someone to come to my home. The sales associate – who I’m pretty sure works on commission – forgot the appointment. When she came to the re-scheduled appointment, she had greasy hair, and was wearing worn jeans, a stained T-shirt and a faded hoodie. And she wanted me to trust her design judgment and spend upwards of $15,000 just on the cabinets! I went elsewhere.

Maggie Martino


Bruce McClendon’s comment about customer service has deeper roots than he expresses.

Since the recession gave me the opportunity to reinvent my career into journalism, I’ve had the privilege of looking at the planning profession with different eyes. Now I cover planning rather than participate in it.

There are many exceptions to this, but in reality, customer service capability is the difference between a good professional planner and a bureaucrat.

The first challenge is that customer service coursework is not mandatory in any planning academic program of which I’m aware. Even our local community college requires technology students to take customer service training courses. I know of no planner who has taken one as part of a bachelor or master program in planning. When I first when into planning, the planning director at the city where I had my internship said, “If you cannot explain to a member of the public in words he’ll understand why he cannot get approval of a variance for his backyard shed, your general plan will fail.” How true those words.

The second challenge, and I’ve done this with planning agencies since leaving the profession, is understanding mission. Many planners believe their role is to “protect” the community. “Protect” the environment. “Protect” essentially means holding the status quo, which is really the antithesis of “planning,” which by its nature is looking forward. I once had a t-shirt that said, “Planners are fortune tellers using mirrors as crystal balls.”

Many planners fail at customer service because they walk to the counter in a defensive posture to “protect” something. The customer comes to the counter with his or her dreams. So many planners strive to cancel the dreams rather than find ways to make the dreams come true in some form or another.

Many planners tend to grasp the zoning code like a bible and look for ways something can’t happen as opposed to listening to what a client wants to accomplish and use the codes and plans to find ways to make it possible. Sure, many people will have to modify what it is they want, but in my experience, there was nearly always a way to help a client at the counter find a way to condition the dream to make it a real possibility.

Failure to teach these basic customer service concepts during the education process encourages failing at customer service delivery later in careers.

I believe this is one reason in many communities, planning has taken a subservient role to economic development.

Eric J. Toll