Training Programs

Dear Management Doctor,

Do you know of any good customer service training programs for planners or in general?  Either on-line or in-person is fine. There are so many it is difficult to discern which ones are worthwhile. Thanks!

Susan Johnson
Teton County Planning and Development

Dear Susan,

Great question. I can understand your frustration. I used to do customer service training and as part of that, I liked to use at least one film. I looked at a lot of them with only limited success. My thoughts are as follows:

  1. Check out AIM Learning Group training films on the Internet. See if they will give you any loaners to check out.
  2. I have one of them on VCR tape that was good, called If Looks Could Kill. See if they still have it. You could invite other departments to view this one. It is funny and good.
  3. There are lots of books, tapes, and consultants on customer service training. Generally city and county HR functions do this kind of training. However, my experience is that it is generally too generic.
  4. I like having your staff read the same book and then use a chapter for discussion each staff meeting. Have a different person lead each chapter.
  5. Look at the search engine on our website under training, it may give you a few ideas.
  6. For management training, we do a six-series webinar. I will likely do it again sometime next year.

Hopefully our readers will suggest a few other approaches. Keep working at it, it is important.

the Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I was a city planner in rural Alaska for seven years, as well as a volunteer firefighter/EMT with Unalaska Fire & Rescue in Unalaska (also called Dutch Harbor), Alaska. One of the best trainings I’ve ever taken was offered by Unalaska Public Safety for its first responders called “Verbal Judo,” and the class I took was taught by my friend and colleague Sgt. Jennifer Shockley. Verbal Judo is a class in de-escalation that was developed by a law enforcement officer and former English professor, George Thompson, and it benefits anyone who works with the public, not just police or EMTs. This class was developed for law enforcement but I recommend it for everyone, particularly front desk staff and planners because it is so useful in facilitating effective communication. I found it equally effective in dealing with calls as an emergency responder as well as answering questions from citizens and developers as a planner. The book is great, but there is no substitute for in-person coursework to learn with others and act out scenarios. The techniques taught in the class are useful for diffusing hostility, generating voluntary compliance, and facilitating effective communication to reduce misunderstandings and help both parties reach understanding.

Rosie Glorso, AICP

I must disagree with some of your advice on this one. Don’t assign reading to your staff and expect them to react the right way. Don’t embark on a new customer service “training initiative” where staff gets “talked to” by an charismatic presenter or their coworkers in HR. All they will hear is that they are not performing well and they often get defensive and resent the process. The old-timers roll their eyes and say to themselves, “here we go again.”  It’s worse when they say it out loud! You and they don’t have the time for that. Be very careful how you roll out those more traditional approaches as you can actually do more harm than good; I’ve seen it happen twice before in my career.

I’ve been to a few customer service training sessions and I can’t say that any of them were all that helpful. Sorry. The presenters aren’t typically planners or even have government experience and that is both a good and a bad thing. Yes, they teach you the basics of what good customer service is; recognizing your customer’s needs, being helpful, active listening, treating people with respect, empathize, follow through, blah, blah, blah. Staff and typical presenters don’t relate very well, quite honestly. It’s all fine and good to do these sessions and it’s good to check that one off the management to-do list so you can show that you have done something. If it isn’t done the right way, gains (if any) are typically small and short-lived.

In my experience, what actually works are organizational leaders empowering staff and leading by example. It helps that you have a good City Council, City Manager, Directors, and so on. If you don’t, it’s tough to change the climate and as we all know that one poor apple spoils the entire bushel. In essence, it’s all about getting the right people on the bus and making sure the bus is going in the right direction. All too often bad customer service is an outgrowth of a dysfunctional City Council or executive management team, or a poor performing manager or supervisor. I must say that I am blessed to work in an organization that is the opposite of dysfunctional, even though it’s not perfect. Poor customer service is also often blamed on a lack of resources leading to an overworked and demoralized staff. Certainly this can be true, but good customer service is provided all the time in resource starved organizations, so I wouldn’t lead with that one.

My best advice is to read the books, go to a seminar or two, but get the wrong people off the bus and get the bus headed in the right direction personally. When you encourage and empower your team and actively lead by example each and every day, your team will understand it and you will get there faster than you think. Don’t create new performance measures and benchmarks and start measuring everything and then use a heavy hand either. You might have to do the performance measures anyway for your City Council as they want to know what you are working on and what it costs. Just do it in a meaningful and appropriate way. Last piece of advice, send everyone to management training and/or leadership development sessions and not customer service training. In my experience, you and your staff will get far more out of it and improved customer service will be an added bonus.

Jim Campbell
Newport Beach

Many local community colleges offer customer service training. It’s usually inexpensive—sometimes free under Workforce Services grants—and allows the use of a local resource familiar with the local market. If it’s not offered, talk with the college, they may create the program for you. If you have a University in the area, they too may offer such a service through Extension services. The SBA, some larger chambers of commerce, and SCORE also offer such programs in some areas.

Eric Jay Toll
Economic Development and Infrastructure Reporter
Phoenix Business Journal


Jim Campbell of Newport Beach makes the most realistic response to the “Customer Service” issue.  Problem employees do need to be removed from the service side – that is the first step.  Second point, which seems to be lost or at least under rated, is that dealing with regulations is not a retail activity where competition is a factor.

Bruce Duncan FCIP RPP


I have always stressed customer service that goes beyond “smile service” (a legacy of one of your programs from many years ago).  But, going beyond high quality customer service with empathy, in one organization because of the problems at the Finance Department window, we had cameras installed at every location where there might be incidents.  When a customer was behaving disrespectfully, we pointed to the camera and reminded the customer that his behavior was being recorded.  Without fail the customer calmed down.

Paul M Gorte, AICP