Common Courtesy and Service

Dear Management Doctor:

What has happened to common courtesy and customer service in planning departments? As a private sector professional, I have seen an extraordinary deterioration over the past few years. Sometimes it takes days, even a week, and sometimes not at all, to get a return phone call. E-mails are not acknowledged nor is a reply sent. I hear the complaint that departments are overworked and understaffed, but that's not an acceptable response. I've worked in such departments, and we always managed to get back to people within 24 hours. This is not just small departments, but includes some major cities and counties. To get a response from one planning department, we actually had to call the Mayor and have her call the director to get a planner to return the call. Don't directors take any pride in how a department is perceived and the service offered?

What can an allegedly overworked/understaffed department do to overcome this problem?


Dear Anonymous,

We run into this problem all the time in our organization and management studies. I always ask managers and staff if it takes them less or more time on the call if they answer it today or two days from now? They always say the same amount of time; so why not answer it today?

We are in the information age and customers expect a rapid response. Not returning phone calls and emails sets a bad reputation for the Planning Department.

By the way, I don’t even like the 24-hour rule used by many organizations since I believe it is hard to monitor and keep track of calls. My approach is very simple.


Reader Responses

I agree with one responder - If I stayed to respond to every piece of communication in any given day, I would never go home.

I find it more important to provide up-front information pertinent to what they want to do: "Subdividing a property? Here's what you need to do, here's what you need to get." We provide enough information for them to do their homework, assemble pertinent documents and materials, and come back ready for an intelligent conversation.

In my experience, a high percentage of urgent callers are looking to ambush directors. They want me to overturn my staff's decisions with the absolute minimum of information, spun to champion their cause.

I won't communicate with these people immediately, I need to get my staff's information before I call them back - armed and ready. This sounds cynical, but people have gotten tougher on both sides of the counter.

George Sakas, AICP

You know, Paul, I wouldn’t have expected anything different in your response. Thanks for remaining friends!!!


Michael A. Harper, FAICP
Washoe County

I'm STILL smiling at the responses you received to this subject. Loved the one you gave to the guy with the Blackberry on the ski trip!

Connie Cooper

I absolutely believe in the principle of courtesy and responsiveness that you advocate. I am a manager in a large city planning department. I attend over 30 hours of meetings each week. Some days I don't get into my own office long enough to log onto the computer or check phone messages. I return critical emails from home at night after my family goes to bed and catch up on the rest over weekends. If we didn't go home until this was done, we wouldn't ever go home. I'm writing this on my Blackberry while my wife drives for a weekend ski break. How do we deal with the tyranny of endless meetings that are called by other managers, other departments, city council and the community with no respect for conflicts or the need to get other work done?


The Management Doctor Responds:

Dear Anonymous,

You raise some interesting issues. Let me suggest the following:

1. When I hear a manager (particularly of a large department) indicate they are working the way you are, I generally conclude that you have a problem with delegation.

2. See if someone else in your department can handle some of your phone calls, emails and meetings.

3. Too many meetings? Say NO. Or just don’t show up and see what happens.

4. As I said before, in your case, do you ever return the phone calls or emails? If so, does it take you more or less time to do them in the next day or two vs. today? Maybe you need to not schedule anything after 4 or 4:30 and just return phone calls and emails.

5. The manager who is on a treadmill is not managing. You need to have time to be responsive to your staff, handle management issues, and coordinate political strategy.

6. Read my book concerning the 37.5-hour week and how to handle your calendar.

7. Attend the Complete Management Course for Planning Directors. The next session is in Savanna on April 9-10, 2007.

P.S. If all else fails (and before you get a divorce) throw away the Blackberry, or at least leave it at home.

Our policy is that we return the calls within 24 hours. When that does not happen, I find out why and it is fixed. We have an occasional complaint but we are very conscious about them and do our very best to make the calls in a timely manner.

Leon K. Jensen
Canyon County

I thought this one was worthy of re-circulating — particularly to those in the public sector — please pass this onto your staff. Trust me it truly happens. Houston's staff is one of the best, or should I say worst examples.


You are on target with the need to acknowledge phone calls and e-mails promptly, even if the acknowledgement isn't a complete answer, but just lets someone know you are working on it.

I would also encourage the private sector professionals I have worked with (engineers, architects, planners) to allow the planner to have some personal time as well. I had to change churches because I was constantly bombarded every Sunday after worship with requests for special consideration or overruling junior staff based on only the sketchiest details. I don't go to church with my work calendar and that is not the place to try to schedule meetings that you forgot to call and set up last week!

I quit my individual membership (one I paid for personally) in the Chamber of Commerce this year because I couldn't attend a single social event without being asked to render decisions based on hallway conversations.

Now I may have to give up membership in my community service club because some applicants have stopped making appointments and try to review projects during and after the weekly service club meeting.

Finally, I do try to be helpful in these settings, but there are limits to what I can do without files and applications in front of me and with no opportunity to understand the reasoning of my staff. It is amazing how insistent these folks can be about answering their questions on the spot. So I try to return Anonymous' phone calls and e-mails as long as I can be off-duty sometimes. I hope the call for a little more courtesy is one where there are two sides to the coin.

Carol B.
City of San Marcos, TX

Now, why did I know that everyone working in the private sector would latch onto this. If I surveyed you, would this be a universal problem with public agencies, or are we talking just a few? I’d hate to be painted with such a broad brush.

It is a problem that I can attest to for some of the agencies with which I have interaction, especially the universal use of forwarding calls to voicemail. On the other hand, sometimes to get your client’s work done, the phone just isn’t answered. As an example, I had meetings for 12 straight hours last Monday, mostly with consultants and their clients; many whining about why their applications were being continued (still incomplete after many attempts to get the information) and why the staff couldn’t find their way to approve an application with hundreds of conditions (maybe it just wasn’t the correct fit for the zoning classification). And, of course, I was also fielding some meetings with citizens who also deserve my attention – it’s trite, but they do pay my salary. Had I called you at 8:30 p.m. in the evening, would I have gotten you? Or your voice-mail? BTW, I probably got the citizen who called earlier in the day.

If it is a consistent problem with an agency, I want to know as the manager; and if I’m not responding, then by all means go to the chief operating officer or the chief elected official – shame on me for not being responsive. If it’s a few times, maybe I and my public sector colleagues ought to be provided an opportunity to explain.

Frankly, I thought Paul Zucker was too quick to pull the trigger on this one; I would have preferred more dialogue. The “anonymous” person who wrote used a pretty broad indictment and Paul’s response was too narrow.

So, can we still be friends???


The Management Doctor Responds:

I would be happy to get your call at 8:30pm. Yes, we are still friends.

As long as that includes the initial response being “I’ll get back with you later with the details,” this is OK. When you’re in a small office and have to rely on other departments for answers, it can’t always be done at the drop of a hat. This is a great idea and important, but the answer is a bit unrealistic when the answer isn’t a clear yes or no.

Joanne Garnett
Pinedale, WY

In response to Joanne's comment., I think the most important thing is that you get back with people that day. If you have to tell them you''ll do research and get back with them - that's better than no return call or e-mail at all. At least they know someone is on the job and working on their problem or issue.

Chris McGetrick

This is a problem that we hear all the time in our work on zoning codes. If union contracts allow it, I would also require staff to return all phone calls and e-mails at the end of the day. One solution is to close the counter at 4 pm to give staff the time to respond. The fact is that elected and appointed officials need to understand that when they approve complex regulations and increase use of discretionary review, they must also increase staff resources. It's easy to blame staff when the problem often lies with elected officials who make promises they are not willing to fund.

Vivian Kahn, FAICP

Hey, it happens here in Oz too! I am reminded by Joanne’s comments about the two words to describe planning – IT DEPENDS! I must admit I have problems with some people relying too much on email – you can sort out a lot of things by just picking up the phone. However, here too we are being over regulated by officials who want to get involved in the minutiae. I think it is ironic that people want to know all about the details of their neighbors' applications but when they lodge an application, they can’t understand why it takes so long to process! I think the answer is to be patient and for those of us who have moved to the ‘dark side’ after time in councils to try to explain the issues to our clients.


Ian Sinclair, FPIA CPP
EDGE Land Planning

The Management Doctor Responds:

That's my story and I'm sticking to it - some say.