Dear Management Doctor:

In the extensive work you've done with cities and counties across the country, do you really think most pleas for return calls are simply an ambush tool? It's a very sad state of affairs if our planning directors generally feel the request for prompt return calls is simple a tool to manipulate the planning department.

I am sure there are some calls like the director from Illinois described but my own experience, and that of many firms I work with, calls to the planning director and staff are usually to find out the status of their submittals, what review comments are forth coming (after long delays of not hearing from the department), request for an interpretation of a section of the codes, or to plead with the director to have her/his staff call back (after lengthy no return calls).

I would love to hear what directors across the country have shared with you.

Connie B. Cooper, FAICP
Dallas, TX


Let's see what others say. I don't see it as an "ambush" tool - just plain old vanilla customer service.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

As Current Planning Deputy Director and now Land Use Services Director, my emphasis is always on prompt response; whether to and from the public, decision-makers or peers, e-mail, phone calls or letters. My staff will tell you that the rule is to always leave the ball in the other person's court. Phone calls need to be returned the same day — or there needs to be a very good reason. It never hurts to say, "I'm looking into this and will get back to you when I have an answer." It is only common courtesy.

Julie Rynerson Rock, AICP
San Bernardino, CA

... in my experience, ambushes occur primarily when circumstances conducive to an ambush have been allowed to become prevalent. The volume of calls and requests for status updates seem to go hand-in-hand with the departmental workload and the ability of staff to respond with accurate information and meaningful direction to requests. Having worked primarily with small staffs and limited clerical support, I can vouch for the amount of time taken by such requests. However, it is paramount that directors clarify what is expected of their staff in terms of satisfying their customers expectations, while addressing the goals and objectives of the department regarding the availability of information and actually answering questions with effective answers.

Robert P. McNeill
McNeill Planning & Design Services
Crete, IL

Most of the time, such phone calls are straightforward transactions. I do get the occasional ambush call, but honestly the number is very small. Really, though, it does not matter - the important thing is to talk to the appropriate staff member and get fully briefed on the issue before calling back. If it's an ambush, you're prepared; if not, you're more ready to deal with the matter quickly and correctly. (By the way, if the phone call is to plead with you to have a staff member call back, asking the staff member about the case is just about guaranteed to generate that phone call!)

Robert Atallo, AICP, CFM
City of Madison

I do not know if the following is of interest, but it is the vision statement I have written for my department and continually reinforce. The aim is to ensure courtesy and a high level of service. It was one of the first things I did when I came here almost 3 years ago.

The Butts County Community Development Department will continuously seek opportunities to engage the public in local government processes and provide them with the highest levels of service in an equitable and consistent manner.

The Department also will find innovative ways to encourage segments of the local community who do not participate in local government processes to become more active.

Internally, the Department will attain the following standards of service to assure the public receives service unparalleled to any other local government department in the State of Georgia:

  1. The Department will provide no erroneous information — unintentionally or intentionally — to the public, elected officials, or other staff.
  2. Staff will strive to make each working day free from administrative or operating errors.
  3. The Department will respond to all inquiries the same day. Even if an answer is not available immediately, staff will contact the person making the inquiry to assure them their request is being addressed.
  4. The staff member to whom a request or inquiry is made will assume responsibilities for the inquiry s/he receives. This means staff will ensure that the person is not transferred unnecessarily and will never tell anyone the following or the equivalent to the following: "That's not my job."
  5. Each member of the Department will provide at least one suggestion weekly regarding how to serve the public better.
  6. The Department will work together to ensure that no one can state s/he was not treated fairly and with the utmost respect by a member of the Department regardless of whether staffs' decisions are favorable or unfavorable to them.
This may sound funny, but I used the Ritz-Carlton's vision and mission statements as a basis. What better organization than it to exemplify customer service?

Steven Lease
Butts County

Our Assistant Director forwarded the Management Doctor column to the Planning Department Staff. I am not a Planner, just a Tech, and I'm not sure I'd be encouraged to respond, but I thought it might be helpful to know that we've done several things in our department to alleviate some of the pressure.

  1. First, we have the applicant designate a "point of contact," and only that person phones or emails the Planner in charge. That cuts down on the Planner having to respond to the developer, the applicant, the engineer, the surveyor, etc. The Planner doesn't have to continually go over the same information, explaining the reasoning behind the decision, etc.
  2. The PD also requests appointments be made so the Planner doesn't spend all day at the counter basically reviewing a plan.
  3. The PD has a 24-hour turnaround on phone calls and emails. Answers sometimes depend on the response from other departments, so it's not always a simple return call.
  4. The Planning Department has the HELLO System, also known as the IWR System. With the project number, anyone can go online and check the status of any plan. They can read and print all review comments. They can see for themselves that it is VDOT or Utilities that has outstanding comments that is holding up approval of the plan.
  5. We've also instituted a "submission deadline" that has helped define the process for the applicants. The deadline is Monday at noon (on a preset calendar), and the review timetable is three weeks from the following Monday. This allows time to have the plans entered into the system and routed to all reviewers. Plans can be dropped off any day of the month, but if they are after a specific deadline, it's the preset Monday. This allows all County Departments, including VDOT, the Schoolboard, etc., three full weeks to review the plans. The comments are posted in the IWR System as we review the plan and can be checked at any time.
A very common problem in our office, is that someone calls and leaves a voice mail. Five minutes later, they call back to ask if they can speak to ___. We answer, "if they are away from their desk, may I put you through to voice mail?" They say, "No, I've already left a message." OR they email you, and then call to see if you got the email or vice versa.

We realize they need an answer right away, but if we are tied up checking our messages and emails, and have redundant ones, it slows us down even more. We each have multiple projects and sometimes it requires we go to different departments, or to meetings, or even on-site visits. A little patience from the other side of the counter would help immensely. We are not sitting here waiting for someone to call.

Debby Setlock
Stafford, VA