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Community Members as Customers: A Best Practice from the Private Sector

David Bratton  | 10 May 2022  |  3 minute read

a crowd of people walking in a public area

Since the advent of Community Policing in the 1980s, public safety agencies have made great strides in creating and sustaining positive community relationships. However, public confidence in law enforcement has approached record lows in recent years, especially in traditionally underserved communities. Pew Research says confidence in police among Black Americans fell to 18 percent in 2020.

Trust in law enforcement has improved since 2020, but there is still work to do. Agencies can work to rebuild public safety and community trust through intentional policies and programs like:

  • Customer service training
  • Policing by consent
  • Sentiment monitoring
  • Data collection and transparency

We’ll take a closer look at each of these areas over the next few weeks. Today, let’s look at customer service training, an innovative approach to law enforcement-community relationships that US agencies are beginning to use.

A customer service approach

Reframing public safety as a customer service function can challenge public safety agencies. After all, the public sector is not known for its service, and it often falls short of stakeholder expectations. 

Managing the public’s expectations is more challenging today than ever because of the connected, mobile-first technology climate consumers enjoy. Modern companies offer consumers lightning-fast access to customized data and services. Law enforcement must understand these public expectations to meet communities where they are.

We live in an era when public sector agencies receive Yelp reviews and every person carries a video camera in their pocket. Everyone is responsible for the reputation of their agency at every moment during their shift. The actions of one agency representative can spread quickly and make or break the reputation of an entire agency.

According to law enforcement veteran Gordon Graham, “Every contact counts, especially in a time when public safety services — law enforcement especially, but also other services — are under the microscope.”

The Major Cities Chiefs Association recently recommended that all law enforcement officers receive customer service training. “Adopting an attitude of service makes it easier for law enforcement to build the mutual trust and respect with the community that is critical to good policing. Customer service training will help provide officers with additional tools to navigate their dealings with the public.”

Leading agencies are looking to the private sector for examples of exceptional customer service and ways to improve their interactions with the public. 

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police department committed to a comprehensive customer service approach to their interactions with the community. Inspired by the high-quality service experience available at some national restaurant chains, the department recently entered into a long-term, intensive training contract with a private company to train all officers in a customer service approach.

While consumers know which companies they prefer and which companies they avoid, it’s not always easy for consumers to identify the exact reasons why they feel the way they do. Private sector companies, however, invest resources into understanding and improving consumer attitudes. Public sector agencies should follow the lead of private sector organizations and identify the wants and needs of their constituencies. 

Defining public sector customer service

Modern business-customer relationships are evolving as consumer culture and individual spending power grows. Customer service once focused on a customer-pleasing experience in the moment and going to great lengths to meet a customer’s immediate demands.

Modern customer service focuses on offering easy, on-demand access to goods and services. Every interaction may not be perfect — or even positive — but overall the customer has a low-stress relationship with the business. 

In the public sector, modern customer service builds goodwill between agencies and their communities.  

One of the easiest ways to build goodwill is with an open, honest assessment of your customer service experience. However, you can’t improve what you can’t measure. A crucial part of providing exceptional customer service is assessing how the customer feels about your agency and how closely your activities align with what they perceive as their needs.

Honest assessment of your customer service experience

Tools such as community engagements, surveys, and social media analysis can provide insight into the level of trust and confidence that exists in the community. Agencies with a customer service approach to public safety share the results of community listening activities and invite the community to help create a plan for improvement.

A good example of actively listening to the community is Cumbria Constabulary’s pledge to “be the voice of the public on policing matters.” The U.K. agency included collecting, reviewing, and addressing public feedback as one of their seven priorities in the Cumbria Police And Crime Plan: 2021-2025. Their pledge includes “speaking to victims, survivors of abuse, and support organizations to understand their lived experiences following a crime and working with partner organizations to improve [victim’s experiences],”  as well as “working with local Community Safety Partnerships to identify local concerns and projects which will address them.” 

Another good example is Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) public-facing Trust & Safety Dashboard. The dashboard offers continuous feedback on SPD’s community satisfaction efforts by monitoring and reporting back on public perceptions and attitudes toward the department. 

Community expectations

As public safety agencies work to rebuild trust with their community members, one approach that cannot be overlooked is engaging with community members as stakeholders. In an era of iPhones and Yelp reviews, public safety agencies must seek to understand community expectations and prioritize treating their community as a customer.

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