The Customer is King

Some kind of heirarchy exists in any type of operation you manage - public, private or a combination of both. In solid waste collection operations, the heirarchy begins with the collector, continues up to the supervisor, then to the administrator and finally to the political entity that provides or regulates the service.

The customer is the other player in this scheme. Because customers ultimately can make heads roll, they rule the hierarchy. How an operation's employees interact with customers can determine its ultimate success or failure. The type of reaction will depend on if there is a mutual understanding of the services, what each side's responsibilities are and how unforseen difficulties should be handled. These reactions depend on with whom in the service/political spectrum the customer spoke. The understanding will differ between levels.

How things are handled also may differ depending on the clout of the complainer, the amount of training of the customer service representative (CSR) and the level of trust that has been cultivated between the customer and the CSR.

The service level is one of the most important factors to be determined. For example, let's say the collection operation allows each household two 30-gallon trash cans per week. Larger families and residents with larger properties will be affected severely by this procedure. According to this scheme, waste, such as furniture, items that are too large for the cans, dead animals, recycling, greenwaste and street sweeping are excluded from the service. Other factors must be taken into account based on input from a variety of community groups, staff members and, sometimes, a consultant.

Next, the organization must determine who will provide the services. Ultimately, the cost of providing the service, initially and ongoing, may be the deciding factor. These costs also may modify the service level.

After these factors are established, selling the process and informing the customer then becomes the top priority. The ongoing communication may affect the service's flexibility. For example, unforseen problems, new conditions, changes in customer or political thinking and new information all can trigger a need to re-evaluate the services.

At this point, the organization will have many more questions to consider: Who will handle solid waste matters now? How flexible is the operation? Can it ramp-up rapidly if situations change, or will contracts need to be re-negotiated? How much will anticipated new services cost? What is the effect on the community? Whether local residents lose or gain jobs also impacts the community, often an overlooked factor.

Once the service begins, numerous omissions, misunderstandings and exceptions may crop up, which may cause customers to contact the organization.

Here is where the fruits of customer education are reaped. If customers know where to take their concerns or questions, problems can be resolved fairly smoothly. Normally, customers begin by contacting the collector, or perhaps someone at the administrative or supervisory level.

If lower-level employees are poorly informed, surly, fixated on the rules or unempowered to make decisions, these matters can escalate to the management level rapidly. Time spent resolving petty problems becomes more costly as these problems move up the chain.

Even when problems have been addressed at the lower level, they still should be brought to the attention of management in periodic reports or during meetings.

This allows superiors to troubleshoot and make modifications that eliminate particular problems. Retraining or replacing rude, narrow-minded staff or hosting a public discussion on contentious issues are some solutions.

Interaction between a politician and an administrator is the most difficult situation to deal with because the two have different goals. The administrator is usually a high-ranking civil service employee or is the owner/agent of a company. Both are fairly secure in their jobs but are subject to the approval of the politician, who controls the purse strings and dictates promotions or references.

On the other hand, the politician is most accountable to customers. He can be removed at the next election by a disenchanted electorate, i.e. the customer base. The politician also is, in large part, at the mercy of the service providers. Consequently, it is imperative that operations are given suggestions for change, are privy to public relations opportunities and materials and keep politicos abreast of happenings.

The customer base can access the chain at any level. However, the lowest level, and the most important, is the collector. Solid waste operations personnel interface with more of your communities' residents than almost any other group of people. This prominence requires that collectors be knowledgeable about the rules and policies, and that they be adept at public relations - courteous, flexible and thick-skinned. They had better not be just filling in their time until retirement.

Got a question about your solid waste operations or want to sound off? Contact BIll Knapp c/o Waste Age at 6151 Powers Ferry Rd. NW, Atlanta GA 30339. Phone: (770) 618-0112. Fax: (770) 618-0349.