Used to be, you collected the trash your way, and customers lived with what you did. Chances are, you were - and perhaps still are - the only garbage game in town. Even if you are, however, the game has changed.
Customers today judge the services they receive from all businesses against the service they receive from their favorite business. If the fellow at the auto repair shop can drive customers back and forth to work when your car needs work, why can't you pick up the extra trash that needed collecting this week?
As a result, most dispatchers hear from their customers more often than ever before.
Municipal solid waste departments and private trash haulers have been wrestling with these problems for some time. Now some are finding or at least developing answers that may help you improve your customer service.
Here's a look at the customer service concepts behind four successful trash collection operations. Each is different, and each works.
Promise Only What You Can Do. Do It Right. And Don't Complain About Complaints. The City of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, provides solid waste collection services for 52,000 households for about $60 a year per household.
"We tell people that we don't provide a Cadillac garbage service," says Derrick Bellows, Regina's manager of solid waste. "We don't have high level recycling and waste minimization services. But we provide good quality, basic removal services. Everything we do is funded off the tax base, and when we compute the cost per household, it comes to about $60 per year."
Regina performs so well on its basic promise that residents generally believe that most of their taxes go to trash removal and express astonishment when they are told of its low cost.
The strength of Regina's customer service capabilities begins with easy-to-use, open lines of communications related to all city services. Residents can ask any question about any government service by dialing a single, widely publicized phone number and speaking to a city representative in a department called City Central.
If a caller wants to know what day the garbage truck will be around, the City Central representative looks it up and answers the question. If the caller complains about something like a missed pickup, the representative creates a computer file and e-mails the customer information to the Solid Waste Department.
The file remains open until a departmental response allows its closing. "A fairly high percentage of calls to City Central deal with solid waste," Bellows says. "It's a good system that delivers complaints to us fast and enables us to handle them quickly."
In Regina, about 21,000 homes receive manual collection services. Automated trucks service about 31,000 residences. Customer service issues differ dramatically between these two types of services.
Regina's Solid Waste Department communicates with customers using a yellow tag system designed to explain to residents why trash was not removed. "The idea is to provide immediate information to people when they don't get the service they thought they would get," Bellows says.
"For example, we have an eight bag limit. If someone puts out 10 bags, we'll leave two, along with a yellow tag explaining why."
Each year, manual trucks make about 1 million visits to customers and leave 2,000 to 2,500 yellow tags describing why certain trash has gone uncollected. In response, about 200 households call City Central to complain. "When we evaluate this, we believe we are fairly successful," Bellows says. "We complain to customers receiving manual service a little more than 2,000 times a year and they complain to us about 200 times a year.
"Because the number of complaints about this service is so low, we never argue about who is right. If it's a call about missed garbage, the foreman hops in his half ton truck, makes a personal visit, and picks up the trash."
On the automated side of Regina's collection services, the number of yellow tags vs. customer complaints to City Central reverses itself. Automated trucks make approximately 1.5 million visits to residences each year, and collectors leave a mere 200 to 300 tags. But 2000 or so calls generally come into City Central.
"We don't really know how many complaints from customers on automated routes have to do with missed service. "For example, many callers say the lid on the container is broken, [and ask us to] fix it," Bellows says.
"Others ask us to move a bin. The bins usually sit in alleys behind the houses," he says. "We believe the calls relating to missed pick-ups are few and far between. But we really don't know that for sure."
Bellows says the city is considering buying software that will allow them to "analyze these complaints in detail." For the time being, however, the department is comfortable knowing that out of 2.5 million visits per year, they receive fewer than 3,000 complaints - and those complaints receive immediate attention.
Never Leave Well-Enough Alone. Raise Expectations Inside Your Operation. Prior to 1997, residents of Tampa and Hillsborough County, Fla., subscribed to private trash collection services or toted their own trash to the local landfill.
In 1997, the county instituted a new system by contracting with three private franchisees for collection services. In setting up the new system, the county decided to ensure customer service.
"Under our new mandatory program, customers must accept curbside collection services from whoever franchised their area," says Daryl Smith, director of Hillsborough's Solid Waste Management Department. "We wanted to make sure that we required a standard of performance that would satisfy customers who no longer have a choice."
In this effort, Hillsborough set up service goals that the franchisees must meet to avoid penalties.
These service goals take the form of ratios computed by multiplying the number of customers on a franchisee's routes by the number of services provided (ie., four services based on two solid waste collections, one recyclable collection and one yard waste collection) and dividing this number into the number of complaints received.
"We don't evaluate whether or not the complaint is valid," Smith says. "If a customer complains, we count it, valid or not, because we want all of our customers to receive satisfactory service from our system." In effect, customers can set the service standard from their trash collectors.
Hillsborough's franchisees make weekly reports to the Solid Waste Department totaling the complaints received. The county tracked these complaints during 1997 and 1998, the first two years of the franchising system. Then, in January 1999, the county's Board of Supervisors established a complaint threshold ratio.
A ratio of .001 or less was acceptable. Anything higher and the county would fine the franchisee $400. Should a franchise exceed the threshold for 10 of 13 weeks, the county could take severe corrective actions, from assessing additional fines up to and including terminating the franchisee's contract.
While the initial penalties may not seem severe, Smith says that a county franchise represents a business plum to collectors who are eager to avoid any blemish on a potentially strong reference. In fact, during 1999, the first year to apply this service standard, none of the three franchisees exceeded the .001 threshold. One exceeded a ratio of .0008 twice. Two exceeded .0006 a number of times. The best performance was turned in by East Bay Sanitation, a Republic Services subsidiary, which averaged .0004 during most of 1999.
While congratulating its franchisees for satisfying the initial standard, the county will recommend an even stricter standard of .0006 for the coming year.
"We always had planned to increase the standard," Smith says, "but our franchisees have done so well that we decided we could go farther than we originally planned."
The Secret to Residential Customer Service: Good Drivers Roger Crow, operations manager with Tampa, Fla.-based East Bay Sanitation, credits his company's excellent service rating with Hillsborough County to drivers who communicate with customers.
"Most service complaints come from customers who don't understand the services we provide," Crow says. "We encourage our drivers to communicate with customers at every opportunity. This might mean using customer notification tags to point out problems. Tags often generate a call to our customer service center requesting information, which we provide. We also encourage drivers to talk with customers whenever they see something wrong. Drivers are on the front lines. They can solve problems right away."
Crow also says that because customers know East Bay's drivers, they often will question the driver about service. Such a communication would not be counted as a complaint, but may solve a problem.
Of course, drivers don't satisfy all customers. When the East Bay customer service staff receives complaint calls, it can handle them because the company has set up specific procedures for swiftly dealing with the problem. "If we get a call from a customer complaining that the trash hasn't been picked up, customer service will send a truck that we reserve to handle these kinds of calls," Crow says.
"The customer service representative also will note the complaint and speak to the driver. If it happens again, customer service turns it over to the dispatcher, who handles the problem. The third time, the complaint comes to me and I want to know why we haven't solved the problem yet."
While the back-up system works to solve intractable problems, Crow believes that the key to providing excellent customer service lies in putting drivers into a mindset that leads them to communicate with customers about service. When a driver knows and likes a customer, he or she develops feelings of obligation that lead to good service, he says. In addition, when customers know the drivers, they feel more charitable toward them. Overall, it's a system that produces cooperation and understanding on both sides.
Instead of Responding to Complaints, Prevent Them Commercial haulers deal with fewer but larger customers than residential haulers. As a result, commercial haulers provide a different brand of customer service. Nonetheless, E. L. Harvey & Sons Inc., Westborough, Mass., employs a customer service philosophy, that all waste companies could learn from.
Harvey doesn't respond to complaints because their customer service approach prevents complaints in the first place.
The company operates on the grounds of a 17,800 square foot transfer station spanning 45 acres and handling 700 tons of material per day - 300 tons of which are recyclables. As soon as a new commercial customer comes on board, the customer service group goes to work.
"Our services include both waste and recycling," says company vice president Ellen Harvey. "We analyze a new customer's waste, figuring out what percentage of the waste is office paper, corrugated, newspapers, plastics, and so on. Next, we design programs to handle both the solid waste and the recyclables. Then, we train our customers to make proper use of these programs. We do all of this free of charge."
Harvey's customer training programs teach the art of separating trash from recyclable materials, while discussing the environmental benefits.
After years of running training programs, Ellen Harvey says the company has found that setting up a station or booth at a customer's offices and allowing employees to come by when they have free time works better than scheduled sessions requiring attendance at a certain time.
The company also provides periodic refresher training to bring new employees into the system.
"We monitor the waste and recyclables and look for problems," Ellen Harvey says. "If we're finding too many recyclables in the trash, we know that we need to schedule refresher training."
The refresher training program operates differently than the introductory program. Instead of setting up a booth for employees to visit, a Harvey customer service representative talks to each employee individually about the program. "We just go from desk to desk, describe the program, and answer any questions employees may have," Ellen Harvey says.
"We also incorporate customer service training into our driver training program," Ellen Harvey adds. "Our drivers are the front line in customer service. They are the best public relations contacts that we have with customers. We make sure they are well-dressed and polite, and that they go out of their way to inform and to help our customers."
A driver incentive program called Harvey Dollars helps in this effort. When a customer sends a letter or calls to complement a driver, that driver receives Harvey Dollars, which can be cashed in for gifts that include clothing and even cash rewards.
Harvey also views community service as a part of its customer service program. The company participates in a state-sponsored safety program, which uses colored window stickers to identify business offices and business vehicles as safe havens. Area television and radio stations advise people to look for these stickers. A lost child, for instance, knows that he or she can look for a safety sticker to find help.
The company also offers its facilities as a meeting place for customers and the business community.
"We regularly hold Chamber of Commerce meetings here," Ellen Harvey says. "Yesterday, we hosted a meeting of the Massachusetts Recycling Coalition. Sometimes customers will come here for meetings that they want to hold away from their own offices. Afterward, we'll provide a tour of our facilities. Some customers come just for the tour.
How does E. L. Harvey handle complaints? "We really don't get many complaints," Ellen Harvey says. "Sometimes a customer calls about a missed pick up, but that doesn't happen very often.
"We have customers that are more demanding than others," she notes, "but our goal is to satisfy everyone, and so we usually do what they ask. Along the way, we develop personal relationships with customers.
"I realize that is an overworked phrase, but that's what we do," she continues. "Because we have good personal relationships, customers might call me or another manager to discuss a problem, knowing that we'll take care of it right away. But we never have felt the need to have a department devoted to handling complaints."
Which is perhaps the best way to provide service in the trash business: do your job so well that no customer complains.