Letter to the editor

I just finished Steve Kelman's column in the Jan. 8, 2001 issue of Federal Computer Week, entitled "May its bad manners RIP."

I was enthralled.

Now that I am, ahem, over 40, I look at the "younger" generation with wonder and awe that some people in their 20s and even 30s are evidently without a single clue about how to make customers happy.

We are all customers, sometimes. Any time we buy something, any time we call up a government agency needing information or to plead for understanding on some issue that affects us, we are customers.

Having worked in the private sector in a variety of jobs before coming to the National Weather Service, I learned that — to paraphrase Zig Ziglar — when you help the customer get what he wants, the customer will help you get what you want. In a private business, especially a dot-com company, profit is the bottom line.

As a jewelry store manager in an oil-rich state during the mid-1980s oil bust, I learned that I could still run a successful business by being nice to people. Sometimes I couldn't get them exactly what they wanted. Sometimes I had to — sigh — recommend they see a competitor. But I always invited them back to my store for future buying adventures. Many came back and became regular customers because I helped them without seeming to have profit as my motive. My repeat customers were my mainstay.

In my agency, we have nothing but service to offer the customer. Our customers include the taxpayers calling on the phone, reporters and meteorologists from TV and radio stations, "competing" private firms, and other government agencies.

In some of the NWS offices in which I have worked across the country, public phones were turned off at 4 p.m. and on weekends. This gives a little extra quiet time to get work done, but what on Earth are we saying to the customer? "Go away. We're closed!" But in fact, we are open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

In our office, customers can talk to someone anytime they want. We are constantly filling requests for data, discussing the weather with people who dread a 2-inch snowfall. Sometimes, late at night, the local "weather weenies" (a term of endearment, believe me, because NWS employees are all "weather weenies" — we just get paid for doing our hobby) call to chat for a moment about the current weather situation. Occasionally, we have to cut the conversation short, if, for example, we have a flash flood or tornado situation with which we are dealing, but most customers understand this emergency.

I am teaching my teenagers to apply for jobs by dressing up even for a "dirty" job, by bringing their own pens, by smiling at the interviewer, by saying "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am," by expecting an interview when they fill out the application, by bringing a change of clothes so they can start work after the interviewer offers them the job on the spot because they beat the other applicants hands-down, etc.

Those "youngsters" running those failing dot-coms need to read professor Kelman's article to find out what customers like us, with money to spend, expect, and then change the way they do business. Imagine! They could turn entire industries around.

Name withheld upon request


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