Once upon a time before I began my career in 911, I was a thriving, overly enthusiastic cashier with a popular grocery store chain based in the southeastern United States. Working at a store so renowned for its “premier customer service” and employees with “bright, pleasant faces” meant hours of having such principles drilled into my head like “the customer is always right” and “your smile is the most important part of your uniform.” I was trained to never walk by a single customer without asking if they needed assistance or offering them a hand in finding whatever item they were looking for.
I learned the importance of developing kind relationships with regular customers and showing them how much I valued their business by addressing them by name, or inquiring about their children, or noting little observations about them (like that particular brand of chocolate bar they faithfully add to the conveyor belt when they are standing in line). Customer service was everything, and I realized in my nearly five years of working in that grocery store that it all came down to putting the person above the product. People want to feel that they are truly noticed and seen. They don’t want to feel like just another customer out of thousands of other customers; they want to feel that right then, in that moment, they are the only customer that matters to you.
Now as a police and fire dispatcher and 911 calltaker, I find it interesting just how much this is true in answering calls from the citizens I serve. I would say that 40% of my job consists of asking scripted questions, depending on the protocols I have in front of me, and putting into practice the basic technical skills I was equipped with to process calls for service. The remaining 60% of my job, though, is plain and simple customer service. It is speaking to my callers in a calm, respectful, and kind tone of voice that conveys to them I am listening, I care about what they are saying to me, and I am doing what I reasonably can to ensure they are helped or at least that the most appropriate responders get out there to them as soon as possible. For the duration of the phone call, they want to believe that they matter to me and that they are my top priority.
Of course, in many agencies such as my own, we are often doing both: answering 911 and admin calls and working a police radio at the same time. We assure the caller that their call is being handled professionally and in a timely manner by minimizing gaps of silence while we wait on the phone with them and checking often for any updates on the situation. Essentially, each and every caller is a customer with a need, and aside from dispatching police, fire, or other responders to someone’s location, the product we provide can be a gentle word of advice, an affirming gesture of reassurance, a lifesaving instruction, or even just hope.
My years of working at a food retailer prepared me to be a servant and to genuinely keep a positive attitude about my work. Some days my customers expected more from me than what was written in my job description. The job wasn’t all technical and by the book; there was always room for taking time out of the routine of things to give a little more of myself. Sometimes customers wanted a friend to shoot the breeze with as I scanned their cleaning chemicals and household essentials. Maybe some days they were looking for a morale cheerleader to hype them up over a new chapter unfolding in their lives. One would be amazed at the bond that a cashier behind a register can build with a customer in their line from the way they treat them in those fleeting minutes to how they look them in the eye when they are engaged in conversation with them.
My work as a 911 calltaker is no different. Some days I am a counselor and a life coach. Some days I am an invisible shoulder for someone to cry on. Other days I am the only thing standing in the way of a depressed caller making the desperate decision to take their own life. For some of our “frequent flyer” callers I am an “old friend” for them to vent to about “the way things used to be” or to share a story from their past with. They say that you should never take anything personal in this job or allow your emotions to become too involved in your calls. But honestly, I cannot help but get emotional about the 911 calls I process at times. My callers trust me to know what to do, and I hold myself accountable to not let them down. It is never just a job to me. It’s more meaningful than shift work and more important than hours punched into a Kronos time clock. This is a career bred and born from my lifelong commitment to help others. I am not somehow superior to those I serve because I do what I do for a living. I am merely one within a mighty army of ordinary men and women who choose to serve behind the Thin Gold Line.
In applying my learned techniques in premier customer service to my duties in 911, I have realized that while the caller may not truly always be right, it is not my job to decide on their guilt or innocence in a matter. It is also not my responsibility to make any verdict about their character. Individuals do not go to their local grocery store to be labeled or judged. As a cashier, I didn’t see race or economic class or cultural background; I just saw “Ms. Sara” with the three young kids, or “Tommy” with the Mountain Dew habit, or “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson” with the baby on the way who only ever shop on Tuesday afternoons. I cared about the people they were right then and there, not about what happened when they got back home in their own personal space or who they were behind closed doors. When I asked them how their day was going, I truly wanted to know this regardless of what they were wearing behind that shopping cart, how clean they smelled, how clean their clothes looked, or whether they paid with cash or an EBT card.
Likewise, as a 911 calltaker when I ask my caller what the nature of their emergency is, I sincerely want to know their reason for calling. When I ask them their address, I am not going to judge them because their zip code comes back to a more dilapidated part of town or because their location happens to be in a mobile home park. The product doesn’t change based on the caller’s economic status or residential address. City lines do not define what sort of service you’ll get from my agency. Every person matters. Every life matters. Profiling and stereotyping are very real and unfortunate practices that should not be tolerated on the floor of any 911 center. Every person deserves to be heard without you already making assumptions about who they are. Honest customer service won’t come with an asterisk attached to it or with a question mark. Customer service has to start and end with us.
In a hectic situation or an otherwise chaotic scenario where the caller is behaving hysterically, bordering on unsure of themselves and unsure of everything you are telling them, this is when the calltaker is most expected to step up and take control of the situation. And as strongly as you may be leaning toward rolling your eyes in flat-out exasperation and giving the caller a piece of your mind or disconnecting the line on them and leaving them to figure out the not-so-nice thoughts in your head on their own, you don’t because your caller trusts you not to do either of these things.
With our job comes the responsibility of doing our due diligence to collect the pertinent facts and information we need to assist the person on the other end of the phone. Hanging up on someone who phones us for any kind of help is never an option. Ranting at or scolding a caller who genuinely feels they are having an emergency (even if they really aren’t) is not an option. We have a duty to our 911 agencies and our citizens to be the voice of calm or reason, whether or not we are met with the level of caller cooperation we would like to receive. Being a customer service-oriented calltaker truly is about being that ray of light in what may be one of the darkest times in a caller’s life.
So, the next time you answer that ringing 911 or admin call, remember that there isn’t a single grocery store or retailer in this country that has anything on the services you provide. What you say or do on the line can literally be the difference between life and death for someone in need of your help.
Samantha Hawkins is a 911 telecommunicator and police dispatcher who hails from Powder Springs, GA. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Addiction Counseling with a concentration on Drug and Alcohol abuse. She is an experienced professional in the customer service industry, having previously worked in retail and banking, and for over five years now has worked at Cobb County 911. She shares a home with her mother (who taught her everything she knows about everything) and her younger sister. Samantha can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org