In the age of user-generated review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List, where customers can take compliments and complaints alike straight to the Internet based on their experiences (good or bad) with a business, we know now more than ever just how important quality customer service really is.
But customer service doesn’t solely concern restaurants and auto repair shops. For Oakland County communities, customer service means working with the people who are making an effort to build and invest in their cities and towns. And good customer service can go a long way towards growing these communities.
Which is why Oakland County launched the One Stop Ready Program in January 2012. One Stop Ready is a community-focused economic development program built on self-evaluation, information sharing, and outstanding customer service, modeled after the County’s successful One Stop Shop business development program. It is designed for community leaders to review their policies, compare best practices, and work hand-in-hand to make business development (including construction and all its related permitting processes) easier.
Five communities took part in the program’s pilot year in 2012, followed by seven communities in 2013 and another seven are currently going through this year’s program. Communities are taught to understand their strengths and assets and define a distinct vision, understand the importance of providing clear and early decision points for investors, have good communication and “mentor-like” relationships with other communities, regularly review their policies and procedures and compare them with best practices to update them as needed, and provide outstanding customer service.
“It allows you to self-evaluate,” says Stephanie Carroll, coordinator of community relations and legislative affairs for the City of Auburn Hills, a 2013 cohort community. “It gives you the opportunity to look at how you do things. If you can’t take an honest look at your processes, you’re not going to help yourself in the long run. We knew we did some things really well and we knew we had some areas we could improve upon. It’s really a how-to if [communities are] not already doing it.”
Some of the areas that are covered in One Stop Ready include pre-application meetings, proactive project tracking, clear and efficient permitting process, and business and community input. During each session the program brings in different people from different parts of construction industry – developers, builders, general contractors – to talk about their different experiences in various communities.
Carroll says that in Auburn Hills, they started looking at how they can get everybody to the table at the same time – getting people from the County into pre-application meetings and people from the Chamber of Commerce to attraction and retention meetings. They have also implemented something they like to call “radical hospitality.”
“[For our radical hospitality] we have trained and cross-trained all of our staff to provide outstanding customer service,” Carroll says. “We really look at everything through the eyes of the developers and put their needs and schedules first. We find out their deadlines and work backwards from that point to make sure we meet them.”
She says that this radical hospitality has been the key attitude that has allowed Auburn Hills to be successful. “Focusing on the wants and needs of our customers has helped us build great relationships with local developers. We had done pre-application meetings before but this enhanced them.”
Carroll also values the information-sharing component of the program, in which all the communities come together to share their best practices, further enhancing collaboration between communities. “Seeing that best practices is all customer service, we have been more proactive in the customer service area, allowing us to better recruit and retain businesses. We’re always focusing on getting better and being part of that program is a constant evaluation of that process. We love being a part of One Stop Ready and we’re all learning from each other, which is great.”
Even though Auburn Hills has already completed the program, Carroll says they will still attend education meetings whenever possible. “Things change year after year and best practices get better. We want to keep up on current trends and align what we’re doing with the County and other communities.”
Waterford Township was also part of the 2013 cohort. “The biggest thing was to get everybody on the same page and get all the departments working together – planning, permitting, road commission, water –and all go at it at the same time,” says Gary Wall, Waterford Township supervisor.
Wall previously worked in construction for over 40 years and always found Waterford to be one of the easiest communities to work with, “but now we’re even more efficient. We cut a week off of permit times, we’re paying closer attention. [The developers] tell you when they want to start and you work backwards from that date and make it happen.”
They also made all of their forms available online to further help expedite the process – something that might seem small but is in fact a huge help to their customers.
“In today’s age of modern technology there’s no need for things to take such a long time anymore,” says Wall. “I always referred to it as ‘punishment mode.” I’ve pulled permits all over the place and in some cities it takes seven to eight weeks to pull a permit for a two-day job to build a deck. Working in those communities is more expensive so you also have to charge more. I always thought Waterford was on the right track anyway; we just regrouped and sharpened our pencils and honed our skills.”
They have had board members and department heads from all of the Township’s boards and departments attend some of the One Stop Ready meetings to ensure that every component entity was on the same page.
“When you’re talking about a process, when one person gets off-track in that process it affects the whole thing,” Wall says. “It’s very important to keep things on schedule. We commit to get things done no matter what, so you have to have everybody on board and working together. [One Stop Ready] just works, it just does, but everybody has to be in on it – one person can make this not happen. Everyone has to commit.”
Another important concept that Wall took away is the importance of treating every single customer as being equally important, whether that person is building a deck or a $20 million commercial development. “Every customer is valuable because it’s an improvement in your community, and every improvement in your community generates tax revenue, and tax revenue further improves your community,” he says. “You’re a customer service agency and efficient customer service is your number one priority. That is how you attract these people and once you attract them, you deal with them in a professional, efficient manner. Every customer is the same. You treat their goals as your priorities.”
Wall’s only regret is that this program didn’t exist sooner. “It’s a great program and a great concept and I wish it would have been implemented 20 years ago.”