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Apply HEAT to customer service

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Matt Baker
  • 375th Logistics Readiness Squadron commander
Before entering the military I spent seven years as a civilian manager with the Hertz and Avis corporations, dealing with many interesting customer service situations. Contrary to the saying, unfortunately the customer is not always right. Since the military is not a profit-based organization, some believe that customer service is not integral to Defense Department operations and not a requirement. However that is a narrow-minded view.

The military is ultimately a customer service oriented organization; its members are charged to support and defend the Constitution of the United States with the American people as our primary customers. Often customer service in the military is given at great personal cost, as reflected in the second Air Force core value of service before self.

Each military branch must be receptive to a customer. Each service has a complex structure, traditions and instructions designed to regulate behavior in support of good order and discipline. These behavior standards establish military customs and courtesies as a foundation to ensure civility, dignity and respect between personnel. It does not address the more particular definitions and processes required for good customer service.

Good customer service is really about proactive help. It entails actively listening to the customer, ascertaining their requirements and helping to achieve them to the maximum extent possible with a positive, caring and can do attitude. In a military context, we are all working together to provide capability and win the fight. Good customer service means helping other team members to meet their goals and ensuring collective mission success.

If a customer is in the wrong place, time or asking the wrong question, help them to correct the situation so everyone can move on to their next task. Quality of service is often an indicator of organizational climate and unit effectiveness. It is also a critical component of a unit's reputation. The association with quality, or brand management, is critical for units and DOD as a whole to foster public confidence in our capabilities and personnel. The upbeat professionalism and esprit de corps of a top-notch organization typically manifests with positive customer service, while poor service can indicate low morale and productivity.

Surprisingly there is no single customer service standard within the Air Force, particularly for dealing with negative customer service issues. Unfortunately customer belligerence occurs even with military personnel. One simple to use system is known as applying HEAT.

There are four steps to HEAT:

1. Heed - listen to the customer, determine requirements, let them vent and remain sincere.

2. Empathize - show understanding of dissatisfaction, visualize yourself in predicament.

3. Apologize - with sincerity, don't blame others, remain positive and helpful.

4. Take Action - emphasize what you can do to help, look for alternative courses of action and facilitate communication with other points of contact who may be able to assist.
Sometimes other courses of action are not evident or there is simply no way to help a customer get to their desired end state, such as a law, regulation or technical order. Engaging a supervisor's assistance can help with either identifying alternative options or to verify limitations for a customer.

The final step in providing good customer service is soliciting feedback to improve support. Just like an after action report or hot wash, feedback is required to identify issues, improve operations and foster a culture of continuous improvement.

As the ultimate service organization it is imperative that the military, its constituent services and each individual provide proactive help to each other. Collectively striving to achieve good customer service will help the joint fight, improve organizational climate, enhance capability and reduce the need for HEAT.