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“Service with a smile” is more than a catch-phrase. It's a concept that helps ensure employees are happy and better able to serve citizens.

Ever get in a sticky situation dealing with the public when somebody's upset and it's apparently your fault? Perhaps they're looking for a fight or need someone to point the finger at. Or, maybe someone else rubbed them the wrong way and you're just the next person they bumped into.

For whatever reason, the public ain't always happy.

We're in the business of trying to make people happy. Every citizen pays taxes and utility bills and, the way they figure, that puts them in charge of us. What if we took this expectation seriously? We often face double-sided options:

  • React or respond
  • Uplift or disappoint
  • Serve or insult
  • Educate or confuse
  • Pass the buck or become a hero.

I like the idea of being a hero. Since I was a boy, I wanted to be Superman; if it were socially acceptable, I might still don my old cape and run through the neighborhood. Actually, I can still be Superman—on the phone in my office, while visiting a resident, or discussing a stop order with a developer as he pounds on my desk. These are all opportunities for heroism, but we often don't see that. We lose passion; we get tired, fed up, and frustrated, and at the pinnacle of our rejection, we utter, “It's not my job.”

This is possibly the worst phrase in a public servant's vocabulary. There is nothing heroic about it. It might not be your job, but are you capable of helping? My mother always says, “Happiness is wanting what you already have.” If this is true, then unhappiness with government may in part come from wanting what we cannot have.

There are, of course, limitations on what we in public works can do, and issues of equality always exist. But if you can influence what people want or expect, you should be able to achieve at least a higher degree of happiness. You might not be able to make the sun shine, but you might be able to pipe it in.

I call this situation “achieving Mayberry.” You've made someone's day, allowed him to be happy and to see his community as being a little closer to perfect. This might be a matter of presentation, a personal visit, a deeper understanding, a sympathetic ear, or finding out who can help if you can't.

Happiness is contagious. Happy people have more patience with one another. They're nicer and easier to please. Don't you want to be happy at work? It's not that hard. I admit sometimes I fall short. We all have bad days, and the pieces don't always fall into place, but we must overcome constant negativity by striving to be better.

Try these techniques:

  • Respond, don't react
  • Seek to understand the real question, What do people need to know?
  • Put yourself in their shoes
  • Listen and serve.

When we react to negativity with pessimism, we feed it. When we respond optimistically, we change or redirect the negativity. We acknowledge the feelings and understand. We then present the services we can offer in the nicest, most appealing way possible.