Good public service is good customer service

By C. Grant Jackson

Senior Vice President/Community Development

Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce

 

Creating an atmosphere and attitude of first class customer service is key to the city of Columbia’s and Richland County’s efforts to attract and retain more businesses and the resulting economic growth.

Improving customer service is the primary recommendation of the joint city, county, Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce Business Friendly Task Force. The group spent most of the last year studying how both the city and the county can do a better job for business.

While the task force submitted a long list of technical and procedural changes to both the city and the county, “paramount is the adoption of an attitude of customer service. Attitude is fundamental in how city and county business services are perceived by the public,” the group said in issuing its report and recommendations.

“For years, we have been hearing that Richland County and the City of Columbia have been difficult places to do business. Our interviews and surveys with the public who uses these government services confirmed that it was a really difficult process. A number of private businesses leaders met with public leaders from both the county and the city, and concluded that something had to be done,” said task force chair David Brandes, a principal at Genesis Consulting.

“The committee spent a considerable amount of time dissecting the process looking for better ways to meet the needs of the customers. One primary concern we found was customer service. There was a general frustration with the length of the process, the communication for what was being reviewed and approved, and where things stood. We believe we came up with a number of solid, concrete recommendations that will help the county and the city establish a new reputation as good places to do business,” Brandes said.

The task force rolled out its recommendations to the business community in November and presentations have also been made to Richland County Council and Columbia City Council. To both jurisdictions’ credit, some of the procedural recommendations already have begun to be implemented.

The task force believes that customer service is so critical that it has even identified several outside companies that will provide customer service training for free to get the ball rolling.

The customer service recommendations include:

-Establishing a Development Ombudsman, who would be the primary point of contact for the business and development community

-Providing a minimum of 10 hours of customer service training per year per employee

-Developing a customer service training policy for all new employees

-Developing a  telephone, e-mail and letter return policy

-Developing a process to notify interested parties of changes in development procedures.

Most importantly, leadership must come from top elected leaders and administrators advocating for economic development.

To view the complete Business Friendly Task Force Review, visit columbiachamber.com/programs.htm. 

The nine-member task force includes three appointees each from the city, county and chamber.  County appointees were Milton Pope, then Richland County administrator; Stewart Mungo, president of The Mungo Companies and a frequent critic of city and county business practices; and Kelvin Washington, county council chair. City appointees were Ryan Nevius, executive director of Sustainable Midlands; Dana Higgins, city engineer; and Sam Davis, city council member. The chamber appointees were Brandes; Mickey Layden, president, LCK Construction Services; and architect Anthony Lawrence.

The Midlands Business Leadership Group originally initiated the effort and was the organizing force in getting the chamber, the county and the city to the table, Brandes said. The chamber then took up the mantle.

The existing business retention and expansion program launched by the Navigating from Good to Great Foundation helped validate the need. The foundation, which works through the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, teamed with the city of Columbia’s Business in Motion program and has interviewed more than 300 businesses across the region. That study found that both the city and county are not viewed as favorable places in which to locate a business.

During its study, the task force interviewed city and county staff; reviewed all development and business license processes; and held public and private meetings with businesses, developers, engineers, lawyers, real estate agents, and others with an interest in business development.

The group also looked at business services efforts in a group of 11 peer communities, including Largo, Clearwater, Port St. Lucie and Tallahassee, Fla.; Edmond, Okla.; Westchester, N.Y.; Fresno and San Diego, Calif.; Gaston County, N.C.; Henderson, Nevada; and even our own Horry County. Each jurisdiction was either already known as having a business friendly environment, or had launched an effort to make itself more business friendly.

What the city of Columbia and Richland County need to do is pretty simple. Our public servants need to blend Southern hospitality and good manners into great customer service. There needs to be an attitude of: What can I do today to help you get your business open? After all, shouldn’t all public service entail great customer service?

C. Grant Jackson is senior vice president/community development for the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at (803) 733-2513 or at gjackson@columbiachamber.com.

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