Submitted by KRPA Member, Susan Mong, Superintendent of Culture for JCPRD
We have all been there – one of the hardest parts of the parks and recreation field is responding to difficult members of the public. This rings especially true during this summer as we venture back into opening the state during a pandemic. If you haven’t already, you will probably come in contact with challenging parks and recreation users in the form of parents, swimmers, coaches, seniors, and many more who use your services. During COVID -19 and stay at home orders in combination with social distancing requirements, people’s behaviors and emotions have been tested and many people yearn for a sense of normalcy that it often found in the form of a kids baseball game, a walk around the park, playing a pickup game of basketball at the nearest community center, jumping in a pool, and getting in a quick workout over lunch at the fitness center.
During these periods, emotions may be heightened, and you may receive backlash from new policy’s your agency has put in place to protect your employees and the public themselves, including resistance to cancelling programs or closing the pool for the summer.
Susan Mong, Superintendent of Culture for JCPRD has a few reminders and a refresher for dealing with unhappy consumers during these tense times.
If your agency does not have one already, it is a good practice to have a Customer Service Plan or approach. The delivery of excellent customer service is a major factor in effectiveness and should be prioritized in your organization. Your customer service plan should include policies, procedures, and steps on dealing with patrons. Additionally, find a way to empower your employees to make decisions that can improve the situation immediately (i.e., vouchers, refunds, credits) to help diffuse the situation and avoid passing customer to another employee.
Step 1. Diffuse the Situation
All patrons are different, and this is especially true in parks and recreation as the industry serves many users in different branches. One of the first steps to diffuse the situation is to actively listen and seek to understand. Let them tell their story, why are they upset, what has been done thus far to lead them to this point. Often, people just want to have their frustrations heard. During this time, a good rule of thumb is to understand where the person is coming from in the form of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Maybe the patron is upset because summer camp is cancelled and they do not have alternative care, and this could threaten a person’s livelihood. Use your empathy to respond, what does that look like? Empathy is not conveyed through words alone. It is important that your body language reflects empathy as well. Tone of voice, eye contact, and offering your full attention are all steps you can take to help diffuse the situation to help the patron feel heard and understand.
Step 2. Engage
Engaging the person involves asking the right questions and listening to their answers. Sometimes the right thing to do is just agree with them (as appropriate) and find positive ways to talk about the issues and validating their feelings. For example, if a parent is upset about the new guidelines that are put in place for baseball, a positive spin could be that the guidelines were vetted by parks and recreation leaders and put in place to protect the players, coaches, umpires and the spectators.
During the engagement step, you will want to step away from the public setting and other people. Offer to talk in an office or meeting room. This will change the environment to allow for a more quiet and private conversation.
After listening to the person, you may want to offer choices, and ask open ended questions. It could be as simple as asking “what do you want us to do” or “how can we rectify the situation.” Here it could get tricky, as the new policies may not allow for accommodations during the pandemic. However, perhaps you could give a credit, voucher for next summer, or even a refund.
Lastly, if all else fails, it may be necessary to get your supervisor involved. If it comes down to this, do not pass the buck to your supervisor. Best practices involve talking with your supervisor about the situation before allowing them to walk in blind to a complaint.
Step 3. Take Action and Follow Up
After the initial dispute, and agreed solution, you will need to take action immediately. If you agreed on a credit or refund, plan on processing the transaction in a timely matter – within a day or two if possible. If the issue is resolved, follow up with the person, and give them your contact information for further questions if needed.
Step 4. Feedback
The last step is to avoid the situation from happening again. Discuss the feedback with your team, challenge your assumptions about what your current practices are to explore new solutions. This may involve a change in policies, procedures, or signage to fix the problem after it is identified. Maybe your staff needs to be empowered more to make decisions or correct a situation. Use each opportunity to strengthen your team and your organization.
Overall, during these periods of stressful times, it is most important to listen and be empathetic towards the patron. Listening with the intent to understand combined with positive body language can go a long way to diffuse a challenging situation. After you have heard their perspective or feedback, be sure and thank the patron for taking time to share their experience. We cannot improve or get better if we are not open to hearing negative feedback. “I am sorry” are three very powerful words. This does not have to convey fault, but it can convey that we missed the mark with that individual on that day at that time and that can go a long way to build bridges and build a new advocate in the community.