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Customer Service During an Emergency and How to “Keep Calm and Carry On”?

The day I arrived for a speaking engagement, Ottawa was rocked by tragic events at and around our Canadian Parliament Buildings. One of our unarmed Canadian soldiers, Officer Cirrillo, was shot in front of the War Memorial that he was guarding. This was followed by more gunshots in the halls of Parliament, and eventually ended with the fatality of the gunman.  Before and during my flight to Ottawa, everyone in the airport lounges and on the flight was discussing how our country had changed forever.  In fact, I realized it truly had changed as I walked through the Ottawa airport, drove in a taxi and entered my hotel where access had just been reopened.  I watched in amazement how everyone dealt with the situation personally and how staff dealt with customers.  Most Canadians in my age group or younger have not lived with this kind of tension or unrest.
Not knowing whether the conference was going to commence in the morning, I proceeded to check in.  When I got to my room on the 8th floor, my door was unexpectedly ajar.  My first thought was that the housekeeping staff had simply left the suite without clicking the door behind them.  I almost knocked on the door, but hesitated, considering the events of the day: “What if one of the perpetrators was hiding in the room?” I had not heard any updates on the media yet or how many people may have been involved, only that the lock-down situation had been lifted.
I wondered how many minor incidents like this on that same day became exaggerated incidents as customers and staff operated on High Alert.  I wondered whether I should go to the front desk or just enter the room.  I asked myself: “How did the hotel staff, airport staff, taxi drivers, waiters, the conference organizers, and anyone else I had met that day deal with the situation and customers in a calm and organized fashion, even if they themselves were afraid?” 
As some of my readers know, I worked at an all-male maximum security correctional facility at the age of 19.  The situations I encountered were unpredictable and at times frightening; I had no idea that some of those situations would provide me with skills and ideas to keep not only myself safe, but others as well during emergencies.  Our training covered firefighting, first-aid, hostage taking and evacuations in contained environments.  Our primary role was the safety, security and supervision of 500 incarcerated inmates.  We were there for the safety of everyone – guards, inmates and the public. It was not a hotel, but the infrastructure was actually similar.  There were rooms, linens, shampoos and meals to be served and people to be checked in and checked out.   There were the occasional fires and burst pipes and security breaches and even lock-downs during emergencies or unsafe conditions. 
After I spoke with the Front Desk, Security checked my hotel room before I entered, including the bathtub and the patio lock. However, as I went to sleep, I realized we had not checked under the bed (so, yes, I checked).   As I observed everyone in Ottawa dealing with customers during those two dramatic days, I was pleased to sense an attitude of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. My client had confirmed they were proceeding with the conference and trade show in the morning as planned (despite being locked in rooms for most of the day).  The hotel staff stayed neutral on commenting or giving opinions about the events, despite the newscast blaring in the lobby with all kinds of assumptions. And on my way out of town, the airport staff from security to airline employees continued on in a safe and reasonable manner.  The taxi driver explained the areas and streets that were impacted that day and reassured me things were slowly getting back to normal.
Over the years, I’ve followed reports about how staff stayed on board or fled during cruise ship disasters, how hotel staff held their posts and helped guests during hurricanes or floods or even outbreaks of illness.  I have also been a flight attendant, and when you are 30,000 feet in the air, you can’t choose to leave because you can’t escape the contained area and customers look to you for guidance and direction during emergencies.  When there is a lack of calm, reasonable direction, customers will follow any leader or even another customer who takes charge of the situation (which could have a devastating outcome if they don’t know the surroundings, the safest alternate evacuation routes or the best procedures to follow).
So how does a company prepare staff for unexpected or emergency events?
The goal is to look after both staff safety and customers’ safety.
Here is how to prepare before an emergency:
the risks and do a “what if” analysis (cover the most likely scenarios: earthquakes, power outages, floods, fires, security breaches, illness outbreaks).
what you know and what you don’t know (list them on a whiteboard).
procedures that are not documented or defined, and update outdated ones.
training modules or have meetings to cover these procedures on a regular basis.
where staff need additional training or survey staff to determine their skill gaps.
staff on the psychological impact that emergency situations have (both during and after) so that when staff experience them, they recognize them and know how to react.
to debrief staff after en emergency event to provide comfort and support, and also to assess what went well and where improvements could be made.  (Use a qualified company or train your management).  Often, a group discussion guided toward moving forward can offer the immediate support and discussions necessary.
Safety is a big part of customer service.  Occasions when things don’t go as planned are when the customer really remembers. I encourage organizations to make the necessary preparations so that both staff and customers feel safe during these times.
On this Remembrance Day, it is a special year to commemorate and honour those who have allowed us to stay “strong, proud and free”. As the saying goes, let’s “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

Elaine Allison

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