Edited Version of March 22, 2000 Transcript
EIIP Virtual Forum Group Discussion

"Co-opting Customer Competence"
What Are the Implications for Emergency Management?

Amy Sebring
EIIP Technical Projects Coordinator

The original unedited transcript of the March 22, 2000 online Virtual Forum presentation is available on the EIIP Virtual Forum (http://www.emforum.org). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each were deleted but content of discussions, questions, and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the speakers to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Amy Sebring: Welcome to the Virtual Forum! We are having a group discussion today on the theme "Co-opting Customer Competence: What Are the Implications for Emergency Management." The background page is posted at <http://www.emforum.org/vforum/000322.htm> with some related links and the discussion questions, so please keep it handy.


I happened to see a piece in the NY Times one day recently about the article in the Harvard Business Review by C. K. Prahalad entitled "Co-opting Customer Competence." This got me thinking that while I had seen some general customer service orientation at our City Hall, I had not seen much in terms of applying a customer orientation in Emergency Management. In fact, the only thing I found when searching was the link to the FEMA piece that is on the background page. Anyway, I thought the whole notion merited some discussion, and that the idea of the customer competence also was intriguing. As I reviewed the article, some of the other themes sounded familiar in the context of emergency management.

There is also a link on the background page to order reprints of the article. Although this one article is $5.95, I believe there is a minimum order of $10.00.

Now we will get into our discussion. If you have not done this before, we handle it is thusly. For example, please start preparing any response you may have for Question 1. We will not be using the question marks today. Also, if you know of any best practices in this area we would be glad to hear about them.

Your responses may reflect the type of organization to which you belong, that may not necessarily be government per se. That is fine. Or you may in fact BE a customer yourself. So much the better. We would be happy to co-opt some of YOUR competence!

When we think of emergency management, (and let's try to think all phases, not just response), it may be helpful to start out by defining what our "products" are and who our customers are. This notion of customers also extends to the idea of "internal customers," others who may be part of our own larger organization, but external to our specific department or function.

[Group Discussion]

Question #1:

Amy Sebring: Starting with our first question --- What are the products/services of emergency management? Just pop in your responses now please.


Avagene Moore: Public education re: disasters/threats.

Kevin Farrell: 911 center portal?

Amy Sebring: Planning support?

Bill Karl: Mitigation - new codes.

Jon Kavanagh: Communication with the public.

Christopher Effgen: Disaster information distribution.

Derri Hanson: Educating potential Emergency Managers.

Ray Pena: Time, expertise and integration.

Amy Sebring: Liaison with other organizations.

Avagene Moore: Assistance during and after disasters.

Bill Karl: Preparedness - emergency plans, training

Jon Kavanagh: Keeping an open door to the rest of the community

Cam King: Mitigation, planning, preparedness, response, recovery and all aspects,

Ray Pena: Time - we do this for a living, our customers don't.

Burt Wallrich: The necessities of life when ordinary sources are not available.

Derri Hanson: Educating the meaning of mitigation

Ray Pena: Expertise - we are the experts.

Bill Karl: Response - emergency public information.

Bill Karl: Recovery -reconstruction.

Burt Wallrich: Hope and reassurance.

Amy Sebring: Good. Let's go on.

Question # 2:

Who are the customers for those products/services?


Ray Pena: Integration - by working with us, customers can become part of the community's integrated emergency management system.

Derri Hanson: Everyone.

Jon Kavanagh: Anyone affected in any way.

Cam King: Victims and responders plus general public.

Amy Sebring: Try to identify different customers for this question.

Jon Kavanagh: If they pay part of your salary/budget, they're a customer.

Ray Pena: Anyone we communicate with, anyone that communicates with us.

Bill Karl: General public, special needs, special facilities, business and industry.

Derri Hanson: Higher Education Students.

Amy Sebring: Nursing homes, etc?

Burt Wallrich: Even if they are so poor they can't pay they are still a customer.

Amy Sebring: Businesses.

LindaUnderwood: Businesses, community groups.

Avagene Moore: Community citizens, schools, daycare centers.

Amy Sebring: Students, good.

Amy Sebring: Neighbors, seniors?

Jon Kavanagh: Medical providers.

Burt Wallrich: The especially vulnerable, including women, people with disabilities, elderly, children, etc.

Christopher Effgen: Those in the immediate area of the potential disaster and those outside the disaster area who have an interest.

Kevin Farrell: "The citizens," is there anyone else?

Amy Sebring: Other professional organizations? Other departments?

Cam King: Seems to me that in one way or another everyone is a potential customer

Jon Kavanagh: All city agencies.

Irene Sullivan: Unlike most businesses, we may have a different market each time.

Amy Sebring: Well, I think we have covered about everybody but I wanted to get some reflection of the variety here and we have done so. Ok, get ready for Question 3.

Question # 3:

Can a customer-based perspective help to overcome stereotypical perceptions of victims?


Jon Kavanagh: You don't look at them as a victim, you look at them as a person.

Cam King: Very much so - in fact it should be our greatest emphasis.

Jon Kavanagh: Treat the person, and you treat the situation.

Ray Pena: What does stereotypical perceptions of victims mean?

Amy Sebring: I think it can help in preserving dignity of victim at a time when they need it badly.

Bill Karl: Needs assessment produces understanding

Kevin Farrell: What is the stereotypical perception of a victim, Amy?

Amy Sebring: Yes, I see Ray's question also Kevin. We had an earlier session where we touched on the research in this area. That there are some common myths about disaster victims; that they are all helpless, panicky people; that their needs are all the same.

Avagene Moore: I was going to say the image is people totally helpless standing in the shambles of disaster.

LindaUnderwood: People totally helpless waiting for a disaster.

Amy Sebring: Any other responses to question 3?

Derri Hanson: Some are that way, but some want to help those around them.

LindaUnderwood: That they are totally helpless now.

Jon Kavanagh: Good point, Derri.

Avagene Moore: I would think if the customer were more involved and knowledgeable about their own responsibilities, they wouldn't be perceived in that manner and would not feel helpless.

Irene Sullivan: Education was mentioned in various ways earlier; seems the key.

Avagene Moore: Responsibilities for own safety and welfare.

Amy Sebring: Let's go on to question 4. This next idea may take a considerable shift in traditional thinking. When Prahalad discusses a "dialogue of equals", he does not mean that everyone is the same. In fact, we will get to diversity of skills in Question 6.

He is, rather talking about a greater role for the customer in defining to a business what their needs and desires are. Instead of the business deciding what the product should be, then getting customer reaction to it, more emphasis on engaging the customer in a discussion of what the product should deliver. Obviously, this is one of our major challenges, as our customers usually do not even want to think about disaster, much less talk about it. Or do they? Have we asked?

Question # 4:

"In the new market-place, companies have to recognize that their dialogue with their customers is a dialogue of equals." How can we encourage an active dialogue with our customers?


Cam King: Involve the "customers" in every part of the emergency management process; too often we try to work in isolation and not share the information we have.

Bertrand/Hicks: This echoes Red Cross disaster assistance training.

Jon Kavanagh: People wonder why there is no support for EM. Yet, never ask the public what they want, or what's wrong with what you're doing currently.

Amy Sebring: Just taking time to listen may be a good start. Perhaps including questions to your audience when making presentations? Doing some selected surveying?

Bill Karl: By involving the customer we gain an understanding of what will work and what will not work.

Irene Sullivan: This is not the type of service people usually want, but need, so generating interest can be difficult.

Ray Pena: We can encourage an active dialogue by making the most of our customer's commitment to EM.

Kevin Farrell: Ask the victim of a house fire, or traffic accident if they have suffered a 'disaster', and the answer would be yes. Maybe we need to re-think the definition of 'disaster' from the customer’s eyes.

Amy Sebring: Feedback form on your Web site?

LindaUnderwood: Publicize what's available. Even in the phone books, where do you look to find information?

Derri Hanson: Some of our customers believe someone out there will take care of them so they do not have to worry about it.

Bill Karl: Involvement becomes much easier when there is a perceived threat

Ray Pena: They don't have a lot of time. They have to deal with everyday activities.

Avagene Moore: If comments and complaints after the fact were analyzed and applied, might make a difference.

Ray Pena: We must be committed to not wasting their time.

Derri Hanson: One of our jobs is making it easier for them to get back to regular life.

Jon Kavanagh: Is there an increase in desires to learn after an incident? If so, show that the time to learn is not after, but before the incident.

Amy Sebring: Our state actually does a phone survey every once in awhile on specific issue of evacuation intentions.

Avagene Moore: For example, the elderly do not want to leave their homes prior to, during or after disaster. They do not like talking to an impersonal voice on an 800 number for assistance.

Derri Hanson: Jon, and maybe in so doing reduce the effects of the incident.

Jon Kavanagh: It may also be easier in those states with a higher likelihood/occurrence of incidents.

Amy Sebring: Ok, let's get ready for 5. On this next question of self-selecting virtual communities, the authors give an example of a manufacturer who provided a Web site for hackers, which ultimately helped improve the design of their product. Perhaps the trick is to be somewhat creative in identifying potential virtual communities.

Question # 5:

"[C]ustomers in the new economy are finding it easier to form, on their own, self-selecting virtual communities.... Smart companies are finding ways to mobilize customer communities." How can we encourage and mobilize customer communities? Doing some selected surveying?


Ray Pena: Does this mean "get more people interested in what we do?"

Amy Sebring: Mobilize is probably the hardest part. Yes, and perhaps to take some action on their own behalf. I think CERT is a great way, right Linda?

Jon Kavanagh: Have worthwhile Web sites; have the public beta -test it for you.

Ray Pena: If yes, I think we have to understand - emergency management is never a priority.

LindaUnderwood: Absolutely.

Cam King: Involvement in activities such as this type of chat group. Part of it might also be involving "survivors" from past disasters and learning from their experience.

Amy Sebring: Great idea, Cam.

Ray Pena: At the same time, there will always be a commitment to the process,

(emergency managers are an expression of that commitment).

Bill Karl: Publish best practice approaches to resolving emergency management problems.

Jon Kavanagh: Keep some places "open" for viewing after an incident; such as, a tour through a burned out house -- point out where the child died because there was no smoke detector by his room.

Burt Wallrich: Our VOAD has formed or is forming committees based on disability, membership in a faith community, concern for animals post-disaster, etc.

Avagene Moore: Educating the current and future generations through the public and private school systems.

Amy Sebring: What about having some kind of victim ombudsman in your EOC?

Ray Pena: And an appreciation for our ability to make the most of the commitment and to create an integrated emergency management system.

Christopher Effgen: Well, if you want to get people into a Web site you need content.

Now EMs are supposed to be getting content.

Claire Rubin: Who will pay for Web sites with content?

Amy Sebring: Not just content, Christopher, but relevant content and that is the tricky part.

LindaUnderwood: Look for established groups (church, neighborhood watch, homeowners groups, schools, etc.).

Christopher Effgen: From all agencies in the State, but only a handful place the content on the site.

Jon Kavanagh: Partnerships; partner with a Web site designer -- their contribution to EM.

Burt Wallrich: Amy, following the '94 earthquake staff from the information & referral agency performed the ombudsman function in the DACs.

Amy Sebring: If you have a college or university in your town, that is a great resource for computer skills.

Avagene Moore: Maintaining a Web site and making it worthwhile to revisit is the trick.

Jon Kavanagh: Utilize high school students, looks good on a resume to say that you developed the city's EM page.

LindaUnderwood: We put material from the state, county and city on our site.

Cam King: Whether we like it or not, we have to deal with the diversity of both the responders and the victims - such as providing information in their own language and from their prospective, not ours. An ombudsman / person is a great idea.

Amy Sebring: Yes, that's great, Burt. Let's move on and get ready for 6. Next is the diversity question. Although the authors gave specific examples of Web-based products, I think it is fair to generalize a bit, the main point being not to assume that one size fits all.

Question # 6:

"Consumers' experiences of a ... product or service -- and therefore their judgement of that product or service -- will vary according to their skills as users." How do we manage customer diversity?


Irene Sullivan: Flexibility.

Ray Pena: By consistently using a process that is adaptable enough to best meet customer needs.

Jon Kavanagh: Think of your services between those members of your staff; we're people, and if we don't like how something would go, other people likely won't either.

Amy Sebring: I think we need to do much more work in the area of vulnerability assessments.

Bill Karl: Develop simple but comprehensive approaches to problem solving - this meets both the lowest skill level but covers all the bases.

Jon Kavanagh: Look at things from more than one view; Flooding can, and does occur, in places other than in floodplains. So, tailor some education so it will sink in to all residents in the town, not just those affected by a flooding river.

Amy Sebring: Our education efforts certainly will affect the "skill" level.

Derri Hanson: Educate people so they don't feel as vulnerable.

Amy Sebring: Identify those who have skills and plan to use them as volunteers?

Derri Hanson: Let your groups identify their leaders.

LindaUnderwood: Train people without skills.

Amy Sebring: I think there needs to be a lot more volunteer planning in most communities, even if individuals aren't specifically identified.

Avagene Moore: I believe families should be trained.

Amy Sebring: Look at what the growing group of retired persons can offer?

Derri Hanson: Everyone has some skill, they just might not know it yet!

Amy Sebring: Identify what skills you can use and seek them out perhaps?

Amy Sebring: Looking ahead to question 7, not all customers will want to become engaged in personalization of a product, and may be content with an "off the shelf" form of service. However, some increasingly want to become more directly involved. An example might be a member of an external department that may have definite ideas of his own on how a departmental plan or SOP should be constructed, as opposed to following a set outline, whereas another may be content to "fill in the blanks." The point the authors make as I understand it, is that, at a minimum you will have to cope with it, and at a maximum, you should get a better product.

Question # 7:

"The product, in fact, is no more than an artifact around which customers have experiences. What's more, customers are not prepared to accept experiences fabricated by companies. Increasingly, they want to shape those experiences themselves, both individually and with experts or other customers." How can we provide opportunities for personalization?


Cam King: Provide "role models" who can share their experience - who have been there and understand where the customer has been and is now at.

Derri Hanson: In a class on say disaster response, when you do an activity, the group will follow certain individuals; those are your leaders.

Jon Kavanagh: Checklists that cover the whole spectrum (again, educate people that their house could flood from melting snow and rain, not just from a river).

Amy Sebring: Perhaps we should have a broader outlook where some useful expertise might be found?

Irene Sullivan: More post-crisis assessments to determine what customers valued of their experiences.

Ray Pena: The professional emergency manager employs (or should employ) a process whose principles apply to all customers. One principle is personalization. The process is ineffective without the unique time, expertise and commitment that only the customer can provide.

Amy Sebring: For example, maybe some experts on insurance or finance?

Jon Kavanagh: When you buy a house, you should get some good information on preparedness.

Derri Hanson: Maybe information should be put into the 'Welcome to the Community' basket.

Amy Sebring: I think we will probably get some interesting response on the next question. The next question deals with customer expectations. For me, this rang the bell of "public expectations," and I suspect they vary from community to community depending on factors such as hazard perception, demographics, local politics and so on.

The concern I have heard expressed frequently is a fear that public expectations exceed the resources available to meet them, therefore a good deal of effort goes into keeping expectations low. Is this fear well-founded?

Question # 8:

"Shaping expectations is not just about traditional one-way communication .... It is about engaging current and potential consumers in public debate. It is about educating customers and being educated." How can we shape expectations through dialogue?


Bill Karl: Recently I met with a group of high school superintendents planning for a potential hazmat evacuation. The schools shared school buses and did not have transportation assets - they were willing to use high school students to transport other high schools students out of the potential risk area - something that I was told was not politically acceptable.

Cam King: An example - I was in Grand Forks the day before the dikes broke. The sandbag dike construction was chaotic at best. In Winnipeg, several hundred sandbags were loaded on a flatbed truck that traveled throughout the city and gave classes and practical experience on how to build a dike.

Amy Sebring: What is your experience with public expectations? Do you think they are too high? Too low?

Jon Kavanagh: Let them know the limits/abilities that you have; the FD and PD aren't going to be able to evacuate 1000 people in 20 minutes when a dam breaks -- let them know this! Don't assume.

Bill Karl: Public expectations depends on the confidence of the community leaders.

Jon Kavanagh: Make EM a topic of discussion, especially around election time.

Derri Hanson: Bill, and the information they have received. Communication is very important.

Avagene Moore: I believe there is a general lack of knowledge of what to expect, high or low. We need to do more holistic community involvement.

Amy Sebring: Sometimes I think expectations are too high, that there will be somebody to rescue them. But sometimes I think they are too low in terms of the type of program they should expect.

Avagene Moore: I firmly believe the emergency manager's prime role at this point of the program (we have had years to plan!) should be involving and educating the whole community.

Derri Hanson: Often people think someone will come and tell them it is time to seek cover even if they heard the warnings.

Amy Sebring: Maybe we really do not have a good handle on what the public should expect. Moving on. This next question regarding customers as competitors reminded me of an earlier session we had done about where the public goes for information and how they make their judgements.

Ray Pena: We spend most of our time in preparedness --- planning, training and testing emergency procedures. This is as it should be.

Chris Godley: Amen! Expectations can be too high. If you, as an emergency manager, make an outstanding efforts to support a community that has suffered a local disaster, such as landslide, that community will expect the same effort and the same resources during a major event such as EQ or hurricane. You have to be careful on high you set the bar.

Avagene Moore: Maybe part of the problem is what does the emergency manager and elected officials expect of the program. Same old, same old? Or do we want to reinvent (pardon use of word) the local program?

Amy Sebring: Increasingly, the same data on which emergency managers make their judgements is directly available to the public. In some cases, the public can get better data directly!

Derri Hanson: If it was all correct, it would be great.

Question # 9:

"Although managers can regard the customer as a source of competence, they also have to face the reality that their customers are becoming their competitors." How do we deal with the ever-increasing sources of information directly available to customers?


Ray Pena: We embrace it. We make the best use of it. Our product (time, expertise and especially integration) cannot be duplicated by our customers.

Amy Sebring: In other words, are they content to just sit back and take your judgements or are they going to question them?

Jon Kavanagh: Make sure you're distributing accurate info.

Chris Godley: This has direct impact on loading of Web sites (such as river levels) during actual events - this is not just an academic question.

Avagene Moore: If the customer is industrious enough to go after the information, more power to the customer. That is the type of effort that forces change in the community.

Cam King: A big fear is the reliability of the source of the material being made available. How do you stop the speculators?

Derri Hanson: Cam and the doom givers.

Amy Sebring: I am almost more concerned about the correct interpretation of data. There are cases where even the professionals do not really understand how to interpret the data so you might expect the layperson to misinterpret as well.


Christopher Effgen: The big problem is not enough information is being distributed by EMs.

Burt Wallrich: There is an underlying issue on several of these questions. If people don't feel a part of the community they won't feel included in EM planning and recovery. If they don't trust government in general they won't trust EM information.

Bill Karl: There needs to be more standard setting for emergency management information that goes out to the public. I am looking at in-place sheltering protocols for the general public and there is a wide range of protocols - there needs to be a standard -that way the public gets the same message from various sources.

Chris Godley: Interpretation can play havoc, when the public interprets data differently and does not want to say, evacuate when informed they should.

Amy Sebring: The research backs up the idea that folks will go out to more than one source to verify what they are being told.

Irene Sullivan: Leadership needs to be credibly identified for the public if speculation and misinterpretation is the issue.

Chris Godley: Just look at how everyone interpreted Y2K differently.

Amy Sebring: It might help if folks even knew they had a local program! Many, many do not.

Ray Pena: Confirming behavior will happen. Consistency of the message is important.

Christopher Effgen: Yes there needs to be a standard format to the EM message. Something that a program can read with enough information in it so that it can be properly directed.

Derri Hanson: Most places do not have programs!

Amy Sebring: Sad but true, Derri.

Chris Godley: You have to earn credibility. Unfortunately, yours often depends on sources of information over which you have no control (NWS forecasts).

Avagene Moore: Perhaps the NFPA 1600 Standard will eventually help with credibility and consistent messages in communities.

Ray Pena: Derri, maybe not locally, but probably at a higher level (of government.).

Amy Sebring: Finally, is emergency management trending toward increasing flexibility or decreasing flexibility?

Question # 10:

"Engaging in a dialogue with a diverse and evolving customer base in multiple channels will place a high premium on organizational flexibility." How can we become more flexible?


Bill Karl: I definitely think it is moving toward more flexibility - thanks to FEMA.

Chris Godley: Amy, I would suggest decreased flexibility. We now target very specific threats, use very finite communications systems, and cannot often adjust to new hazards without major adjustments in organizational culture.

Ray Pena: Same time as impact and task, I suppose.

Derri Hanson: I have found that Emergency Managers are some of the most flexible people around.

Irene Sullivan: Modularize the organization as much as possible. Cross-train.

Amy Sebring: Chris, I am somewhat concerned that the embracing of the Incident Command System everywhere could lead to decreasing flexibility, but I certainly could be wrong.

Ray Pena: The process emergency managers use must be flexible enough to meet customer needs.

Cam King: "Think outside of the box", "Ask the - what if - questions". Build on the good ideas of others and give them the credit for it. Broaden our outlook to see if there are new technologies that can be adapted to our needs; e.g., a grain auger attached to a rotating disk to distribute grain to different bins provide an example for a sand bagging machine that will do 5000 bags per hour.

Chris Godley: Derri, I also think EMs are usually very flexible, but often times, if the problem doesn't fit on a flow chart, it's really throws them for a loop.

Jon Kavanagh: ICS allows everyone to work within a system, regardless where/what it is. A common foundation is the key.

Bill Karl: FEMA is allowing the states and local governments to define their own programs instead of pushing a prescribe - nuclear attack program down their throats as in the past.

Avagene Moore: Emergency managers are the only group that works in a horizontal fashion across all other disciplines. The scope of issues and concerns is broader, liaison is increased - I believe anyone who remains in the business has to be very flexible and a very different creature than 15 or 20 years ago.

Chris Godley: Amy, ICS is based on the British Army staff system of WWI - even though I'm in the Guard, I'm first to admit the military is not the most flexible organization - so what does this say about ICS?

Jon Kavanagh: Look at the community, and gain those partnerships with people who otherwise might sit on the sidelines (such as someone with a grain auger).

Amy Sebring: Yes, I think you have to have a certain go with the flow attitude to be an EM!

Ray Pena: Emergency managers must work both horizontally and vertically. That is, if they want to create a truly integrated emergency management system.

Amy Sebring: I didn't mean just following along, but rapidly adapting to changing situations.


Avagene Moore: Chris, I think the military model has been an ongoing criticism of ICS.

Amy Sebring: Any final thoughts from anyone before we wrap up? Any experiences with using a customer based approach in your community?

Ray Pena: I see a strong tendency on our part to fixate on response (especially) and recovery. We need to overcome this.

Avagene Moore: I think these ideas and the discussion have been very profitable and provocative, Amy. Thanks.

Derri Hanson: We need to promote Mitigation.


Amy Sebring: Thank you very much for your participation and good comments today. Avagene, next week please?

Avagene Moore: Thanks, Amy. Good discussion today! Thanks for leading such a stimulating dialogue, Amy. Perhaps, more of this type of discussion is needed to get us out of our 'boxes' in the business.

Next week, Wednesday March 29, 12:00 Noon EST, we will be in the Tech Arena to discuss SALEMDUG's Technology Certification Program with Preston Cook, SALEMDUG President, and Walter Green, University of Richmond (VA). SALEMDUG stands for State and Local Emergency Management Data Users Group - there may be someone in the audience unfamiliar with the acronym. The SALEMDUG Web site is <http://www.salemdug.org/> .

That's all for now, Amy.

Amy Sebring: Thank you, Ava. As usual, I will get a text transcript late this afternoon most likely, and the reformatted version will be available early next week. This concludes our regular session, but you are welcome to chat further.