Customer service is one a critical piece of the relationship between the people using the goods or services provided by a company and the actual heart and soul of the corporation. The customer service representative becomes the single focal point for every consumer trying to resolve an issue with the corporation or entity. This customer service representative is the first respondent to illuminate issues, mitigate consumer dissatisfaction and restore the customer’s perception of value to the corporation. The internship at the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs provided the full picture of how an entity such as a large governmental entity operates and how the consumers interact with the business. These interactions provide unparalleled insight into customer relations and business etiquette and ethics.
Part I: PROBLEMS, CONCERNS, ISSUES AGENCY ADDRESSES:
The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is the centralized location for consumer related issues regarding businesses within the New York City jurisdiction. The main objective of the NYC DCA is to empower the consumer and other businesses to create a fair and thriving capital market. These experiences are provided by developing the framework to educate the consumers and businesses on fair business practices, financial concerns, tax concerns and other necessary business transactions. The consumer can utilize the resources provided on the website by visiting the main page and obtain access to the business toolbox. This business toolbox provides knowledge about the agency’s main purpose. This purpose is to provide the information needed by the consumer to create a vibrant business environment and to mitigate and resolve issues that arise out of conflicts between consumers and businesses as well as businesses and other businesses. These tools provided by the NYC DCA are a proactive approach to solving problems before they start. Some of the tools include all necessary forms and business signs, inspection guidelines and checklists as well as a best practice document outlining how to avoid potential hazards such as fines and complaints.
The area of complaints is where an extraordinary amount of effort is consumed by the NYC DCA. The area for consumers and businesses to file complaints is located on the same page as the tools to limit the potential for a complaint but filing a claim seems to be used more often than not filing a claim. The purpose of the complaint department is to gather as much information as possible and help mitigate the complaint and achieve the optimal resolution. The first question on the complaint form establishes the precedent on the actual purpose of the complaint service department. The first question revolves around resolving the complaint with the business prior to filing a complaint and if there was not an attempt to resolve a reason why is expected. The NYC DCA is there to mitigate conflicts but the purpose is actually to be a proactive solution to the needs of the consumer and the complaints should be one of the tools used as a last resort in complaint resolution.
The main concerns of the consumer that came in to the NYC DCA revolved around perceived or misunderstood interactions between consumers and the businesses. While there were many instances in which a consumer was wronged by the business the main areas for potential conflict arose from communication between the business and the consumer. The communication between the two parties would normally have a composition of nearly all emotion and passion for the situation and if a mediator could bring the two parties down from their emotions the communication opened up and a resolution would be in sight (Buttle, 2009). Another area of concern which causes issues with performing the basic job functions is communication tools that we are provided. Since October, after the natural disaster Sandy, the phone lines have been sporadic and unreliable due to downed lines across multiple areas. While the mitigation for this issue was to issue personal phones the tracking and communication between the DCA and the complainants is still not stable with quality reception. The quality of the call adds tension to an already arduous situation (Keller 2012).
Part II: AGENCY OVERVIEW:
The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is broken down into a hierarchical structure with ultimately the Mayor of the city at the top of the organization chart. The commissioner is the leaders of the organization and has multiple direct reports which support not only his goals and objectives but those of the city as a whole. The section in which I conducted my internship had a hierarchy that included a team of consumer service representatives that reported to a team leader. That team leader reported to a manager. The important thing to note was that each member on the team lead’s team seemed to be interchangeable with either an inexperienced person or someone on another team. The manager reported to a director which led to the general manager. This level was more of an executive level and made more strategic plans and did not necessarily know who or what happened in the consumer relations department.
The base levels of the organization included a span of control for the team leader that could include twenty people. I found it difficult to communicate with the team leader due to the lack of time and the focus of the team leader. The hierarchy of the organization did not provide the adequate span of control in which the team leader could manage. There were too many interchangeable people on the front line for the team lead to adequately manage. This led to organizational distress and potentially negative consumer relation interactions.
The basic employee in the consumer service representative team included a multitude of entry level employees. Each had a varying amount of background experience that ranged from college student to retired individuals. Many of the entry level employees did not have a background in consumer relations nor did they have a desire to pursue a career in conflict resolution. The basis for the area in which I work revolves around mitigating issues and resolving problems at the lowest possible level without escalating the issue through the hierarchy of the organization. This type of conflict resolution requires experience, determination and perseverance due to the potentially hostile work environment created by upset consumers. The employees fall within a spectrum with two polar opposite sides. On the one side the employees are there to perform just the basic functions of the position and do not have a want or desire to fully understand the role that they are filling. This side of the spectrum may have a wealth of knowledge in the different scenarios or conflicts that arise but do not have the drive or motivation to share that knowledge with the other team members. These team members may be good at conflict resolution and mitigation but they do not benefit the team as a whole nor is there an incentive for them to share the knowledge within the function.
The other side of the spectrum is those that are there more for the learning and understanding of the conflict resolution and thrive on being on the front lines of the consumer affairs support center. These are also semi-temporary employees due to their motivation to use the consumer support position as a stepping stone to something that holds more responsibility and better opportunities. The learners of the organization pursue the root cause of the problem and not so much the Department of Consumer Affairs as a whole. Both types of employees have their niche in the organization but a more collaborative environment would help the transfer of knowledge among employees.
PART III: AGENCY PERSPECTIVE:
When asking a fellow employee about the department, I gained a new perspective on the position and department which varied greatly from my own situation. My interviewee has worked for the agency for ten years. Her name is Bobby and he also my supervisor. He has worked at the agency and sees his work as an opportunity to not only provide a stable income but also provide a supporting service to the consumer that would not normally be available without the support and dedication to the conflict resolution services provided.
Bobby was very insightful regarding the key skills that are required for mediation specifically concerning the management and methods of controlling a conversation in order to reach an agreement. The key factors she stated was the need to allow both parties to present their side of the situation to provide a equitable arena for discussion and resolution. The other significant point made by my interviewee was to come prepared. This included understanding the key facts around the case as well as understanding the laws and regulations that governed the situation. One key point for my internship that I learned was about conflict resolution and my role for opening up more options for resolutions to happen. At the agency there are many opportunities to see a conflict’s lifecycle from beginning to end and within that there is an enhanced knowledge of conflict resolution. By providing alternative resolution options both parties would reach an agreement that neither of them knew was an opportunity.
My interviews provided a general perspective of opportunity at the NYC DCA. Working hard and learning how the department works would provide my interviewees the opportunities to advance and create a career in government. This position is an end goal in some respect in that he is ending a previous career in retail and moving forward in government. This is different in process from my perspective because I am using my internship as a learning experience and a task on my schedule to degree completion.
My second interviewee is named RJ and he was looking for an opportunity to work in a government situation. When he joined the team he did not fully understand the scope or breadth of the agency’s responsibilities. The conflict resolution portion of the agency provided a new view on what the agency provided. Initially he thought it was a place for the consumers to vent their frustrations and use the agency to solve their issues. He was also intrigued by the scope of work the agency performs such as CPL law, enforcement and regulation of licensed and unlicensed businesses.
Part IV: ETHICAL DILEMMAS
Ethics in the workplace are paramount especially when personal information and governmental entities are involved. Business ethics help provide the guiding principles needed in the workplace. These ethical boundaries define what is appropriate and just in the workplace. The ethics policy is defined by the NYC government and each employee is required to read and understand the policy. The policy illuminates the guidance around time and attendance, behavior, interactions with consumers and businesses, relationships, property use and many other aspects involving employees and the NYC DCA. Each employee must confirm that he or she has read the policy and that they understand what the policy is presenting to them. If the employee has any questions or needs clarification on areas of the policy they are encouraged to discuss the policy with their supervisor.
One ethical dilemma that was facing the agency was that of malingering of certain employees. This is the act of faking or feigning an illness or injury to get out of working. The ethical dilemma comes in the form of an employee pretending to be sick so that they can leave work early or miss a day of work without taking the required vacation time that is allotted by the agency. The code of conduct states that each employee will accurately record the actual work hours and comply with the City and Agency rules regarding sick leave. The abuse of sick leave harms the agency and forces other employees to pick up the work that the feigning employee is not completing.
The dilemma comes in when other employees know that the employee is breaking the rules and must make a decision on how to report the violations. In this case, the supervisor had the misgivings of the employee and required the employee to provide a note from a physician. When the employee failed on multiple opportunities to provide documentation they were reprimanded.
Part V: TECHNOLOGY: SOME OBSERVATIONS:
Technology was utilized in that each consumer support representative had a computer to log the complaints into the system. This system is called CAMIS. This is an application that documents, tracks and supports metrics for the conflict resolution. The tool itself does not provide an advantage in performing the duties of the position but it is utilized to monitor and control the work that is being performed by the consumer support representatives. The NYC DCA is not taking advantage of the use of tablet type devices or a more robust survey for the complainants to use. These areas would help provide more robust information for the consumer support representative to facilitate mediation of the complaint.
Part VI: SUSTAINABILITY:
The NYC DCA’s efforts to go green are not necessarily a high priority. The majority of the initiatives are driven from a different level of the NYC government. The major initiative that is ongoing for the NYC DCA is the recycling efforts in which each area has a bin for recyclable material which is then disposed of properly. NYC as a whole has many initiatives going forward with the goal of going green but the NYC DCA only plays a small role in that process. For the initiative to go green, the biggest strides are taking place in the use of paper for the fax machine. While this is a step towards not using paper, the main driver could be the obsolescence of the fax machine with our current eFax tool that will be implemented at the end of the year based on a push from the higher levels of government agencies.
Another area that provides an opportunity for going green includes direct deposit of paychecks to the employees. The paperless option allows funds to be transferred directly to the employee’s accounts without the influence of paper into the transaction. This is also beneficial with paperless pay stubs and other employee records online for ease of access and less use of paper products.
Part VII: INTERN’S ROLE, RESPONSIBILITIES, TASKS;
In my role as a consumer support representative it was my main objective to interact with the complainant and document the information. I would then use the CAMIS system to log the data and create a ticket for the consumer to reference. I would also schedule a mediation timeframe and provide that information to the consumer. During my tenure I was also afforded the opportunity to mitigate complaints which was challenging but also highly rewarding. With my concentration on dispute resolution this provided me with real life experience to my course work. The real scenarios and interactions provided another level of education that is not available right out of a textbook. The real life experience coupled with the coursework made for a great overall experience in conflict resolution.
As I progress through my internship, I gain more responsibility. I was able to work a case from initiation to closure. This example was around a purchase as simple as a micro card for memory storage on a cellular phone. The consumer purchased a card that did not work and returned it immediately for a different memory card. This card worked for a short period then became defective. After the initial resolution with the point of sale was not satisfactory, the consumer went to the manufacturer for a resolution. The manufacturer turned them away and that is how the complaint arrived at the DCA.
Once I received the complaint, I called the vendor to ensure they knew they had a complaint against them. I opened up the communication between all parties and informed the vendor of their options and whether or not they would like to resolve the issue. After discussing the situation with the vendor they agreed to resolve the issue. The resolution could be resolved by replacing the defective product or providing a discount on a future item purchased from the vendor. The main objective is to provide a correction to the underlying conflict. I requested the agreement in writing and informed the consumer. With the resolution agreed to and the case closed, I inputted all of the information into CAMIS for final closure of the case.
Part VIII: PROBLEMS, SNAGS, OBSTACLES:
The biggest issues that I faced on a daily basis revolved around consumer interaction and the lack of support by the team leader to help resolve issues as they occur. The consumers would take their aggression and anger out on the consumer support representative and this is a misguided use of energy. Also when questions or process questions arose that my team leader could answer it was somewhat difficult to receive feedback in a timely manner. This caused more separation between the consumer and the resolution that was trying to be achieved. The biggest obstacle remains to be communication. This is communication between the consumer and the business as well as internally between employees. The team is more encouraging than I initially thought and that is reflective of the environment that we work in. During most interactions with the consumer the consumer is hostile and intimidating on the phone. The team can provide support by talking through the issue with you and letting you know that they are part of the team with you.
Part IX: REFLECTION:
The internship provided more than an opportunity to experience a governmental position. This opportunity also allowed the coursework I am completing to take on another level of value in that I was able to use what I learned in the classroom and apply it to real life scenarios. My expectation going in to the internship is that I would be allotted time to focus on conflict resolution but a majority of my time was spent performing logistical efforts to document and track complaints. This work gave perspective on what all it takes to work in a government office and resolve conflicts of consumers. I would like to have had more time with leadership of the organization to understand what their perceptions were of my organization but I would not change the fact that I was on the frontlines of the complaint system taking calls and mitigating complaints. I learned that open communication can help push through the emotions of each party and drive toward a common resolution between the parties. This experience also transcends into my own personal life and before I make a purchase or sign a contract I will ensure I read all of the information and understand the details prior to agreeing with the terms and conditions.
Throughout my coursework there is a direct corollary experience between telephone mediation and how it utilized the skills I learned in class. The basic foundation of mediation allowed me to use my learned skills to resolve confrontations over the phone as opposed to face to face. Mediation over the phone and through email is more difficult to perform because there are many non-verbal communications that is lost when not face to face with clients. There are also misinterpretations that could occur through the phone and email that may not occur in a face to face meeting. The skills I learned in the course provided me a substantial background for listening, not taking sides during a conflict and mediating the issue to allow resolution.
I would recommend this internship because it provides hands on interaction with real life conflict resolution scenarios. The leadership at the agency provide guidance and mentorship to provide the best experience possible. The experience at the agency allowed me to grow in the area of conflict resolution and allowed me to practice the skills I have learned.
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