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Learning from experience about customer support

  • Published
  • By Col. Jeanette Voigt
  • 375th Operations Group commander
As a pilot for most of my Air Force career, I'm used to being a consumer of support. Prior to coming to Scott Air Force Base, I was thrust into a completely foreign situation. I spent two years as the Director of Support for the Holm Center, where I was responsible for the personnel, financial, communications and facilities support for Officer Training School, eight Civil Air Patrol-USAF regions, and 166 ROTC detachments and over 800 JROTC units around the world. Suddenly, I had more than 3,000 people looking to me to help them accomplish their mission. I have never felt so much responsibility, and I learned more in that assignment than I have at any other time in my career. During that time, I came to realize four things I didn't understand about support.

1. Support is important. The typical ROTC detachment consists of five people, often located hundreds of miles from the nearest Air Force base. They depended on me and my staff to accomplish their personnel needs, everything from reports and decorations to retirements and assignment actions. If my finance officers didn't process tuition bills on time, cadets couldn't enroll in classes. My programming experts ensured they had the tools to record, track and assess the cadets' progress through the program. Realistically, the detachments wouldn't fail to commission officers simply because the support was inadequate or late, but it would detract from their focus on the mission. That's the strength of support--it relieves some of that burden and allows the mission to happen.

2. Support is complex. I used to think support was easy. Then I learned there's so much more to support than what I saw as the customer. All aspects of support are governed by their own instructions, policies and even federal law. After two years of watching financial experts navigate all the rules and restrictions on spending money, I've learned just enough about the financial system to risk getting myself put in jail. Support activities are never "easy" or a "no brainer;" they only appear that way because those on the outside don't have the full picture.

3. Support is underappreciated. Soon after I became Support Director, someone told me, "The best you can do is break even. If no one is complaining, then you're doing a good job." I didn't realize how true that was. Nothing was more disappointing than working hard to solve a really tough problem, only to receive silence in return. Or worse, get complaints about problems not solved or a desire to go back to "the old way" of doing things.

4. Nothing replaces good customer support. Every day, individuals make unreasonable requests. Most of the time, they don't realize what they're doing. Sometimes, they're demanding and unpleasant. I felt that strong desire to put them in their place, to make them understand how outrageous and unreasonable their demands are, to make them apologize. Unfortunately, that brief moment of vindication was immediately followed by the headache of complaints and apologies. I quickly discovered that being pleasant and showing a willingness to help went a long way toward getting the customer on my side. Even when I couldn't say yes, most people would accept that as long as they understood why and felt I truly wanted to help.

Now that I'm back in the ops world, the lessons of support are even more important to me. I understand what support brings to the table. I also appreciate the hard work that goes into solving even the simplest of problems. And I know I'm not able to accomplish my mission without it. All of you who provide support should be proud of what you do because I'm sure proud of you.