Friday, August 2, 2002
Court Customer Service Training Initiative Wraps Up; Critics Call It a Waste
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
A months-long endeavor by the Los Angeles Superior Court to make its employees friendlier and more customer-service oriented wrapped up last month, but critics argue the program was not worth the time or the effort.
The “customer service training initiative,” a lengthy process which put all of the court’s 5,700 employees through a two-part training session, was meant to cause people who use the county’s courts view their experience in a more positive way. It is part of a larger initiative by Presiding Judge James Bascue to improve the court’s service and image.
But employees who have gone through the schooling, affectionately called Nordstrom training in reference to the department store’s reputation for customer service, said they weren’t so sure it was needed or that it is going to make a difference.
“We’re professionals,” Anne Ouellette, secretary for AFSCME Local 575 which represents Los Angeles Superior Court clerks, said. “We know how to do this already.”
The Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Superior Court Improvement spurred the customer service training by teaming up with the court and the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development in 1996 to see where the court could improve.
After conducting surveys, focus groups, and a telephone poll, the coalition found the court’s “user-friendliness,” along with several other areas, needed some work.
“They’re satisfied with the justice they receive but they’re not satisfied with the way they’re being treated,” Bascue said of the people who use the court.
According to a Los Angeles Superior Court survey, the court failed to score higher than a 60 percent approval rating of court users in any of the survey categories, Dr. Bryan Borys, director of the court’s Organizational Development and Education, said during a video presentation shown to all court employees.
While the approval ratings were below 60 percent for the “core business” categories of availability, accessibility, justness and doing its job well, the ratings were even lower for the categories of fairness, user-friendliness, efficiency and promptness in handling cases, Borys said.
“The bottom line is we’re not doing bad, but we’re not doing good enough,” Borys said.
With that in mind, the court put together an intensive two-part course that includes a video that explains the need for the court to be customer oriented and another that shows how to create a fun work environment. The second part is a seven-hour interactive session on how to provide better customer service.
In the first video, produced by Borys and Los Angeles Superior Court Executive Officer/Clerk John Clarke, Borys tells court employees they must provide good customer service so the public will reward the court with tax dollars.
In the video, Borys said the Los Angeles Superior Court competes will other counties and other government entities for funding and urged court employees “to build a constituency of our own” by providing good service.
Borys told employees a promise of 20 new judges for the Superior Court was withdrawn because more are needed in the Central Valley, where populations are growing even faster than in Los Angeles County.
Staff cuts will follow, Borys warned, if employees do not get the attention of legislators by providing good service.
“We have to show we’re good at what we do,” Borys told the MetNews.
Ouellette, a San Fernando “floating” courtroom clerk who changes assignments almost daily, said while watching the first two videos she was thinking, “Why are we here?”
Ouellette said she was more interested in getting back to work than in participating in discussion about the videos since she and other clerks had no replacement clerks to take over while they attended the 30-minute session.
“We were all pretty anxious to get back to work,” Ouellette said. “By not being in court I was holding up court.”
During the daylong training session employees discuss what good customer service is, attitudes toward customers, and listening and communication skills, Ruth Goziker, administrator of the court’s Training Academy said. The academy runs the service training program.
Employees participate in role playing with classmates pretending to be a court customer. Goziker said the exercise allows employees to practice what they have learned in class and identify what they need to work on.
One of the training videos instructs employees on how to deal with the wide variety of customers that go through the court system. The video shows court employees participating in customer service “competitions” where they try to deal with customers like the anxious Rosie Nerverosie, the assertive Justin Esquire, and the pushy Lena Sortarich while sideline commentators critique their performances and detail what the employees are doing right.
Judy Maas, secretary for Judge Dan Oki, supervising judge of criminal, said the most valuable thing she got out of attending the training was hearing comments from other court employees and learning about the number of “difficult customers” they said they had to deal with each day.
But Maas, who has been in clerical work for the past 27 years, the last four and a half with the court, said that while the training “was helpful as a refresher,” she didn’t feel it was necessary.
“I’ve been dealing with people for 30 years—I try to be efficient, nice and friendly without the training,” Maas said.
Ouellette said the class might be better suited for entry-level employees.
“By the time I’ve reached my status in the court, if I didn’t know how to interact with attorneys and the public, that’s pretty sad,” Ouellette said.
Bascue said the court is on the “forefront” of customer service training. But other courts have been conducting their own similar training for years.
San Diego Superior Court spokeswoman Marilyn Laurence said her court developed its own training program in 1994. She said the curriculum, which includes a video, interactive sessions and skill building during the two half-day sessions, is now used as a model throughout the nation.
The San Diego video is used in the Los Angeles Superior Court’s training.
The Ventura Superior Court also has a long history of emphasizing customer service, requiring all new employees to attend intensive training.
“The court holds the public and their satisfaction to a very high regard,” Ventura Superior Court Deputy Executive Officer Rochelle Terrell said.
People visiting Ventura courthouses have the opportunity to provide feedback to the court by filling out a questionnaire that asks them to rate the promptness, courtesy, efficiency and information and an overall rating of the service. The survey, which is also available on the court’s website, also asks how long customers had to wait in line, and if they have any suggestions on how to improve the court’s services.
The Los Angeles Superior Court recently started putting its own surveys near the courthouses’ information booths. Borys said he has not yet seen any feedback. But Bascue said since the training began he has received many more letters complimenting court staff and judges.
Attorney Dianna Gould-Saltman said she notices a distinct difference between the way the employees of the Los Angeles Superior Court and other nearby superior courts treat their customers.
“I’ve never had a bad clerk in Ventura,” Gould-Saltman, secretary of the LACBA Family Law Section, said. “They bend over backwards for you, they are happy to look up information for you.”
“In Los Angeles, half the time the file is in disarray, or they can’t find the file at all and the clerk has to explain or excuse that,” she said.
There is also an obvious difference between the way Los Angeles clerks treat lawyers and people representing themselves, Gould-Saltman said. In Ventura the clerks don’t treat anyone differently, she said.
Representatives of court employee unions said while the extra training doesn’t hurt, they are critical of the program for taking employees out of the workplace for such an extended time period.
“We don’t like the idea of taking the entire day to learn to do something we have been doing for many years are we think we are pretty adept at,” Carole Prescott, president of Local 575, said.
Judge Paul Gutman, supervising judge of the Northwest District, said one day spent out of the courtroom is a small price to pay for the benefit of improved customer service.
“I believe it’s just another implementation of the golden rule,” Gutman said.
The customer service training does not include many of the people who make the biggest impact on the publicóthe judges, the bailiffs, or contracted security personnel.
But several judges said they receive their training through other means, including Judges College, a two-week long program that all new judges must attend.
“The Appellate Court, the Commission on Judicial Performance and 170.6s,” Gutman said, referring to opinions that get overturned and attorney peremptory challenges. “That’s where judges get their sensitivity training.”
Gutman said he personally tries to give better service to court customers every morning when he addresses the roughly 250 jurors assembled at his courthouse and tells them he knows they don’t want to be there and they feel they are wasting their time.
“It’s designed to soften the sharp edges of their anger,” Gutman said.
Bascue said he encourages judges to be involved in the court’s customer service initiative by talking about the importance of delivering better customer service when he delivers his “State of the Court” speeches to judges across the county.
“If I want a more user-friendly court then my staff is going to have to be that way,” Bascue said.
Attorney Bruce Armstrong said the training is a great idea, but said the court staff generally reflects the judge’s mood.
“If you have a judge who likes to snarl you generally have a staff who likes to snarl,” Armstrong said. “If you have a judge who is polite and courteous you generally have a staff that is polite and courteous.”
The Sheriff’s Department, which handles security at the county’s courthouses, is also working closely with Bascue and the rest of the court to ensure court customers enjoy good service from the minute they step into the courthouse, Comdr. Richard Martinez, of the department’s Court Services Division, said.
Nearly 23 million people made their way through the county courthouses’ weapons screening stations last year, all of them coming in contact with at least one Sheriff’s deputy or contract Burns security guard.
“The first contact someone has at the courthouse is with our weapons screeners,” Martinez explained. “They can set the tone and it can either be positive or negative. We want them to be in a good frame of mind when they get in front of the judge.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company