Why Fire Hydrant Painters are Threatening your Business

Every so often, a magazine survey comes across my desk on the demographics of the company and a common request is to report the number of employees that support customers. One of these days, I’m going to write in what I believe that answer really should be. All of them.

Although that might seem flippant or simplistic, it’s more true than anything we could get by counting titles. As a young company, our CEO taught the cautionary tale of employees painting fire hydrants. The story goes like this: In every town, someone has the job of painting fire hydrants. Maybe, their title is something like, “Hydrant colorization specialist”, they have an equally impressive job description of how exactly they should paint the hydrants, perhaps with monthly goals of the number of hydrants to be painted.

While these job descriptions are necessary, they also can be hazardous to your organization’s health because inevitably, the unexpected will occur. Fifty yards away, a house can be on fire and our painter dutifully continues to meet the arbitrary quota assigned by his boss, perhaps annoyed by all the distractions of the yelling, hoses, and flames nearby.

What too often people don’t get, especially as organizations grow, is implied in every single job description is Deputy Fire Fighter. Or in the business world, Customer Support Specialist.

Like a crutch, we often by default will refer back to our job description as new needs arise. We like lines of demarcation between what you do and what I do. It’s comfortable. And like a contract, we can whip out our job description whenever something comes up that is outside the clear lines.

I propose a new nine word job description for every employee in every organization: “Serve your customer better this month than last month”. Whomever that customer might be. If you’re in IT tech support, how can you develop a process to proactively support your employees with less effort. If you’re a programmer, how can you better communicate with your internal customers of progress and expectations? If you’re writing a blog post for the company web site, how can you reduce the time to submit the post? And if your customer has an unexpected need, how can you temporarily put aside whatever your Human-Resources-approved job description says, and solve the problem along side your fellow, newly-deputized fire fighters.

Yep, on the next survey of our employee base, when asked how many employees support customers, I think I will in fact write “All of them”. I’ll even count the Hydrant Colorization Specialists.