Air Force News

Hurlburt finance office believes customers are first

Released: 24 Jan 2000


Air Force News Photo
Senior Airman Tony Arrington, 16th Mission Support Squadron Personal Readiness Flight, uses the finance self-help computer system to file a travel voucher. (Photo by Master Sgt. Kevin L. Hoeth)


by Capt. Carol Kanode
16th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFPN) -- In the mid-1970s, a television show called "The Six Million Dollar Man" aired weekly. The story revolved around a part-man, part-robot, good guy who accomplished great feats for humanity. Here, we have our own six-million-dollar team that is "faster, stronger, better."

About two years ago, members of the 16th Comptroller Squadron knew they had a serious problem. Long customer lines and dissatisfied patrons, coupled with training problems, contributed to an unacceptable customer service environment, said Lt. Col. Roger Bick, squadron commander.

"Our customer wait times averaged 15 minutes and travel vouchers took three or four days to process and many weren't even accurate," the colonel acknowledged. "We knew we had to do something."

And something they did, for which they earned the 1999 Commander-in-Chief Special Operations Command Quality Team Award from Brig. Gen. David Johnson, vice commander, Air Force Special Operations Command, Jan. 7.

To solve the problem, a team of experts held employee off-sites to look for "out of the box" solutions, from which a new definition of customer service evolved, and with it, new technologies in providing customer service.

"Basically we identified our customers in one of three categories," Bick explained.

The "worried well" was coined for those members whose reason for a visit didn't require personal interface, but who needed basic assistance or information, like receiving a copy of a Leave and Earnings Statement or finding out Basic Allowance for Housing rates. "Counter customers" comprised the majority of the finance workload. Those are people whose financial issues required routine, but actual assistance. And the third category of customers was termed as "critical care;" those with serious, sensitive issues such as garnishments of wages, or court-martial debts.

After categorizing the customers, the finance team decided how they could best help each user. To immediately reduce customer lines, they developed and installed a self-help area comprised of three monitors, keyboards, and automated forms. A personal interface workstation supported other routine inquiries. This center island houses a phone cubical that provides direct contact to the Defense Finance and Accounting System. Users can tap into controlled finance web sites and obtain pay tables, per diem rates, BAH and Cost of Living Allowance charts, and worldwide lodging availability, without assistance.

An added personal computer docking station is used to assist counter personnel during customer surges, but also allows members to plug in a laptop computer and access the base local area network to print files like travel vouchers.

"With an ATM and base phone line access in the customer lobby and a conveniently added printer and copy machine, approximately 25 percent of our routine customers were immediately able to help themselves with no waiting," said Bick.

In the old system those deemed as critical care patients, announced their business in line. Now, the major emphasis is to reduce their stress level. A behind-the-counter environment was developed with separate offices designed for privacy. Low lighting and soft music add simple, but effective, enhancements to the atmosphere, said Bick.

By adding an electronic sign-in system, the finance staff created an instant database that tells them how they can better help their customers. A central information screen located in the lobby shows how many people are in line and the average waiting time based on the last five customers. Monitors behind the customer lobby alert finance staff members, with flashing colored screens, when waiting customer limits are exceeded. When there are four customers in line, the screen changes to a yellow background, at six it turns blue, and at eight it flashes yellow and red, signifying additional counter support is needed.

Patrons ranked chief master sergeant or colonel and above, are also highlighted in different colors for immediate action. Usually chiefs and colonels come in handling situations for people in their units, "their time is precious and we want to service them as quickly as possible," according to the squadron commander.

Complete with the bells and whistles of the new customer service set up, is the installation of cameras behind the customer counter. Audiovisual information is relayed to a separate monitor back at the supervisor's desk. With the capability to record both the customer and customer representative's actions and comments, disputes are resolved quickly and training issues are readily apparent.

The total cost for the changes, including labor and hardware, ranged between $30,000 to $35,000.

Staff Sgt. Sid Callaghan, NCO-in-charge of disbursing, sees the value of the improvements. "It used to be a situation where the only thing we'd hear from the customer was a complaint," he said, admitting it was hard coming in contact with others on base when people knew him from finance. "Now, we've decreased our wait time from 15 minutes to just over two minutes, and our customer satisfaction ratings are up from 3.4 to 4.8 on a scale of 1 to 5. Some people make it a point to tell us what a great job we're doing."

In addition to increasing points on their customer satisfaction surveys, more than 8,800 customer man-hours were saved the first year and document accuracy improved.

Excited about the new system, the "bionic team" wants to share the information they've learned.

"I want everyone with a customer service problem to contact us directly," Bick offered.

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