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Illustration by Michael Austin

A Plan for Polite Protection

​We had waited a long time for this vacation and the whole family was filled with excitement as we drove into the park. But when we walked to the entrance and approached the security checkpoint, my wife and I became confused. Where, exactly, did we need to go after the checkpoint?  The crowds were getting larger by the second, and if we went the wrong way, we would be doomed to stand in a formidable line.

We saw two security officers nearby, and were relieved—they would know. As I approached them to ask for directions, I could hear that they were involved in their own conversation, so I smiled and nodded to make sure that they knew that I needed their help. They looked over at me for a split second, then ignored me and continued talking. Irritated, I cleared my throat and said, “Excuse me.” They finally stopped talking but looked at me with annoyance.     

When I asked them for directions, they sarcastically pointed out that I could have just looked at a nearby sign for my answer. And so, with one rude exchange, my family’s feelings of excitement and anticipation had quickly changed into ones of aggravation and disappointment.​


We all have similar stories of substandard customer service, and we all should never forget that security plays a key role in being a good host to guests. Managers know that visitors commonly perceive security officers as approachable and knowledgeable. Although many customer service-centered businesses place information booths and hosts at strategic entry locations to greet and inform guests, most people also see security officers as safe, informed employees whose job description includes helping others.

As a result, security officers often get more customer inquiries than those designated as hosts. If you are a security manager, you are fully aware of this, and you know it is one of the key reasons that managers need officers to emphasize customer service. The fallout from not doing so, both on the reputation of the business and its ultimate economic success, can be devastating. Numerous articles and studies, including a November 2011 article from Inc. Magazine, indicate that it can cost more than five times as much to obtain a new customer than to keep an existing one.

With the bottom-line focus of today’s business world, many security managers come under great pressure trying to justify maintaining—let alone increasing—their budgets.  This becomes an impossible task if the company is spending that money on acquiring new customers to replace the ones that were lost. And of course, security managers never want their department to be the cause of a lost customer, or the source of a bad company reputation.  

Moreover, the importance of customer service is magnified by the word-of-mouth factor. Here the common adage usually holds true: if someone enjoys their experience at your facility, you may not hear anything about it. If someone has a negative experience, they will tell 100 of their friends.

It is important to remember that negative experiences can have a damaging effect on internal staff as well. Some security managers prefer to maintain a barrier between the security department and other employees to ensure that security officers will act appropriately if there is a theft or other internal incident. Although this may be appropriate when properly balanced, it is also important to avoid an adversarial relationship between security and other departments.  

When your colleagues believe they can trust security with important concerns and sensitive issues, it makes for a more cohesive team. If security officers are known to act abrasively, or in an uninterested manner, it can stain the department with a bad reputation or even result in liability.​


How can an organization build a superior customer-service-focused security department, including all the tools necessary to maintain such a team?

First, the full support of the executive staff is required. Everyone, including the CEO and other members of the C-suite, must believe in and support the company’s customer service goals and initiatives.

Once these goals and initiatives are set, the executive staff must use their authority to influence the employees who will put these plans into motion. Executives must also continuously monitor the execution of the plan to ensure that the goals and initiatives are current, relevant, and achievable, and that they continue to be acceptable to the customers. It is important that these customer service standards be clearly defined in writing and repeatedly communicated to employees.

In addition, it is crucial for executives to create and maintain an atmosphere that is conducive to these standards and initiatives. It can be harmful for management to create standards but then not give employees the tools and the environment necessary to carry them out.

In July 2014, both The Verge news website and Forbes magazine reported on companies said to provide the worst customer service. Comcast was at the top of both lists. Reporters of those news agencies, after investigating, found out that one of the main problems was with communication. The executives at the top were concerned about good customer service and had relayed service standards to management, but these standards were lost before they could filter down to the employees.

Another issue for these poorly performing companies was the duties of the customer care representatives. A manager thought it was a good idea for these representatives to sell services as well as provide customer service, and they were given sales quotas. As it turned out, the representatives became more focused on reaching their sales goals than providing excellent customer service. In essence, the manager changed the customer care representative’s environment so that it became difficult to carry out proper standards.​


Besides executive support, it is crucial for security officers to undergo specific, professional customer service training. Various companies offer seminars and training on customer service; some organizations train in-house. Regardless of who is arranging the training (whether it be the security director, a training manager, or an HR department), the program needs to be reviewed to ensure it is the right fit for the specific organization.

Customer service training, at a minimum, should cover the following:

  • Proper customer service attitude, covering verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Active listening
  • Proper responses to complaints
  • Working knowledge of the business and products
  • Basic problem solving
  • Knowing when to involve a supervisor
  • Incident review and looking for ways to improve

As the above implies, if the problem gets too involved or if the officer is unable to resolve the issue with the customary steps, the next step should be to involve a supervisor. For this reason, supervisors need to have intermediate customer service training at a minimum, and advanced training is preferred. Supervisors should also have options available to them that may help defuse tense situations, such as the ability to give refunds or discounts.​


Proper training and executive support are both crucial, but they are not sufficient to ensure superior customer service. The principles must be properly executed, on a day-to-day basis, by all employees.

This can be challenging. As experienced managers know, some employees will embrace such execution, while others see any change as bad or scary. Take, for example, a veteran officer whose initial job training took place a long time ago, and who has been doing his or her job the same way for years. This officer may have the attitude of, “you don’t pay me to be nice” or “that’s not my job.”

When the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, instituted a customer service focus with its security team, most of the officers embraced the change and carried out the new directive with enthusiasm. There were a few officers, however, who had been in the security field for quite some time and were more comfortable with curt rule enforcement and using an abrasive demeanor to deter anyone from breaking the rules. So, this smaller second group of officers was given additional training and coaching on how to conduct themselves according to the customer service standards.

For cases in which officers need additional instruction, security managers should do their best to gently change the mindset of those who are holding on to the old way of doing things.  The best way to succeed with these officers is to ensure that the program is fully supported, as detailed above, and that security leaders put the customer service concept in a positive light. For example, enforce the message that great customer service makes a business successful, and security is only successful when the business succeeds. Once these officers have completed the additional training, watch them engage with business visitors and the public, and give them pointers on how to fine-tune their newly formed skills.

The most difficult implementation situations often occur when customer service is not within the officer’s skill set, or when the officer decides to completely resist the training.  In these instances, security managers may have to make hard choices on whether these officers are still a good fit for their team.  The above mentioned security team at the Nevada Museum of Art was successful at getting all officers trained in customer service and having them successfully and properly use their skills on the public. The results were happier visitors, happier officers, and a huge drop in complaints.

A colleague at a nearby company recently instituted a customer service program in its security department. After the initial training was completed, one officer would not engage with the public in a customer service manner. The security supervisor spent additional time with the officer, and critiqued the officer’s interactions with visitors in an attempt to assist with improvement. After a reasonable amount of guidance and retraining, the officer was still not able to meet the new customer service standards, and he was ultimately transferred out of the security department.​


When adding a strong customer service component to a security program, one of the most important focal points should be ensuring that the customer service program complements—and is in balance with—security procedures, and does not detract from them. If an officer is engaged in a lengthy customer service interaction, he or she must ensure that it does not distract from security duties.

There are a few possible solutions to this issue. The first is to either have officers notify their supervisor before lengthy customer service engagements, or have supervisors look out for officers who are being taken away from their security duties. The supervisor can then gauge whether they should take over the interaction with the customer, or take over the officer’s security duties until the officer is free.

A second solution is for the officer to clearly communicate with the customer that he or she is happy to help them, but while they are talking about the issue, the officer will also be looking around for safety and security issues during the conversation. In addition, officers must always understand that urgent safety and security issues take priority. So, they should also be trained on how to politely but quickly remove themselves from a customer service exchange to take care of a pressing issue.

For example, an officer who sees an urgent safety issue while answering a guest’s questions might say, “I’m sorry, I have to take care of an issue but I will be right back.” This quick communication allows the officer to disengage to handle an exigent problem, but also informs the customer that the officer will re-engage as soon as the problem is solved.  Additionally, it lets customers know they are not being ignored, and helps them understand that an issue took priority for a moment.

In balancing security with customer service, it is also important for officers to understand when they need to adjust the tone of the interaction from a friendly customer service attitude to more of an authoritative response. Unfortunately, there are times when an officer’s kind request for a guest to follow a rule is met with a contrary attitude, or the request is simply ignored.  Although it is never advisable for an officer to respond rudely or with anger, there will be times when an officer will need to address the situation in a courteous-but-stern manner. This is especially true when a person’s safety is in jeopardy, or when damage to a high-value item is possible.

When a negative interaction with a customer gets to a certain point, the officer will need to involve a supervisor to bring about the best possible result for both the guest and the company. This is where a supervisor’s intermediate or advanced customer service skills will become invaluable. For example, a supervisor’s customer service skills may come into play in apologizing, even though the problem may not be the officer’s or the supervisor’s fault; in separating the customer from the employee they are upset with; or in offering the customer free passes or discounts in an effort to resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction.​


Once an organization has accomplished all these steps and has implemented a well-trained and balanced customer service team, a few practices can help maintain and fine-tune the program.

Regular meetings should be held with leaders of other departments to go over any customer service problems. At these meetings, leaders and officers should share ideas on how to resolve problems and institute the best solutions. Security managers who oversee the program should be flexible and understand that small changes might be needed to maintain the most effective customer service security program possible. In addition, supervisors should be actively looking for any issues that can be improved upon, so the program continues to make progress.

A complaint process can also be established, in the form of a suggestion box or a comment section on the facility’s website. This gives employees and members of the public an opportunity, anonymously if they prefer, to make program managers aware of issues and give them an opportunity to quickly fix them. And instituting a continuing education program in customer service will keep officers abreast of current techniques and introduce them to new methods.

Establishing a customer service program takes a significant investment in time, in effort, and in resources. But the rewards of the investment—in happier customers, a more effective security department, and a more profitable business—will likely be even more significant.   


James “Jes” Stewart, CPP, is the director of operations and human resources for the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada.