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‘Pretty clear, pretty simple’ lessons in survivor-centric customer service

 Oct. 7, 2015

 Paul Frommelt
 NGA Office of Corporate Communications

Retired Lt. Gen Russel L. Honoré and retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen with NGA's Shelby Pierson at the 'Customer Service in Times of Crisis' event at NGA. (Photo by Timothy D. Miller, NGA Office of Corporate Communications)
Retired Lt. Gen Russel L. Honoré and retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen with NGA's Shelby Pierson at the "Customer Service in Times of Crisis" event at NGA. (Photo by Timothy D. Miller, NGA Office of Corporate Communications)

Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré had a problem. As commander of Joint Task Force Katrina undertaking the Department of Defense response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, he was in charge of the military’s efforts to evacuate victims from Louis Armstrong International Airport to surrounding areas. But there weren’t enough Transportation Security Administration employees available to screen the vast numbers of evacuees. Honoré would need to wait close to three hours for more TSA agents to arrive.

“If I wait two to three hours, Anderson Cooper is going to find out about that and then we are going to be looking stupid,” Honoré remembers thinking.

Honoré had a problem. But, the Lakeland, Louisiana, native with more than 35 years of active U.S. Army service also had a solution: Break the rules.

“When you are in the lifesaving phase, you have to do what you do to save people’s lives. Sometimes you have to break the rules,” Honoré told the assembled crowd at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Oct. 5. “You go ahead and you make the best decisions you can.”

So, Honoré got on the phone with the TSA official holding up the process.

“I understand why you are doing what you are doing, but I want to assure you that Osama Bin Laden is not in New Orleans,” said Honoré. “We need you to load the damn airplanes.”

Honoré’s story was part of a discussion alongside retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen on their experiences serving as senior military leaders during the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ten years ago. The event, “Customer Service in Times of Crisis,” was part of NGA Customer Service week, Oct. 5 - 9.

“After 35 years in the service, we didn’t just fall off some pumpkin truck in New Orleans and somebody said, ‘Look, we’ve discovered a leader,’” said Honoré. “You spent 35 years invested in the two of us in professional development courses and successive commands and when you get there, people expect you to solve the problem.”

Throughout the hour-long talk, both Honoré and Allen described keeping a customer-centric mindset while focused on controlling the chaos around them.

Allen was designated principal federal official for the U.S. government’s response and recovery operations to the disaster that killed 1,833 people, caused more than $100 billion in damage and affected some 90,000 square miles of the country. He was elevated to the position on Sept. 9, 2005, following the removal of Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Michael Brown amid public criticism of the government’s relief efforts. 

“That was a little surprising,” said Allen with a laugh. Once the “uncomfortable” news conference announcing his appointment was over, Allen called an all-hands meeting at the joint field office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“I am giving you an order,” he told the assembled crowd of 2,000 people in an old Dillard’s department store warehouse.
“You are to treat everybody that you come in contact with that has been impacted by the storm as if they are a member of your own family—your mother, your father, your brother, your sister. Pretty clear, pretty simple. Survivor-centric, customer-centric. If you do this, two things will happen: If you make an error in what you are doing, you can error on the side of doing too much and at this point in the response, I’m okay with that. The second, if somebody’s got a problem with what you did, they have a problem with me, not you, because I told you.”

After he was done, Allen said that the mood in the room immediately changed.

“People started openly weeping in the room and there was a collective sigh and change of barometric pressure in the building,” he said. “Nobody had told these people in very simple terms what the mission was. Nobody had ever told these people in very simple terms what the basis for trust that creates unity effort was. But, most importantly, no one had ever told any of those people that someone had their back.”

Allen and Honoré both acknowledge the criticism of the federal, state and local response to the crisis by putting things in perspective.

“The first responders inside the area, Mississippi and Louisiana, they were victims. A disaster is different when the first responders are victims,” said Honoré. “In an event like this, when the first responders themselves have houses under water and they have no sanctuary and they don’t know where their families are create a lot of chaos.

“How good would you be if 90% of your police cars were under water? The courthouse, where the police headquarters is, had four feet of water around it. I often remind people that when you get a major disaster like this and the first responders are victims the response is going to be disjointed. It is not going to look efficient.”

Allen compared the complexity of his task ten years ago with crises that will arrive in the future, particularly in the convergence of technology, climate changes and globalization.

“Everything that we are going to be dealing with … in this country or this world is going to be complex,” he said. “Complexity becomes a risk aggravator at some point, it starts to defeat standard operating procedures … and I think we need to learn how to challenge assumptions and understand whether or not we are really trying to solve the problem.”
According to Allen, one antidote to this increasing complexity is co-production and collaboration.

“The fact of the matter is, no agency, or private sector firm or NGO has the resources to solve one of these large problems by themselves -- so the question is, ‘How do you coproduce the outcomes to meet the expectations of the American people?’”