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SYDNEY, Australia-A small town government's program to minimize its public liability by enhancing customer service has won an award of excellence from Australia's public-sector risk management association.

The town of Deniliquin, New South Wales, which is about 465 miles southwest of Sydney, implemented a customer service system five months ago to reduce the risk of disgruntled taxpayers taking legal action against its regional council (see related story).

The award for risk management excellence was presented at the Australian Public Risk & Insurance Management Assn.'s annual conference in Sydney last month.

The system has worked so well that the council is sharing its details with other local government councils via the National Local Government Customer Service Network, a program that brings together customer service representatives from different councils, so other councils can use it to minimize their risks.

The council developed its Customer Service Request Management System after acknowledging that unresolved complaints about things like slip and falls, potholes and problems with garbage collection or bothersome dogs could generate adverse publicity and legal costs. By addressing these types of complaints right away, the council hopes to convince residents it is unnecessary to lodge a formal complaint or lawsuit in order to get satisfaction. "Our aim is to have problems identified, prioritized and fixed," said Kate Pitt, Deniliquin's customer service officer.

The system had to be accessible to the public, simple but comprehensive, and have built-in time limits to ensure customers know when their requests will be met, she said.

Requests for action also now have an easy-to-follow audit trail, which is helpful if the council is later involved in legal action, she noted. Requests for service are monitored to ensure they are followed.

The award was presented at the APRIMA Conference by Graeme Jeffries, account and risk manager of Jardine Australian Insurance Brokers in Adelaide, South Australia.

Customer service and, more specifically, reducing the risks associated with poor service also was the topic of an APRIMA Conference workshop.

"People want to be noticed; that's what customer service is all about," Alannah Sledge, president of the New South Wales Local Government Public Relations Assn. and customer relations manager with the Hawkesbury Council, told the conference.

She said Australians want to be dealt with sensitively and want information that is up front, direct and clear.

"You don't necessarily have to solve the problem, but if you can identify a track they can follow to get a solution, they will be happier," she said.

Complaints should be seen as valuable sources of information about potential problems and a way of monitoring service levels, she added.

For example, Ms. Sledge said most local government forms that are filled out after a slip and fall are not user-friendly, and make the risk manager's job harder when they fail to gather needed information. She advised risk managers to get someone unfamiliar with the issue to "test drive" the form to ensure it is well-designed.

The risk of not addressing customer service is clear in a crisis situation, Ms. Sledge said. "You can reduce your risk of exposure by having a plan in place to deal with a crisis."

If an organization has a customer-service culture, it can create a "trust bank" within its community, and draw on that trust in a crisis by "cashing in" happy customers.

Ms. Sledge said staff must be trained to cope with crises and formal structures have to be in place beforehand to minimize the risk.