Survey Your Customers

images-2Dr. W. Edwards Deming got me thinking about customers in the early 1980s. As a police chief, who were my customers? What about the officers I led, were they, too, my customers? Who were the customers of the police department?

One thing I began to learn as we crafted our Principles of Quality Leadership was the importance of feedback. In order to grow either professionally, personally, or as an organization, you must be open to feedback from those around you and those whom you serve. Honest feedback gives a person the opportunity for growth and improvement.

It needs to be an on-going practice in today’s modern police agency.


I wrote this in Arrested Development:

“Beginning in 1978, I had raised the stakes by asking the department to make a firm commitment to what I called a ‘Decade of Developing Organizational Excellence.’ I was trying to distinguish differences between the military organizations in which many of my officers had served and those of a modern police department.

“It was here that I began to see many links between business, industry, and government, few with the military style that was dominant in most police departments. The police were different than the military; they had more things in common with both public and private organizations that deliver customer services. These businesses were asking questions of their customers; finding out what they needed to know to improve.

“While policing isn’t a competitive business (at least so far), police departments do have customers, community residents who use their services, pay taxes, and act as shareholders—not unlike those in the corporate world. I told the community we needed to de-emphasize the paramilitary traditions of the police – to be more like other organizations in society and to develop enhanced relations with other agencies and the people we serve.[1]

“What I intended to do was create a survey of people who had contact with us – I called it a customer survey. A contact could be, for instance, making a verbal complaint, being the victim of a crime, or even being arrested. As it turned out, the results of this monthly survey became a valuable source of information. It helped me to more realistically evaluate how we were really doing.

“Think about it: without an ongoing survey, how will any police department know how it is doing? In the business world, customer feedback is essential. It should be no different in a police agency. How else will police know what their citizens think of their services? But more critical, how else will police know what services or functions need to be improved?

“I decided I needed to have this kind of feedback. I wanted to hear from those with whom we had actual contact; not those who just have an opinion about us. I wanted to know how we were doing from those with whom we actually had dealt face to face. If I was requiring department leaders to get feedback from each other and their employees, why not from those who used our services?

“After a number of things were considered, such as cost, the number of surveys we needed to send out, and to whom we’d send them, I began to mail out a survey form with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. It was sent from me to the people identified in every 50th police incident (as determined by randomly-selected case numbers). Each survey was enclosed with a personal letter explaining why I was doing this, why I thought it was necessary, and asked for their feedback.[2] The survey asked them to rate their experience with us on a scale from one to five (one being poor and five being excellent) in seven categories:

  • Concern.
  • Helpfulness.
  • Knowledge.
  • Quality of service.
  • Solving the problem.
  • Putting you at ease.
  • Professional conduct.

“At the end of the survey, I asked the critical question: how can we improve? And those who answered were not hesitant to tell me.”


Today, customer surveying has never been easier. There are online programs such as Survey Monkey and others which can not only elicit feedback from external customers (citizens who use police services) but also internally with department employees.

  • How ARE you doing? Do you know? 
  • Here’s a way to find out.

Read more about Dr Deming and the Madison PD HERE. And a recent article by a Madison police officer on “Customer-Service Policing.”

[1] Speech to the Madison Downtown Rotary Club. 1978.

[2] At that time we were assigning about 100,000 case numbers each year; therefore, a 1-in- 50 sampling meant we mailed out an average of 160 surveys each month.




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