We are all customers for a variety of companies. For the most part, we all know what good and bad customer service is. I go to a coffee shop and the barista takes my order in a cheery manner, gets my order correctly and serves me with a delicious cup of, “just what I ordered”. That’s good service.

I get my smartphone upgraded. Even though the mobile carrier salesperson is cheery and helpful, the need to subscribe for two years to get my “free” phone, the complicated contract and the inflated bill I start getting where I lost my unlimited data plan because I was forced into a new plan seems like bad customer service. The salesperson gave me “good” service…but their company didn’t. I feel unhappy and cheated.

Think about the latter example. Almost all of us LOVE our smartphones but dislike (and sometimes hate) our mobile carriers. So why do we put up with that? We put up with that because almost all mobile carriers are abusive to a degree. It comes down to considering who is less abusive, or we just continue with our existing carrier because they are all bad and it is too much trouble to switch. Plus, I HAVE to have a smartphone! I am a willing victim of a technology services sector that doesn’t have to be better.

So what is good or bad customer service for companies that provide public safety computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems? They represent a crucial technology in receiving 9-1-1 and 1-1-2 calls, having dispatchers process calls accurately and quickly, and then sending the proper law, fire and medical resources in a timely manner. Who is the customer in this scenario? The public safety dispatch agency? The first responders (law/fire/medical)? The caller who needs help?

There are numerous CAD companies; it’s hard to research how many there really are. A Google search won’t provide you a “one-stop-shop” source with a spreadsheet type rundown; it’s loaded with paid ads or references from public safety aggregator sites that have companies pay to be listed. Just like shopping for your smartphone with the big companies (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile), you end up stumbling over the big CAD companies that are usually at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) yearly trade shows; Hexagon (Intergraph), Tri-Tech, Tyler (New World), Motorola, Spillman, Sungard and numerous others. So who are the shoppers for these vendors?

The 6000 plus 9-1-1 centers, AKA public safety answering points (PSAPs) are the shoppers. They usually already have a CAD, which they like, hate, are going out of business or being absorbed by a bigger CAD company. They shop. They publish a Request for Proposal (RFP) since they are financed with public money and have to go through a byzantine purchasing process that can take one to four years. Vendors answer the RFPs with responses that run from 90 to 300 pages. The PSAP narrows the list to maybe the top three or five vendors. Good PSAP managers go to dispatch centers to see the CAD systems they have and ask their fellow managers and MAYBE some dispatchers who actually use the system what they like or don’t like about their CAD. The PSAP agrees to buy, and then installation can take 12 to 24 months.

How does a diligent PSAP administrator research a CAD vendor from a “customer service” perspective? After all, they are the customer that buys, but they have to consider the customers using or are served by the CAD; the dispatchers who have to use it, the agencies being dispatched and ultimately, the callers needing emergency services.

You could Google, “problems with (insert company)” and find some interesting results that are unnerving. Phrases like “multiple crashes,” “9-1-1 down for hours,” “(CAD) company has a history of failures,” are not encouraging signs of what kind of customer service you are going to get from your narrowed down list of CAD vendors. Ask the company to provide a list of who has sued them, why and what were the findings? Look at the Better Business Bureau (BBB) site for customer reviews; you probably won’t find any! In looking at three big CAD companies, you will find them all listed…with ZERO customer reviews. Two have an A+ BBB rating with no reviews. The biggest CAD company has been in business since 1969 and has a “not reviewed (NR)” rating with no customer reviews. Not much help for the savvy buyer who is likely shell-shocked and exhausted with the process.

You could look on Glassdoor (https://www.glassdoor.com/) and see what employees think of the CAD companies where they work. These are the people that will provide the real customer support. You may be deterred by some of the comments and want to uneasily dismiss them with the assumption that many people don’t like where they work and those are the ones that post. Should you do a comprehensive survey of dispatchers that use the system constantly to provide good “customer service” to every caller in need and the agencies being dispatched? Unfortunately, there are two perceptions about dispatchers that skew this this inquiry: one, “dispatchers always hate something about their CAD system,” and two, “whatever we buy, they will make work because they have to”.

Lastly, how about considering these points:

  1. Have they ever lost a customer? If so, how many?
  2. Are they privately owned? Have they been acquired or merged in the past ten years?
  3. How long have they been in the public safety dispatch business?
  4. How long do they take to respond to complaints and how fast do the fix them?

Yes, purchasing a CAD and considering what customer service means is a messy affair. It seems more like the mobile carrier purchasing environment of bad to worse customer service when what we really want is the simplicity of getting a good cup of coffee. It’s a perplexing experience to deal with great sales people at trade shows that promise much, but you know better. CAD purchasing is time consuming, more expensive than you bargained for with all the hidden add-ons, having dispatchers be trained and adapt to a new platform then close your eyes and hide in the office when stuff starts crashing and dispatchers are falling back on manual systems. Complaints by dispatchers mount over balky software that doesn’t do as advertised, then law, fire and medical agencies aren’t getting good customer service from the dispatchers while they are struggling with the learning curve.

A lot of this angst is the natural CAD environment. The work is SO important and HARD to work with EVERY time, and so we adapt. We treat our public safety dispatch tools as being essential and depend on them to not crash or confuse. Proper, accurate data has to be processed quickly. A CAD is an amazingly complex system to use for such a valuable service.

I have great sympathy for the CAD shopper, who has to embrace the pain of purchasing, frustration with slow installation and all the bugs that have to be worked out, while your dispatchers are howling about how crappy this CAD works.

Don’t accept it has to be that way. The big companies tout hundreds and thousands of customers, but steamroll the process with their “we’re the biggest, therefore the best…bugs? Every system has them. We work them out and the dispatchers will figure out the rest.”

There ARE better CAD companies out there. Do not be seduced by the big CAD companies that wow you at the beginning of the relationship, than bail when payment has been made and saddle you with customer service that works best for THEM not YOU. Find one that hasn’t lost a customer, is constantly innovative and responsive to customers’ needs in a rapid, trouble-solving manner. Find a vendor that really cares about its services and reputation for having everything working all the time and if it doesn’t, sufficient back-up exists and customer service to fix your problem takes hours and days, not weeks and months.

Demand customer service for what that means to YOU and know what that REALLY means. Ask hard questions and demand straight answers. You are a customer serving other customers that don’t have many choices; your PSAP is the only game in town. Don’t ever lose perspective of that value; the dispatchers, first responders and callers all need the best CAD out there, and yes, base that conclusion on a simple principle of needing and deserving good customer service. That company is out there. Don’t be afraid to move away from those big CAD companies where you become one of a thousand customers. Find a CAD that you love and more importantly loves you, by giving you the best system out there, constantly upgrading changes based on your customer input, providing great training and rapidly respond when you need help.

If they have been in the public safety business for 30 years and have NEVER lost a customer; that says a lot. Talk to them, get to know them and ask the hard questions. You may find a treasure out there in the CAD vendor wilderness. Let them help you. They value customer service…just like you do.


Curtis Darnell

Curtis Darnell

Product Manager

Curtis Darnell brings his lengthy public safety experience to the Beta 80 International team. He worked for 28 years at Santa Clara County Communications in California before retiring in 2010. He rose through the ranks of being a law, fire and medical dispatcher, eventually becoming the Chief of the agency and overseeing four managers, six supervisors and 73 line dispatchers. He is an active member of NENA, APCO and the NG911 Institute.