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Motor Vehicle Workers in Civility Classes

July 7, 2003

MONROE TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) _ The people who work at the motor vehicle department have some complaints about you, too.

While every driver in New Jersey, it seems, has a horror story about a service-with-a-snarl visit to the motor vehicle department, the employees have their own tales of dealing with rude and hostile people.

``I had a woman say, `You’re ugly,‴ said Jodi Deery, an 18-year employee. ``She just started with the f-word flying around.″

To try to bring civility to the process of obtaining or renewing a driver’s license, every department employee in New Jersey is being given customer service training. It is part of an effort to get drivers to stop thinking a visit to the department is something akin to a root canal.

Workers have been attending sessions with a professional development trainer. They have been able to complain about customers, pass along questions and concerns to state officials, and learn how to stay calm when the person on the other side of the counter starts screaming.

The booklet handed out for the workshops begins with a ``Renewal″ statement that sounds like something from a New Age manual.

It notes how cells live and die in the human body and tells the employees they need a similar renewal process for their attitudes. The employees are also told about ``10 basic human needs,″ such as the need to be understood and the need to feel important.

Workers are also encouraged to exercise and get in better shape to help them deal with stress.

``We have to learn to smile and have a friendly face,″ motor vehicles Commissioner Diane Legreide said.

The agency makeover has included a name change: The reviled Division of Motor Vehicles is now the Motor Vehicle Commission.

The agency has also conducted its first survey of customers since 1981, but has not released the results.

Pam Maiolo, manager of public affairs of AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region, said she has not heard of any other states’ motor vehicle agencies needing an overhaul of customer service techniques.

Maiolo said she attends national meetings of AAA representatives and it is common knowledge at those gatherings that New Jersey’s motor vehicle agency is the only one with such major problems.

The move in New Jersey comes as the agency prepares for a flood of drivers coming in for the state’s new digital licenses. As part of stricter, post-Sept. 11 security measures, drivers will be required to provide multiple forms of identification when applying for the new licenses, which will be issued starting this month.

``We are trying a fresh, new approach,″ said Gary Hasenbalg, an assistant to Legreide. ``We are trying to teach people how to walk the fine line between customer service and enforcement.″

The new licenses will contain a bar code, a hologram to prevent forgery, and a photo _ something that was not required before Sept. 11.

The employees from the agency’s Williamstown office ran through role-playing exercises during a training session last month, with an emphasis on defusing situations with difficult customers.

The agency has a seven-step model for what to do when someone at the counter gets difficult. Clerks should remain calm and acknowledge the problem. They should also apologize for any inconvenience, listen closely, give detailed explanations and always thank the customer.

As part of the training session, the clerks talked about times when police had to be called to deal with unruly people. They also said many of those who want changes in licenses or vehicle registrations get upset simply because they fail to understand such basic requirements as ID.

``I repeat myself over and over and people still get it wrong,″ said Linda Tran.

The workers agreed that changes are needed in everything from the condition of offices where the public stands in line to the agency’s outdated computer system.

They were not so sure about the recent requirement that all employees wear name tags for the benefit of the customers.

``Now when they are yelling at us, they yell our name,″ Deery said.