Courteous Service in Human Service Administration Organizations


Courteous, responsive treatment reinforces consumers’ introduction to service providers and reflects the value that all consumers are due the same respect regardless of income or status.

Purpose and Anticipated Benefits

By introducing courtesy service training to service providers, people with disabilities may have more positive, productive experiences with service providers.


Michael Johnson conducted this study for his doctoral dissertation at The University of Kansas with three service agency staff members — Ann, 56, who worked at the agency for 14 years; Sue, 38, who had worked at the agency 18 years; and Connie, 63, who had worked at the agency 12 years — in contact with customers.




An antipoverty agency that provide free used clothing, emergency food, and other support services to more than 400 low-income families each year served as this research setting. Johnson and three graduate students scored behaviors associated with courteous services during two-hour observation session three times each week. Interactions typically were six minutes, ranged from one to fifteen minutes, and took place at the front desk or clothing area.

The observers used a checklist (see following listing) that listed specific behaviors and recorded the occurrence or nonoccurrence of courteous behaviors. An independent observer also recorded behaviors to double-check behavior recording. After computing the number of scoring agreements and disagreements, the observer reliability was 95%. Clients gave the staff a letter grade that expressed their opinion of the service.

The women attended two training sessions and observed videotaped staff-client interactions. Three staff participants answered six questions about the training in six skill areas (active listening, question asking, appointing, information fathering, appointment closing, special situations) that asked for ratings ranging from very unsatisfied to very satisfied.

  • How easy was the training?
  • How acceptable was the amount of time involved in the training?
  • How important was the training to you?
  • How helpful was the training in providing courteous service to consumers?
  • How likely is it hat you would recommend this training to other staff members?
  • Overall, how satisfied are you with the training?

A lottery also was done after the training that rewarded staff members for performing specified courteous behaviors. At the end of each week, a staff member was awarded $10 if her name was drawn. Follow-up observation took place three, five, and eight months after training to evaluate courteous service.


The training proved to be successful in increasing courteous behavior. Before training, Ann performed 25% of the courteous behaviors, and 73% afterward. Three months later, she performed 95% and 100% five and eight months later. Sue went from 14% to 77% and had the same follow-up scores as Ann. Connie’s 12% score before training went to 72% and was 100% at each of the three follow-up sessions.

Courteous Service: Behavioral Categories and Discrete Responses

1. When beginning an exchange, a service provider should:

a. Make an initial greeting.

b. Ask if help is needed.

c. Request the consumer’s name.

d. Ask the consumer to have a seat (or, if in a wheelchair, direct the consumer to a waiting area).

2. When gathering information and filling out forms, the service provider should:

a. Describe his or her role to the consumer.

b. Address the consumer by name.

c. Ask the consumer to provide the needed information.

d. State the rationale for requesting the information.

e. Provide within or outside agency referral when necessary.

3. When talking with the consumer, the service provider should listen actively

a. Maintaining an active listening posture.

b. Maintaining eve contact.

c. Making nonverbal and verbal encouragements.

d. Using good verbal quality.

4. When a consumer is talking the service provider should ask questions courteously by:

a. Asking close-ended questions when asking for factual information.

b. Asking open-ended questions when asking investigative questions.

5. When a consumer is talking, the service provider should handle special situations by:

a. Providing assistance with incomplete information forms.

b. Removing obstacles in the physical environment.

c. Excusing interruptions.

d. Offering assistance to consumers having difficulty reading and or understanding information forms or instructions.

e. Offering assistance to consumers having difficulty writing.

f. Listening actively to consumers having difficulty in speaking clearly, and if necessary, requesting that the consumer write the message on paper.

g. Offering assistance to consumers having difficulty seeing.

h. Offering assistance in the form of speaking louder and more clearly and/or using sign language (if known) with consumers having difficulty hearing.

i. Directing comments to the consumer (if he or she is with a personal care attendant, nor talking to the consumer through the attendant).

6. When closing the interaction, the service provider should:

a. Request questions from the consumers.

b. Offer further help.

c. Provide additional service, if requested.

d. Schedule the next appointment, if necessary.

e. Direct the consumer to another service provider, if necessary.


“Although courteous responding increased to nearly I00% shortly after training, within a few weeks it began to decline. When the lottery procedure was introduced, courteous responding again increased to nearly perfect levels and was maintained in follow-up sessions up to eight months later. Although courtesy training may be necessary for some service workers, it may be insufficient to maintain high levels of courteous behavior in public and nonprofit organizations. Perhaps prevailing natural reinforcers, such as approval from clients, are sufficient to maintain moderate, but not optimal, levels of courteous behavior.

“This study does nor provide an analysis of the respective contributions of intervention components. One could argue that the courtesy training may not have been necessary and that reinforcement and performance feedback alone may have been sufficient. Although the relatively low baseline levels of courteous behaviors are suggestive of the need for training, reinforcement procedures, perhaps combined with a simpler discriminative stimulus, may have produced similarly high levels of performance.

“Consumer satisfaction with service provision showed positive increases after courtesy training and introduction of the lottery procedure. It appears that as courteous responding increased, so did consumers’ satisfaction with services. This secondary finding warrants replication to rule out other plausible explanations. It is possible, for instance, that the small sample of consumers (N = 75) who provided ratings was not representative of the broader population of consumers who frequent the agency (approximately 400 monthly). Although the researcher attempted to obtain a random sample and not alter his style of asking for or responding to satisfaction ratings, researcher interactions with clients and other factors might have contributed to the results obtained. Perhaps collecting ratings through alternative means, such as anonymous written grades, might help to control for any potential researcher influence.” (Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1994). Courteous service: Its assessment and modification in a human service organization. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 27, p. 151).


Future research in this area might examine the generalizabilitv of the procedures to other public and nonprofit organizations, covertly observe so as not to influence courteous behavior, sustainable alternatives such as the lottery or staff recognition to help maintain courteous provision of service.


Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B.  (1988). Quality circles: Enhancing responsiveness of service agencies to consumers. American Rehabil­itation, 14 (3), 20‑21.

Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1987). Consumer‑defined standards for courteous treatment by service agencies. Journal of Rehabilita­tion, 53(2), 23‑26.

Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1989). First impression: Enhancing courteous treatment to consumers. Lawrence, KS: Research and Training Center on Independent Living, the University of Kansas.

Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1994). Courteous service: Its assessment and modification in a human service organization. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 27, 145-152.

Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1987). Promoting courteous and dignified treatment of people with disabilities. American Psychological Association Convention, New York, NY.

Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1987). Staying close to the client: Methods for improving courteous treatment and responsiveness of independent living agencies. National Conference on Independent Living, Washington, DC.

Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1987). Promoting dignified treatment of human service clients using courtesy training and quality circles. Community Research and Action Conference, Columbia, SC.

Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1986). An analysis of responsive and courteous treatment of human service agency clients. Association for Behavior Analysis, Milwaukee, WI.

Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1986). Methods for improving courteous treatment and responsiveness of independent living service agencies. National Association of Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers, Kansas City, MO.

Johnson, M. D., & Fawcett, S. B. (1986). Staying close to the client: Methods for improving courteous treatment and responsiveness of independent living agencies. Society for the Study of Chronic Illness, Impairment, and Disability, Reno, NV.