A New Perspective on Helping Court Customers

As a court administrator, I was fully aware that court litigants and users needed assistance to make their way through the court system as self-represented litigants. As a consultant, I have worked with courts on operational best practices and strategies for self-help or self-service. However, I have a new appreciation of the importance and benefits of customer service from an unlikely place—a non-court environment. This article discloses my own revelation about the importance of helping others and suggests some implications for court leaders.

The Court Environment

Court leaders have been aware of the pressure of self-represented litigants for over 20 years. I can recall discussions that large numbers of litigants needed assistance in the domestic relations/family court. In fact, the court in which I was employed created a groundbreaking and award-winning Self-Service Center.1 In those days, it was estimated that over 60 percent of the domestic relations cases had no legal representation on either side,2 leaving the litigants to navigate the system on their own.3 The Self-Service Center was the location for any help, information, or support and included rudimentary forms, instructions, and assistance in domestic relations or probate cases.

In my own experience, and considering this in hindsight, I was a bit reserved and reticent in reaching out to assist court customers. I would only go so far in terms of contact and empathy with them. I would be pleasant and interact if required, but I would not actively make any connection with court customers.

Background for My New Perspective

In early 2018, I began a volunteer engagement via the City of Phoenix (Arizona) as a Phoenix airport navigator.4 I began this volunteer engagement because I liked to travel; I thought it would be interesting to be in the airport, which I was somewhat familiar with; and it was part of my own “give back” to society. To some degree, it provided me an activity in the community (albeit in the airport) and a reason to learn new things to be proficient. As a navigator, I am expected to represent the airport by making a positive impression, adhering to established protocols for behavior, working a specific shift, and making a commitment to the service.

Assistance Services at an Airport

Airport navigators are volunteers who assist customers traveling to, from, or through the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona. Many airport facilities in the United States offer help for passengers. The helpers may be called by other monikers (ambassadors, navigators, traveler’s assistants). A Google search indicates many airports that have some type of helper present: Cleveland, Dallas Fort-Worth, Denver, Dulles, Ft. Lauderdale, Fresno, Minneapolis, Palm Springs, and Tulsa, to name a few. These airports place a premium on providing help and service for flyers. I have personally witnessed helper services when flying through the Dallas Fort-Worth airport, given my new interest in customer service. When I travel, I am now on the lookout for helpers and customer-service representatives. I am also more aware when I see someone making customer outreach for assistance.

In 2017 nearly 44 million passengers moved through Phoenix International Sky Harbor Airport. The aviation department has a dedicated cadre of volunteers—the navigators—who help flyers. A summary of expectations and services for navigator volunteers includes the following:

  • provide friendly assistance;
  • be equipped to answer questions and give directions;
  • possess a positive desire to help;
  • interact with and engage flyers and travelers;
  • develop new skills; and
  • strive to make the airport experience better and easier for flyers.

Stated another way, airport customer-service skills include the ability to watch and observe, coupled with comfort in communicating with and assisting strangers.

As a navigator, I was trained on and expected to demonstrate that I had the interest, desire, and ability to appropriately and proactively assist passengers. As of this writing, I am almost one year into service as a navigator. I have a new appreciation for customer service.5 Among the services I have provided: sharing simple instructions and directions, looking up flight details on the assigned smartphone, requesting wheel-chair assistance, or summoning some type of help. Some passengers are awed by and appreciative of the assistance, while some are reticent and standoffish to receive assistance. My goal has been to provide the same friendly outreach regardless of the nature of the customer need or their reaction. Amazingly, almost every shift, I run across someone from my prior employment experiences in the court system.

Underlying Reasons for Assisting Customers—The Airport and the Court

In considering the underlying reasons someone may need help, whether at an airport or at a court, some comparisons and similarities come to mind. Some that have occurred to me are noted below.

The Airport

  • Community all in itself
  • Large system—many moving parts
  • Large, sprawling facility
  • Heavy customer activity
  • Time-driven schedules
  • Confusing processes
  • Need for language assistance
  • Intimidating and unfamiliar processes
  • Stressful environment
  • Unclear and abundant signage
  • Not knowing where to go

The Court

  • Part of the justice system or community
  • Complex system—many moving parts
  • Specific areas for specific purposes
  • Heavy customer activity
  • Time-driven schedules
  • Confusing processes
  • Need for language assistance
  • Intimidating and unfamiliar processes
  • Stressful environment
  • Unclear or limited signage
  • Lack of familiarity with the system

The airport is a collection of many smaller communities: airline personnel, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) representatives, local law-enforcement officers, airport security members, aviation support maintenance and specialists, business/restaurant/concession workers, city or government officials, and volunteers.6 This aggregation of players creates a bustling and intimidating environment for the untrained flyer. There is a huge demand for wayfinding and providing directions. Passengers have a variety of questions (the most popular from my experience: “Where is the Starbucks?” or “Where’s the ride-share location?” or “Where can I go to smoke?”). Passengers are in a perhaps foreign environment. Navigators are expected to provide help in giving directions, seeking medical or law-enforcement assistance, assisting with lost items, or helping to manage situations like slip and falls. I have even accompanied an elderly woman to the location for her family to pick her up and comforted a passenger who was having a particularly stressful flying experience.

The court is also a collection of several communities: the court itself, with judges and administrative staff; the attorneys (to include private and public attorneys); law-enforcement agencies; security personnel; special service providers or professionals; and other government agencies/representatives. This collection of players also creates an intimidating environment for those who do not regularly interact in the court system, with litigant and user concerns such as “What do I do?” or “What does this mean?” There is a demand for information about the meaning of processes and terminology; forms and documents; and where services, offices, or courtrooms are located (“Where do I go for my case?”).

However, assistance has been tempered with the need to explain what is prohibited or limited, and concerns about avoiding the provision of legal advice. This is not a revelation. In my early court employment years, I would often mention the phrase below:

A person acting on his or her own behalf, is under the law, held to the same standards and duties as an attorney. . . such person is expected to know what the law requires and how to accomplish his or her purposes.7

Courts have created guidelines and instructions about how to assist without crossing the lines between legal information and legal advice. However, at a recent court conference, the following comments were shared, indicating the continuing challenges:

Court users don’t know the system; they don’t know how to navigate . . . and the system was built to NOT ease navigation.8

Courts should increase the focus on the public and (court) users.9

Nowadays, the practice of limiting service and assistance seems outlandish. In almost every environment, customers and users expect to self-direct and solve their need or problem, and services are specifically structured for self-guidance and navigation.10 

New Thinking

The navigator service has been a great people-watching adventure. It has been interesting to observe people and how they take in all the airport information, such as signage details, and absorb the environment and its energy. Here are the skills that I have come to appreciate and strive to demonstrate, based upon my new experiences as a navigator. These are not particularly groundbreaking. They have, however, caused me to think differently about interacting with others. These traits that I have attempted to use in the airport are transferrable to the court.

Results of using these skills have included calmed and informed passengers; positive impressions of the Phoenix airport; and, for me as a navigator, a sense of helping and making a difference.

So What? Implications for Court Managers

Based upon my experience, the following are suggested implications and actions for court leaders to consider.

  1. Strive to see the environment from the eyes of the customer and understand what it may feel like to interact with a complex system. It may be important to “walk the track” to see what court users experience. Members of the court system (judges and administrators) will benefit from remembering this and having empathy for court litigants and what they are going through.
  2. Continually seek to adopt and establish a customer-service mindset and make it the number-one priority. This will likely require someone on staff who is dedicated to customer-service processes and practices and who leads, monitors, and manages them.
  3. Create the goal of assisting as an integral and foundational part of representing the organization to the users of the organization. Many court mission and vision statements mention access and fairness, but are we really taking care of the assistance part?
  4. Adopt a problem-solving approach to simplify processes, embrace a customer friendly focus, and strive to provide information.11
  5. Leverage respect for different cultures and perspectives. Not everyone is comfortable interacting in a complex environment—one with rules, rigor, and deadlines.
  6. Consider and develop items as tools for help—as many as possible, from low-tech to high-tech items such as references, documents, materials, technology, and other partners as service providers.
  7. Train staff on cultivating customer-service skills like the items noted in the prior chart. Skills may include friendliness, ability to reach out, body language and eye contact, language and communication skills, the ability and desire to engage with customers, or even the ability to simplify complex court processes.
  8. Consider how tasks can be organized to support and contribute to customer assistance actions and in as many areas of court services as possible (whether on site, by phone, via documents, and by electronic or Web access).

Please consider the importance of your court’s customer-service practices. How can your court find value in helping others, and then plan for services and helpful interactions? What can you do to enhance the experience for your court users? And the next time you fly through the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, look for the navigators wearing bright purple—you may see me on duty!


Janet G. Cornell is a past president of NACM, and a retired court administrator, having served over 35 years in the Arizona courts. She is currently a court consultant, presenter, and author. Since early 2018 she has been serving as an airport navigator at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Janet may be reached at jcornellaz@cox.net.

  1. The groundbreaking Self-Service Center initially started in February 1995. Background details are available here. Currently, self-service functions operate from the Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, Law Library Resource Center.
  2. See Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, “Self-Service Center: Final Report for the State Justice Institute,” April 17, 1997.
  3. As indicated from a study of court cases in 2012-13, 76 percent of civil cases have at least one unrepresented party. See Call to Action: Achieving Civil Justice for All: Recommendations to the Conference of Chief Justices by the Civil Justice Improvements Committee (Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts, 2016).
  4. The City of Phoenix Aviation Department and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport have been sponsoring navigators since November 2000. See program information at https://www.skyharbor.com/Jobs or www.skyharbor.com/volunteer.
  5. Appreciation is extended to colleagues at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, including other volunteers who helped train me; Rachel Brannon, volunteer coordinator, Navigator Volunteer Program, Aviation Program, City of Phoenix; and Mavis Gal, general manager, Navigator Program, Airport Terminal Services.
  6. In the Phoenix airport, volunteers include the navigators as well as navigator buddies—human volunteers with therapy dogs, which provide a calming interaction with passengers.
  7. This content is from circa 1982 and signage or instructions posted at the Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, before the development of the Self-Service Center.
  8. Comment from David Slayton, administrative director, Texas Office of Court Administration, at the National Center for State Courts e-Courts Conference, December 2018, Las Vegas.
  9. Comment from Kevin Bowling, court administrator and attorney referee, 20th Circuit and Ottawa County Probate Courts, Michigan, at the e-Courts Conference, December 2018, Las Vegas.
  10. A Google search on self-assistance surfaced the following:  self-help to publish a book, addiction self-help, self-help home improvement, and medical self-help.
  11. See also Serpil Ergun, “The Challenges of Change: How Court Managers Can Adapt to the Changing Landscape of Civil Litigation,” Court Manager 33, no. 3 (2018), available at www.nacmnet.org.