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December 27, 2004
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

The Ultimate Customer Service - Government Just for Me!

ImageThere are fairly regular outbursts in local governments about the need for improvement in customer service. Perhaps some citizen complained about rude treatment by a receptionist, building inspector, police officer or other county employees. Perhaps this led to a call by an elected official, a member of the press or a department director for the organization to assess its customer service and to improve it.

These circumstances have given rise to business-like "secret shoppers," who pretend to need a building permit, apply for a job or get a library card when really they are filling out checklists and writing reports back to the organization which hired them about what they experienced.

This quest for customers to be treated with respect, courtesy and efficiency in every situation has also given rise to customer service programs, such as Broward County’s "Sun-sational Service" or incentive programs including prize patrols, free lunches and other things to encourage employees to be more focused on the customer.

All of us are consumers of government services. We are also customers of private and nonprofit organizations. Clearly, we are left with a very poor impression when the supermarket or department store employee, ironically called a "customer service" clerk, never makes eye contact, is busy chatting about tonight’s date on the phone, or otherwise acting robotically when providing service to us waiting in line.

The HR Doctor, in fact, recalls an event at an electronics store while waiting in line to return a small part which malfunctioned. A man several places in front was holding a television set and was getting visibly tired of the wait and annoyed with the one clerk on duty who seemed to be oblivious of what was going on. He put the television down and began yelling at the clerk who not only took no action to calm him down, but rather started yelling back.

The situation escalated after a sheriff’s deputy who was working in uniform on a store security detail appeared and was punched by the irate customer. What followed next was the HR Doctor as well as the officer helping to restrain the person and trying to calm the situation.

On the surface, what occurred was battery on a law enforcement officer by an irate and frustrated senior citizen. However, the real "perpetrator" was the very poorly planned and executed approach by this particular store, which allowed a situation like this to occur in the first place, and to be escalated instead of mitigated.

The customer felt belittled and embarrassed. He was ignored by the very employee whose job was supposed to exist in the first place to provide service. The employee felt physically threatened and did not feel at all responsible for the underlying causes. That was well over two years ago and the HR Doctor has bought his electronic toys elsewhere ever since.

In dealing with government services; however, there is often no opportunity to select another provider of services. If I need a paramedic at my home, I am unable to ask the 911 operator to specifically dispatch Erik Dodge on Rescue 19. I don’t control that situation at all.

Customer service excellence is much more than training sessions, cute reminders and free lunches. It requires the active role modeling behavior of the organization’s managers and supervisors, as well as its elected officials, in setting consistently positive examples. Also critical is a clear understanding and regular reminders to people that the numbers on the internal auditor’s spreadsheet do not constitute the true measure of their success as a public servant alone. In fact, numbers are very important and very powerful in our society, but generally they will not make us compassionate, empathetic or happy.

We need to focus as much on the quality of our interaction with other people as we do on the quantity. A rapid response is a poor benchmark if the response is disrespectful and generates hostility instead of appreciation. This is no simple goal to reach no matter how many psychologists, public relations experts or "process improvers" the organization hires.

Fortunately, there are cutting edge opportunities for amazing customer service approaches brought about by the Internet. These open a wide door for businesses and public agencies to make customer service an amazingly positive experience.

Why not create online systems that allow me to interact with governments at my convenience without ever leaving my home whether it be to pay my taxes or utility bills, renew my driver’s license or apply for a job? Why can’t I have access to training programs, agency policies, my own personnel file and other documents at my convenience as an employee? Enabling customer and employee self-service may mean the best service possible!

There are no longer technological reasons why I can’t do all of these things and a lot more. In fact, not only will it exceed my expectations as a customer and change my way of thinking about government services, but it will also be cheaper for the organization in the long run. It will free up resources which could be used elsewhere.

Last year County News published a chart comparing the costs of certain business transactions in person, by phone and by electronic means. Here are some of the findings:

A banking transaction conducted in person cost an average of $1.08 in person, $.54 by telephone and $.13 when done on the Internet. Paying a bill ranged in cost from $2.22 to $3.32 in person but $.65 to $1.10 electronically. Distributing software by traditional means averaged $15, but $.20 to $.50 via the Internet. Another example was airline ticket purchasing Ñ $8 versus $1!

In addition to the general savings in the "cost of doing business," however, I get to choose whether to transact my banking business between 10 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. or, if I prefer, between 3 p.m. and 10:00.

Having these options available represents customized government service: customized for me as an individual, for my convenience, and in the easiest way possible based on my schedule and life style. Truly customized individualized service represents the new frontier of customer service.

Of course, it comes with dangers and caveats.

Agencies lacking the technology have to clearly and specifically create a plan identifying exactly what they need and want. They may not have the internal skill and knowledge to develop the plan in the first place. However, there may be a government entity next door from which they can borrow help or they may hire a consultant. In either case, clear identification of the vision and the outcome is a critical first step. Otherwise, the vendors may come to look upon the government agency as a corporate ATM machine for their profit!

The next step is to create a detailed plan Ñ a very detailed plan Ñ at a very tactical level, identifying every step of the process. How will the Web page look? How will the links be created for me as a consumer to come on line at 2 a.m. and pay my bill? What about credit card uses, which may require business alliances with Visa, MasterCard or American Express? What happens if the technology "crashes?" These and a great many more details can be so tedious to labor through that the overall vision can be forgotten.

In turn, this analysis leads to the involvement of our friends presiding over the often extremely structured purchasing process. Ironically, this process itself may not be very user friendly and may require the submission of thousands of pounds of paper. The great danger at this point, as with the tactical step, is that the procurement process complexity switches the focus to the process itself rather than to the final objective.

Then there are the many problems associated with dealing with the vendors and marketers of technology products who often make what HR Daughter Elyse describes as "pie crust" promises Ñ easily made and easily broken. There must be service level standards and perhaps penalties and incentives built in so that the vendors’ promises turn into reality. Clear and regular internal project management is critical to make sure that the project turns into a successful outcome instead of a remake of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. One in-command project manager from the agency will be needed to become the trail boss of the effort, driving it to success, on time and within budget.

Finally, a successful project deserves a successful celebration when it is completed, and when employees and customers can see the tangible results.

However, none of these steps will be successful, despite the hard work and best efforts of many people, if a very important precursor is not installed at the very beginning. That fundamental requirement is that the people involved, including all of the stakeholders, customers, employees, vendors and top elected officials see an exciting vision of what could be and commit to the success of that vision. It may not be as grand as "putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade," but without visionary, exciting goals and an appeal to a higher loyalty of bringing that goal to a successful conclusion, all of the hundreds of pages of a purchasing RFP, or the countless meetings that might be involved will become an exercise in frustration and the dashing of hope.

Truly extraordinary and amazing customer service is now possible in ways never imagined in government before, thanks to the technology now available. But that technology left alone without an even more important component is a recipe to even more troubled and failed customer service. People can be trapped inside endless loops of automated telephone attendant and computer freezers. The additional critical requirement is for a human face to always be part of the process. Someone who can deal with the customer with empathy and without appearing to be a brain dead robot is essential. A technology can be wonderful but it must never be relied on as the only way to provide customer service. It should a tool for amazing outcomes and not an excuse for humans to abdicate responsibility to meet the needs of other people.


Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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