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Creating a Culture of Customer Service – “And Would You Like Catsup for Your Fries?”

Last week, a friend told me about a presentation she’d just done for some local elected officials, on making government websites customer-friendly. She said the session had gone really well – they got it. But this is what caught my attention. She said some of these government officials had never thought about their websites in terms of customer service. They used them as tools for program delivery. Kind of here it is. One-way. No engagement. Not like the drive-up window at McDonalds, where we not only hear, “How can I serve you,” but also, “And would you like catsup for your fries?”

Are these officials anomalies among government leaders? Nope – I don’t think so. Nor do I think they’re bad because they hadn’t thought about their websites from their customers’ point of view. The culture in government traditionally has been, we know best. Not, how can we serve you? If we want government to deliver great customer service, we’re going to have to create a real culture change.

Some of you may think this is an impossible task – right? Government is too big. Too entrenched. Well, you know what? Change already is afoot: social media. Look how many agencies are jumping on the social media bandwagon. True, some of them are doing it because it’s cool and honestly don’t have a business case (yet). But there are some who really do get it…who really are using it to listen to and serve customers better. And they’re out there pushing. They’re risk-takers. They believe in the basic premise of social media – trust the crowd to get it right.

Changing government culture to value the customer – to trust the customer to get it right – is a huge challenge. It’s finding more and better ways to listen to customers and watch how they behave and adjusting our services accordingly. It’s re-thinking how, when, and where we deliver government services and integrating delivery channels so service is consistent. It’s humanizing our service delivery. It’s training employees at all levels to honor and respect our customers and rewarding employees who go that extra mile to give customers the very best experience possible. It’s showing customers we know and care about them by answering their questions before they even ask. “Would you like catsup for your fries?”

So, what next? Well, at the risk of being redundant, we need a Customer Service Summit to map out a government-wide (note I said “government-wide” – not “agency-by- agency” or “silo-by-silo” – because our customers see us as a whole) strategy. But you don’t have to wait for a Summit to start causing change.

To my government web manager friends… With great respect and affection, may I suggest you start by changing your motto from “better websites – better government” to “better websites – better service?” Serving customers better is the goal. I know that’s what you believe…saying it will help others catch the spirit.

To every single government employee… Put up a picture of your mom or your brother or your friend or someone in a magazine, with this caption under it: “I am your customer – can you help me?” Every day, in all you do, imagine that your customers are sitting right there with you. If your customers were in this meeting, what would they say? If your customers were helping you write that memo or complete that assignment, what would they ask?

Pledge to never say, “No, I can’t help you.” Or, “I don’t know.” Or to make customers feel stupid or wrong. Be a role model of customer service for your colleagues. Share what you learn about, and from, your customers. When you get that email or answer a phone call from a customer, take another minute to make sure you’ve really told them everything they need to know just as clearly and concisely as possible. Point out next steps or alternatives. Anticipate their questions. Leave them thinking, “Wow! My government knows what I want even without my asking. I’m really getting my money’s worth when I pay my taxes.”

“And would you like catsup for your fries?”

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The motto of better websites – better government” to “better websites – better service” in my opinion should also include better marketing! Yes, it’s all about getting your name out there so people not only know who you are, what you do, and where to get the answers, but they will also learn how great you are!!

Connie Clem

Bingo. That’s value. It’s a major change of perspective to think of “who is the customer and what does that customer want from us? ” And that raises the broader question of who “us” is. Breaking down those online silos (departments, agencies, divisions) has intriguing potentials for portalizing government. Add in finding places to invite input and engagement to benefit performance, create communities and dialogue, and improve understanding. Promoting info flow in both directions = idea whose time is arriving.

Bryan Conway JD, PMP

In terms of customer service, I always tell Gen Y new hires (and longer tenured employees if they will listen) “Pretend like your livelihood depends upon your customer’s satisfaction; pretend like they have other options and could fire you and go to your competitor.”
One reason government employees have such a poor image is due to the employees’ awareness that the customers can’t take their business elsewhere. If I need to get my driver’s license renewed, I have to go to the state’s BMV – if they treat me like badly, what is my recourse? Complain to the equally unpleasant supervisor? The customer’s taxes are paying their wages – government employees must be conscious of this fact at all times when dealing with customers.

Henry Brown

Something that I have done in the past, with at least some degree of success, is have my staff actual involve themselves for a period of time (a week was ideal but even a day works) as a customer. This would work rather well because of at least a couple of factors…

A. My primary “mission” for years has been IT customer support
B. A significant amount of the work was virtual
C. There were in place more than adequate metrics to measure most productivity issues.

I would use these sessions as a training tool which IMO would more times than not improve the entire teams performance. For years the teams were formally recognized for providing customer service above and beyond.

Nichole Henley

Amen, sista! EVERYONE should take heed—private, public, independent, UNEMPLOYED!! I often ask myself ANYWHERE I go…what happened to customer service?

@Bryan— I don’t think gov’t has a poor image nor can it’s business be easily done elsewhere. I think it has to do with the fact that there are never “easy answers.” Lines of communication, responsibility, authority, etc are not transparent!! And because we are always juggling so many changes from Congress, the president, the public, our branch heads, our SES, our immediate supervisors—- it’s very difficult to dicifer. Sometimes everyone needs to be reminded how large the federal sector is and HOW DEMANDING it can be. Sure, everyone could do a better job. But customer service goes both ways— approach us as we are human beings and don’t categorize us as “waste” or “ungrateful”. Be mindful of our time and our chain of command and what is in our area of responsibility.

And if I hear the argument about government employees and tax dollars one more time…… 😉

But yes, we all must learn how to serve.

Bryan Conway JD, PMP

@Nichole – I wasn’t suggesting that a lot of government functions could actually be done elsewhere; I was encouraging government customer service providers to “pretend” that they have competition and to treat customers as if they actually needed them to maintain their jobs!

Unfortunately, many do have a poor impression of government workers, and in some cases, it is totally justified. I could provide you with quite a few personal experiences where a government employee gave me really bad customer service that would not be tolerated in the private sector.

Although you may grow weary of being reminded that the tax payers pay our wages, that does not change the reality of it, there is no argument to the contrary! I’m sorry if this sounds abrasive, but if you are an employee (government or otherwise) and are not constantly mindful of the financial source of your employment, your priorities cannot possibly be aligned with your organization’s mission.

Nichole Henley

I love a healthy debate!! I’m a taurus so I tend to learn more through arguments/discussion/debating!!!

Yes, the source of our employment should always be on the mind. And yes, there are bad apples. My constant struggle is to bring to light that every area has performance issues and unfortunately because of “who” federal workers are (running the country, paid by tax dolllars, etc) our screw-ups and mistakes receive a lot of attention– more so than the successes and achievements that WE ALL have (not just when there’s an award to be given to the VERY FEW which has dollar amounts tied to it).

As for social media, it’s very interesting to see how government views their web pages. I came from an organization that just began to reinvent their webpage– making it publicly available and more of a portal format. However….if the links don’t work and your links provide the SAME information in the SAME format as before in your web 1.0 environment….is there a difference? Is this reallly web 2.0 if the customer STILL can’t serve themselves or figure out where to go for answers or even know that the portal exists??? Just asking…

Dannielle Blumenthal

Right on Candi and everyone else!!!

Here are a couple of thoughts on what is getting in the way and how we can fix it.


1. Psychology – fear of change, fear of being subject to criticism and metrics, fear of losing power and control

2. Culture – “we have always done things this way,” “they (the public) will have to adjust,” “not my problem,” etc.

3. Politics – someone has a stake in the way things currently are; for the seismic change that is coming to really take root, someone in power has to lose that power and someone else has to gain it

4. Economics – customer service takes investment and that money has to come from somewhere; also admitting that you have to be more customer service oriented means possibly losing your livelihood, if you don’t succeed

5. Biology – people are hardwired for survival and will fight to protect their turf


Change in my view is going to have to come about as a result of some overwhelming force that leads to a tipping point. For example:

1. Major crisis

2. Public outcry

3. Some sort of scandal about the cost of lack of customer service

Scott M. Patton

I’ve found that government websites in general have improved dramatically from a customer service perspective over the recent past (except for the prominence of elected officials being #1 from a design perspective). But I’ve also found that the functionality of websites for colleagues/ professionals have decreased – I find it increasingly difficult to be able to find contact information for the budget manager who can have a five minute discussion about a budget process nuance that piqued my interest. Guess you can’t have it both ways.

Carol Davison

I am happy to report that our HR Director had us put a link at the footer of our emails where customers can make suggestions. She also had us list our phone and fax, all of which make it easy for customers to respond to us and contact us. I can’t believe in this day and age that people don’t include contact information in their footers. I also submitted improvements to our website so I can serve my customers 24-7. As a performance and development weenie, I distribute course evaluations to all students, and ask particularly insightful ones to stay after class to help me improve the class right then. Who DOESN’T want to have the satisfaction of serving one’s customers well and doing a good job?

Sunny Hester

Thanks Candi for raising this issue for our virtual discussion. Customer Service is a core competency here at HHS and one that I think we often take for granted, especially when we forget to remember that we are customers to each other. Our Deputy Assistant Secretary of Human Resources, Denise Wells, recently created a couple of posters that have two slogans that I’d like to share since they’re so pertinent to this discussion:

1. “Quality Counts: It’s not an HR transaction, it’s a life. It’s not a file; it’s a Family Member. Please handle with care.”

2. “Some of our major life decisions depend on the HR advice you give us. Please help us make the best decision for our families, by providing us accurate information. We’re counting on you to get it right. Thank you, HHS Employees and Potential Applicants”.

While your initial discussion dealt with our “face to the public” our websites, once they get to the “right place” and a person picks up the phone, we all play a part in making it a positive experience.

Stephen Peteritas

@Alycia I like that slogan, kind of like a more polished Git Er Done. That could definitely be a spin off discussion, what are some amazing government slogans?

Eric Miller

Just for debate, I’ll be a bit of a contrarian. I’d differentiate between improving professionalism and improving customer service.

Improving professionalism benefits everyone. More gets done, it’s a more productive environment, and citizens can come away from the experience with a positive impression of government and public servants. Improved professionalism can take a lot of forms — a polished and useful web presence, a well-run public communications campaign, or a smooth and productive interaction with government employees. It also respects the skills and contributions of the government employees as partners in the enterprise.

Customer service, by contrast, subtly shifts the balance of power to the citizen in ways that can be counterproductive. The truth is that the customer isn’t always right; if you’re just dealing with an order of fries, that’s one thing, but more serious stakes are involved with many government activities.

And putting a shiny ‘customer service’ face on incompetence is the worst of all possible worlds, because it initially promises something the agency can’t deliver. And that results in even more of an angry letdown for the citizen/customer.

So I think it’s important to strike a balance. Embrace the more positive and proactive role with internal and external contacts as popularized by the ‘customer service’ concept, but maintain the integrity of the agency and staff by improving processes and professionalism.

Disclaimer: I’m maybe a little more blunt with my perspective on citizen interactions because I’m not a government employee. Our firm consults with agencies to build their sites, so we often need to take the role of the cold-eyed, dispassionate realist when it comes to customer engagement. Having seen some agencies unable to sustain heightened levels of interaction or customer engagement or service promised by their positioning, I’m a little conservative on these things nowadays…

Mick Phythian

Sh**e, didn’t we have this debate enough back in the neo-liberal NPM days? Look at the fall-out from that! OK we should improve our approach to citizens but by treating them as ‘customers’ devalues their democratic role. I could go on all night. Lets focus on them and value them as our wage-payers and the electorate and all the things they are! Customers they ain’t!

I’ll shut up now!

Mick http://greatemancipator.com

Terri Jones

I think that it is valuable to consider how the user might approach any technology you are choosing to use. I especially liked this.. “It’s finding more and better ways to listen to customers and watch how they behave and adjusting our services accordingly.” It might be that government doesn’t get it right the first time, but the willingness to listen and adjust is perhaps the most important lesson.