Customer Service Mantra: Listen, Respect, Follow

From my very first presentation about being a government web manager – way back in the mid-90s – I’ve said this: “if you listen to your audience, they will tell you what to put on your website.” Listening to your audience is absolutely the cornerstone of great customer service. But it doesn’t stop there. You also have to respect what they tell you and follow – yes, I said “follow” – what they say. I know it’s very, very hard to do…especially when you know more than your audience knows – right (wink wink)? But if you want citizens to trust you, like you, use your services, participate, you’ve got to apply the principles of customer service. Listen to your audience. Respect and follow what they tell you.

OK – I need to digress here a minute. The other day, a friend said to me, “Candi – what’s the deal with you and ‘customer service’ all of a sudden? You always preached ‘citizen service’ – not ‘customer service.’ You always reminded us that citizens are not ‘customers.’ They own their government. Why the sudden change of heart?” Well, mea culpa. That is what I preached. But I finally stopped and listened. And respected. And followed.

“Citizen service” isn’t a concept that people outside of government understand. Really, they don’t. Just ask friends or family members, “how do you think government should provide great citizen service?” They get this glassy-eyed look on their faces and then stumble around trying to come up with an answer. But ask them, “how do you think government should provide great customer service?” and you can see the understanding on their faces. That’s a concept that resonates. That’s a concept they can apply. They can tell you what they think government should be doing to give them great customer service.

Honestly, I have to thank Craig Newmark for this wake-up call. Craig is all about great customer service…he uses it as the basic value behind Craigslist. He blogs about it and talks about it all over the country. He praises others who deliver it…like his praise for the state of Georgia’s exemplary customer service efforts (and if you haven’t followed the ground-breaking things they’re doing in Georgia, I posted a link below to a article about it). I have a lot of respect for Craig. And I finally listened to him – to the words he uses…to the way he talks about the concept that I always have called “citizen service.” Duh, Candi. Practice what you preach. Use the term that citizens use and understand…people who are NOT in government…people like Craig. Listen, respect, follow. If we want to know what we can do to improve our service to citizens, we have to ask them using words that are meaningful to them.

So, are you a good listener? It takes practice to be a good listener. Here’s a little exercise we used all the time in grad school counseling courses. Sit down with an acquaintance or colleague – someone you don’t know too well. Ask him/her 5 questions (questions more complex than “what’s your favorite color” or “do you like sushi,” please!) Don’t take notes – just listen to what he/she says. After you’ve listened to all 5 responses, repeat back what you heard. Ask him/her if you got it right. Did you really understand what you were hearing? Did you get it all? Did you pick up the nuances? If so, bravo! If not…do some more practicing. We all need to be better listeners. Now go read some of that web manager email or watch some usability testing or get out of your office and go talk to some average folks about what they want from your website and apply that listening skill.

And once you hear and understand what your audience wants…what they’re interested in (and not interested in)…what they want first…what words they use to describe what they want…then you’ve got to respect what they’ve told you and follow their lead. If “buying a home” is more important to them than “see what we’re doing in your community,” then put it first. If they prefer the term “jobs” to “employment,” use “jobs.” If they tell you that your processes are slow or too complex or they can’t find what they want, do something about it. Fix it. And here’s a hard one for many government agencies – if they tell you they want to see what you’ve got to offer in the way of services before they see your news releases and photos of your agency heads, believe them…honor them. Put the services and information your audience cares about most up in that prime space at the top left and center, where they see it first. Listen, respect, follow.

Providing great customer service from government IS a big deal (another Craig-ism). It is – or should be – the number one reason we have government websites. If you listen, you will know the right thing to do. If you respect and follow, citizens will be – and will feel – well-served. I’ll end on a quote from Craig, when asked in a recent interview for his advice on creating great customer service: “Treat people like you want to be treated.” Yep – my mom said the same thing. So simple to understand. So hard to do. Citizens want their government to listen to them and to respect and follow what they say. Do that, and you will serve well.

Related Links
Georgia Praised for Customer Service

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The Power of Watching and Listening
If We Engage, Will You Listen?
Knowing Your Audience Is A Web Manager’s Most Important Asset

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