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The Biggest Barrier to Great Customer Service? Egos!

I had an interesting discussion with an esteemed colleague about my last blog post on making sure portal sites add value. One of my suggestions was to adopt a common design and publication standards across all agencies covered by the portal. He said, “Here’s a fact…every government entity will do what is in its best interest…program, business unit, a bureau or a department will do what is in its best interest…there is no incentive for them to try to coordinate/manage.” Sadly, he speaks the truth. And though I’ve only worked in the federal government, I’m guessing that truth extends to state and local governments, as well.

In huge bureaucracies, the customer often gets lost among the competition for budgets, power, and prestige (which might lead to a better job). Both political executives and career employees – even web managers – thrive on doing something better than another office or agency. Normally, I think healthy competition is a good thing. But not in government, where great customer service often means bridging silos and cooperation is paramount. Self-interest – even if it isn’t personal…even if it’s for your office or agency – is the biggest barrier to great customer service.

So how do we overcome that barrier? How do we make it more important to serve our customers than to serve ourselves? The answer is both simple and horrendously difficult: change the reward system. Change both the tangible and intangible rewards for doing a good job. Reward government employees for cooperation and working together to produce the best customer service possible.

OK – so we aren’t the President or Congress or OMB. We can’t change things at a high level. But there are many things we can do to start changing that “me, me, me” culture.

Start with ourselves. Take a look at your to-do list. How could your customers get better service if you picked up the phone and called that colleague at another agency to see if you could team up to do something together? Look for opportunities to cross those organizational boundaries and connect the dots to make it easier for customers to complete their tasks.

Then there are things we can do as a community. Some examples:

  • Refocus awards to recognize groups of employees – not individuals – who work together to overcome barriers and improve customer service across agencies.
  • Sponsor an “Innovation in Customer Service” contest, and challenge agencies to work together.
  • Spotlight cooperative efforts in best practices and case studies used in courses and on How-to.gov.
  • Invite conference and webinar and Web Manager Forum speakers who can relate real-life examples of customer service successes produced by employees working across organizations.
  • Publicize good examples of team efforts to break down barriers and improve customer service. Success begets success.

I’ll bet you can think of other fixes. Let’s hear ‘em.

Look, we can be cynical and sit back and sigh and say government executives and employees are only human and will always be self-interested and government will never change. Or we can try to do the right thing and cause that change, one baby step at a time.

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George Murphy

I think the cooperation needs to have a much narrower focus to start. How can we reach out to others outside our agencies, when we do not have cooperation within our division and groups? It needs to start there first. It could start with being able to share common information among ourselves, then being able to pass it along to our customers.

Carol Davison

According to the psychology 60% of people are reactie and 6% are egotists with whom people cannot get along. (If only we didn’t hire them or put them in leaderhsip positions, but their ego drives them up there.) That leaves 33% who want to effectively serve customers. The second problem is being too busy fighting alligators to remember that your initial mission was to drain the swmap.

Scott Thomas

i agree with @Maria Morukian’s post! I watched that video a year or two ago and I think I sent it to everyone I know. It’s very enlightening and well articulated.

John Westra

Great article Ms. Harrison!

I think the challenge of Ego is especially acute in Logal Government, like the Townships we have here in Michigan. In our Townships, the Supervisor, Clerk and Treasurer, who are typically in charge of day-to-day gov administration, are elected, not hired. They frequently lack any formal customer service training or experience, but by virtue of their position are inclined to believe they have all the skills they need to communicate effectively. #FAIL

One of the key reforms we should all be working towards is making sure that all of those we elect or hire to lead in government, have the training, experience and proven track record of success to make them viable candidates. Preference should be given to those who “get” the importance of customer service, transparency and communication leadership!


I think it’s more than customer service orientation & training. There’s a legacy culture in place with very thick armor (paleolithic plating?) around it that wants to be the first to shout “Not It!!” when something new comes in. This culture also practices scarcity thinking. The more someone else is successful, the less success there is in the universe to go around. If you use it all up, there’s none for me. Or worse yet, the ones who run away from success because it only creates expectations. It gets tiresome having to work with those aiming to maintain a solid C to C- average.

Brian Dowling

The term Self-Interest is being misapplied here in my view. While I agree that it is a matter of incentives, the current system of incentives awards silos not as an achievement but as a matter of survival or at least calming turbulent waters. It would be in everyone’s self-interest to be more collaborative. This seems to becoming truer for local communities competing for example Sustainable Community funding and other federal programs. I would not want to go too far with the idea one size fits all though and multi-level knowledge systems are arguably extremely complex. Yes, you can Google something but once you reach the first level of an inquiry, what do you do? Final point, Dan Pink’s TED video, as I remember, called for engagement as one means of rewarding professionals engaged in what should be collaborative work. Will reaching this stage of collaborative engagement both internally and externally with clients require some of Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation http://bit.ly/9Ra5Ci

Tim Evans

One major aspect here is that we cannot clearly show a concrete Return on Investment for our work. In the private sector, everyone’s objective is the same: to sell stuff, make money. Government folks don’t have this bottom-line objective, and it’s hard to tell folks how valuable the work we do is. Key is demonstrating some sort of bottom line, such as taxpayer money saved, or citizen time saved. When that common objective is understood, it’ll be easier to deal with egos.

Wendi Pomerance Brick

Great post! In my 13 years of working with government agencies to improve the customers’ experience, I would say “pride”, the twin sister of ego, is the underlying obstacle that I run headlong into again and again. But I do mean “pride” in a positive way. People, especially leaders, are very very proud of their organizations. In fact one study I read said that 80% of leaders think their organizations provide outstanding service. We all know that’s not even close to true.

So where’s the disconnect? Balancing pride with a life of learning. No matter how good we are at something, there is always more to learn and the opportunity to get better. When pride (or ego) stands in the way of taking an objective and honest view, that’s when it becomes a problem. There is always the opportunity to improve.

And to Tim’s comment below, here are two ROIs for great service in the public sector. Process improvements, which is part of great service (good service is fast service) could cut cycle times by 50% or more. And as for individual profession service skills, statistically a person could assist 5 times the number of people in the same day if those customers were not upset or angry. Great service is pro-active, we look at the reasons why people might become upset, engineer them out, and train people to work quickly to calm someone to get to the heart of the matter.

Great service in government makes great economic sense as well as great public perception sense. Thanks for bringing this issue to light! And for everyone who already thinks they provide great service – you probably do! But there are always things we can do better.

Preston G. Baker

Our agency has a relatively new administration that is implementing the principles of Lean Six Sigma. It is my hope that we will finally be able to recognize groups or units for outstanding customer service and innovative ideas instead of individuals as recommended by Candi. The egos of many former managers and directors resulted far too often in great ideas for process improvement falling on deaf ears, primarily because the ideas did not come from those high up on the org chart. It is the hope of many staff that this ‘failure of leadreship” is truly a thing of the past. Stay tuned!

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Wendi I think you’re onto something in focusing on “pride.” It’s a double-edged sword:

Self-Interested Pride often causes a person to want to get credit for it (often at the expense of others – so it cannot be shared). It makes a person want to hoard information to protect their turf or position…but it’s also a major motivator to help people want to change if it increases their sense of importance, value or control. So you can use it to motivate change.

Team-Based Pride creates a sense of shared mission. We’re all in this together and we celebrate each other’s successes. No one person gets the credit, but we all rise and fall together. Of course, that can also create group think and lead to myopic thinking…or an us against them mentality.

I’m wondering if you can leverage pride by posting positive customer comments somewhere for everyone to see…without attribution to a single individual, but saying “Look what our customers say about us!” Then leverage that out to the media so that the celebration extends beyond your internal team. And if there is negative feedback, as you said, it’s an opportunity to have a learning culture – “Look at the opportunity we have to pivot and provide even better service.”

Wendi Pomerance Brick

@Andrew – Those are both important points and certainly anything that can motivate positive change is valuable.

What I’m concerned about (and see all the time) is the pride that leads to “We’re already great and don’t need to improve.” I’m always walking a fine line between “yes, you are very good” and “there’s lots of things you can do to be even better.” It’s getting people to really hear the second part that’s a challenge.

I use this analogy to help people see. Do you have a hobby? Cooking, golf, painting? Would you ever consider taking a lesson from a professional to get better, or are you already as good as you can be?

Most people certainly are OK with taking lessons and getting better. It’s the same with service. Even if you and your team are good, really good, a professional can help you get better.

I think our biggest obstacle to improving service is accepting that no matter how good we are, we can always get better. Hey, I do this for a living – and I still go to training!

David Dejewski

I agree with Wendi. I too am continually walking the line between “yes, you are very good” and “there’s a lot of things you can do to be even better.” People are personally and emotionally involved with their pride and ego. It’s a balancing act to make progress without breaking a few egos.

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence – in this case a sobering biennial review (400+ people saying in writing that an agency (shall be unnamed) needs to do a better job serving it’s customers (a passing grade is 70%, but the highest grade found anywhere in the report was 63% – with low grades sub-20%)), this agency maintained a posture that they were serving the customer fine and customer outreach was not necessary. On paper, I have never seen an agency more in need of customer outreach.

I think the hardest part to deal with is the paradigm. Candi touches on this indirectly when she challenges us to look at ourselves. By definition, a paradigm is difficult to even recognize, let alone modify. Folks who buy into a paradigm are usually so close to it, they don’t even know it’s there. Without some external influence – and in the case of the agency I described above, even WITH external influence, the people involved don’t seem to be capable of seeing the opportunity to improve.

I really enjoyed the following Ted Talk this week. In it, Kathryn Schulz asks the question “What does it feel like to be wrong?” The answer is it feels exactly like being right. Watch the video to see what she’s talking about. Well done and eye opening. Made me wonder how often I’m wrong myself and don’t even know it. It also helps me to empathize a little more with the groups of people I am trying to help.