Tips for empowering customer service employees

Customer service is a core function of government, yet 60 percent of government executives describe citizens’ attitudes toward government as “frustrated,” according to a recent Government Business Council survey. One way to improve the reputation of your organization is to empower frontline employees so they can provide better customer service.

Excellent customer service is a key goal for successful private sector companies. A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog post identified five steps that companies can take to empower employees for the purpose of improving customer service. Blog post authors, Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy, identified the steps when they researched 20 organizations for their book, “Judgment on the Front Line.”

For the book, DeRose and Tichy researched companies that focus on putting power, resources and trust in the hands of front line personnel. They found that these empowered employees are better able to solve customer problems and provide quick, efficient service than those who are not empowered to make their own judgment calls.

The principles that DeRose and Tichy identified for empowering employees can work in the public sector as well as the private sector. In fact, the U.S. Navy Seals were among the 20 groups the authors studied. Other groups ranged from the Ritz-Carlton to Yum! Brands to the Mayo Clinic.

The authors found that no individual organization has all the answers but by combining best practices from the organizations they studied, they identified basic principles for empowering employees. Following are the five steps outlined in the HBR blog modified a bit to better fit public sector organizations.

Step 1: Connect the front line to your organization’s mission. In the HBR post, the authors note that this action starts with senior leaders who have the authority to ensure frontline voices are heard. With public sector organizations, the tie between customer service employees and mission goals is even more important. Senior leaders need to help connect mission goals to customer service goals while listening closely to align training, work processes and reward systems.

Step 2: Teach people to think for themselves. Employees at all levels need to understand the strategy for handling citizen and stakeholder services. A simple problem-solving framework should be identified so employees have a shared language and thought process for diagnosing root causes of problems or exploring customer needs.

Step 3: Grant front line workers latitude to experiment. Front line workers observe service breakdowns but also opportunities for serving customers in new ways. Teaching customer service managers the basics for designing simple experiments enables organizations to test more ideas for improving customer service.

Step 4: Break down the process. In the HBR post, this tip addressed the internal barriers in an organization that often lead to hierarchical but inefficient decisions. With government organizations, one of the most significant changes can be to break down the barriers in the customer service process. Find the areas where customers are consistently calling. There’s likely a problem in the process, and your customers can’t figure out how to move forward. So they contact your organization, quite often by phone or email. By freeing frontline customer service workers to identify the frequent interactions or questions they receive, they can work on providing solutions that can lead to self-service options. But this also means that your organization needs to break down the processes or administrative work that can get in the way of enabling the front line to serve customers.

Step 5: Put resources behind it. With technology changing at a faster pace than ever before, communications tools are also rapidly evolving. This affects customer service expectations from stakeholders, so investing in training is critical. However, with sequestration and continual budget cuts throughout government, training is likely one of the areas that’s easily cut. Instead, look at collaborative training sessions with your customer service employees. Provide a space and time; allow your team to discuss their concerns and crowdsource solutions internally.

Implementing some or all of these steps can empower customer service employees in government agencies to improve processes resulting in more efficient services and timely resolution of stakeholder issues.

For federal employees, improving customer service is not a choice. In 2011 President Obama issued a mandate that federal agencies improve the customer experience and streamline processes.

For additional ideas on how to improve customer service, check out our Citizen Service Management white paper.

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