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Does Customer Service Matter for Government? 5 Examples for Change

The Customer Service series is supported by RightNow Technologies. To learn more on how to use cloud technology to improve customer service, visit the RightNow resource center today. Check out the GovLoop/RightNow Customer Service Hub to get smart on how to be awesome at customer service

This is post 1 of the new “Customer Service” series I’m excited to write on GovLoop. Every week we’ll be exploring issues of how government is dealing with the new customer service demands from citizens and how to meet the new mandates at the federal level.

We’ll be discussing tools, tips, examples of how to make government customer service as great as Zappos (and definitely better than the cable company). Please let me know if there are certain topics, questions, examples you want me to cover – would love it


On to the first post….

Lately, there’s been more and more focus on the power of customer service.

Apple has grown like crazy in the last decade with a story built around “geniuses” that they recruit heavily and go out of their way to help you. Zappos is famous for being not an online shoe company but an entire organization focused around one mission: to provide the best customer service possible. Starbucks promises to make your double venti soy macciato perfect with a smile every time.

Now it’s government’s turn. On April 27th, President Obama published a new executive order entitled “Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service” with the focus of improving quality of service to the public. Agency’s must create agency customer service plans and activities by the end of October and report back to the public.

This is not the first time the government has focused on customer service.

In 1993, Executive Order 12862 (Setting Customer Service Standards) required agencies that provide significant services directly to the public to identify and survey their customers, establish service standards and track performance against those standards, and benchmark customer service performance against the best in business.

Additionally there were Presidential Memos in 1995 and 1998 with titles such as “Improving Customer Service” and a “Conversations with America” to Further Improve Customer Service”.

Now, more than ever, customer service is critical to leaving a positive impression on citizens and meeting your mission needs.

And the number of channels and new ways where people expect customer service is exploding.

Here are just a couple examples lately:

1) Restaurants – recently a restaurant I went to that had a wait asked for my phone number and said they’d text me when my table was ready. That’s a change form the clunky thing that turns red.

2) Flights – When a plane is delayed whether it’s weather, a ton of folks goes on Twitter to complain. It’s not perfect but people expect a response or minimally some information.

3) Wi-fi everywhere – I dropped off my car for an oil change. The lobby used to just have bad TV and bad coffee. Now we expect it to have Wi-fi to work. Are government buildings like DMV and court houses prepared?

4) Passwords – I recently forgot my password to my federal TSP retirement account. They actually mailed me my password 4 days later. In contrast to my Vanguard and ING Direct where if I forget my password, they let me reset it in 10 seconds or worst case can call in and fix.

5) Everything online – My #1 thing I want to do with my normal customer service is avoid humans. If I have a problem, the first thing I do is google for 10 minutes trying to find an answer. And we expect to find the answer in places like Apple support forums. And this isn’t just the easy top 10 questions but the tens of thousands of long-tail questions.

With the changes in technology, demographics, and cultural norms, there is such opportunity for government to improve its customer service. As such, RightNow and GovLoop have teamed up to provide you with this Customer Service Hub to meet the new executive order requirements due this fall. You will find an on-going blog series as well as great tools, groups, dialogues, and events. If there are topics or issues you want us to cover, let us know. Should be a blast.

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Brian Gryth


Great points. I’d add one additional thought. If an agency or any business can’t offer the gold standard, then they need to explain why in an open and authentic manner. For instance, the password example you use. There could be countless reasons why TSP mails you the password. The reason could be legal, compliance standards, or cost. Unless a person is unreasonable, I would suspect any customer might say “I understand” or “okay that make sense” to an honest and straightforward explanation. We might not like it, but we would get the explanation. That being said, if the explanation is unreasonable, then the agency or business should expect the dissatisfaction and displeasure of their customers.

I suppose in the end customer service is about connection. I was going to say relationship, but I think that over emphasize the nature of the contact. In some case, customer service is about relationship. But in many case it is simply building a connection that sustains a degree of respect and empathy with the customer.

Alicia Mazzara

Great point about TSP. I am still completely baffled that they will only mail a new password, which can take up to 10 days. Likewise, good ideas about wifi and being able to get your questions answered online.

R. Anne Hull

Customer service is measured in a vast number of ways depending on where you sit.

Customers (include yourself here) are satisfied when they get what they want, when & how they want it.

Without hesitation we respond with how unrealistic that is. So we develop measures that support what we can do, but not necessarily what will ensure satisfaction. Next we go an ‘educate the customer’ campaign. Jump to the end of this trail and we still have an unsatisfied customer and more procedural work.

To get closer to customer satisfaction we not only need to respect and empathize with the customer but make the correct decision when we cannot meet their demand and provide a convincing, human explanation. Just because” its against policy” will never win the battle.

We need to take the systemic view ensuring there isn’t built-in conflict. Our customer service and performance goals need to support each other.

Anne R. Urbanski

Your #5 sounds like my #1 – I am terribly phone-averse and try to avoid talking to human “customer service” people as much as possible.