What’s the Deal With Customer Service in Government?

When you pit public sector customer service against that of the private sector, there’s rarely any debate over which is superior. Government shortcomings in customer experience have been long documented and, to some extent, expected. But does that really have to be the case?

This month’s DorebekINSIDER Live, titled “Evaluating Government Customer Service,” explored the topic. Guests Martha Dorris, Former Director in the Office of Strategic Programs at the General Services Administration, and Rick Parrish, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, spent the hour fielding questions from host Christopher Dorobek about how and why agencies should direct more time and resources to CX.

The basic question is simple enough: Why does customer service matter? Both Dorris and Parrish agreed that benefits from a good CX come through in several ways.

1. Saving money.

For much of government, this probably stands as the most convincing argument to customer service reform. If you can make a strong argument that change would save the agency taxpayer dollars, that increases the chance it will happen.

Improvements to customer service don’t necessarily require more money from the start. Oftentimes, as Dorris and Parrish both pointed out, an agency can identify and mend problem areas without actually buying anything. Sometimes, the most important change is just to make the citizen experience a priority.

That could translate to making a government permitting process easier to understand online, for example, which would limit the number of calls from confused citizens, as well as incomplete permit applications that bog the process.

“You’re going to be able to use [improved customer service] as a lever, whether you’re in a CIO office or a program office, to save money to actually put back into innovation,” Dorris said.

2. Increasing citizen trust in government.

As Parrish explained, “No matter what your agency’s mission is, in order to succeed in that mission, you need certain things from customers.”

First, he said, agencies need citizens to do what they ask of them. If the Internal Revenue Service, for example, can’t rely on people to pay their taxes, the government fails. More simply, this can materialize in asking citizens to update their personal information online.

Second, agencies need customers to come to them first for advice and complaints, rather than go to outside sources like social media. This maintains the concept of government as an information authority, and decreases the chance of misinformation spreading.

Third, agencies need for citizens to be their advocates.

“We know they’ll say bad things about their interactions with government, but they’ll also say good things,” Parrish said. “And those good things create conventional wisdom that flows to legislative oversight bodies, that flows to people who write budgets, that flows to the news media. That impacts your operation as well.”

3. Making lives better.

This may be the simplest of the benefits, but it’s also the fundament of democratic governing. When agencies focus on making the citizen experience as efficient and enjoyable as possible, lives are empowered in turn.

“We find a sort of moral consensus that it’s the right thing for the American people,” Parrish said.

Dorris cited a recent trip she took to the customer support center of a large, private sector web company, where she was shocked to find such attention to detail in call nuance. The company, she found, tracked and labeled every call, so that it could identify multiple calls for a particular problem. Then, using that information, employees could address the source of the problem and work to stop it from happening again.

Using data effectively is key. There’s analytics data on your website, there’s analytics data in your contact center, there’s performance data in terms of timeliness, Dorris said. When it comes to fielding customer calls, she recommended using data to understand what percentage of calls are being answered. For example, if, you’re only answering 40 percent of the calls, why is that the case?

“In order to identify some of the fixes, one of the things you need to do is look at the data,” she said. “And there’s a lot of data available that you don’t think about.”


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