Dec 31 2009

Make Your Quest for Automation Pay Off

Photography by Keith Ball

Over the past 15 years I've observed a wide variety of approaches to implementing customer support technology in the government, and it appears that, amidst the purchasing rush, many of us seem to forget (or perhaps not realize) that the best information we can use to assure quality results and performance is often free.

With today's conflicting public-sector realities of constrained resources and greater focus on the quality of customer support at the front lines, our holy grail has become optimizing the balance of gains in effectiveness versus gains in efficiency from every investment made. Above all, there must be an acceptable return on investment, but much too often there is not. I offer the following four suggestions the next time your agency buys, implements or upgrades customer support technology.

1. Ask widely.

My favorite saying is, "None of us is as smart as all of us," and I most like seeing it applied in the customer support technology arena. Although we collectively spend a massive amount each year on customer support systems, rarely do I see project leaders proactively reach out to strengthen their odds of success by learning from what their government peers have already done.

Time is something that none of us has enough of these days. Consider, however, that if we can't invest the time to learn from others how to do it right, how can we possibly afford the much greater time required later to rectify having done it wrong?

For every hour and $1,000 you spend on implementing problem-tracking, knowledge management and interactive voice response systems, along with the necessary platforms to run these applications, many hours and many thousands of dollars have already been spent by others in government on similar undertakings.

There's no way you sitting alone in your stovepipe environment can duplicate all that experience, and it's usually available just for the asking. While there are various organizations and events available for peer networking in customer support, my favorite (of course) is the Government Customer Support Community of Practice, which I've facilitated with the support of my agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, since 1999 (

GCSCoP exists purely to advance customer support in the public sector, and it's a free resource.

2. Shop carefully.

During the Cold War, one of President Reagan's most famous remarks was, "Trust, but verify." Shopping for systems is by no means the equivalent of war. But I've seen too many feds led down the path to expensive, unused options and unbelievably expensive, complex implementations. Don't get me wrong: There are certainly credible vendors and consultants. But agencies have a unique and final fiduciary responsibility to ourselves and to our customers to ensure that we implement the most cost-effective tools for achieving the results we need.

It's ironic that so many feds I've seen at conferences, often sent there to gain background for an agency initiative or project, use the trade show hours to call the office or do e-mail. They fail to realize that these opportunities to see competing customer support systems demonstrated side by side and to ask incisive questions are among the best they have to build knowledge about systems and the market.

Even if you're nowhere near the shopping stage, trade shows are great for tracking how legacy systems compare to new systems and to keep an eye toward the future. This is the "trust" part. Let the vendors talk and give you their best show, listening with an open mind. There are many customer support conferences and trade shows. The GCSCoP will meet next at the fifth annual Government Customer Support Conference this June in Arlington, Va. (

The "verify" part is done best fed to fed. As you narrow your choices, seek out agencies that have used the vendors on your short list. Ask the vendors to identify these agencies. If they can't or won't, walk away and talk with others who can and will. Vendors' stories of their successes are nice, but the buyers who've had to live with the results of a vendor's work offer the crucial perspective that you need.

When you speak with these other agencies, ask things such as:

  • how the final price, including implementation costs, compared with the original quote;
  • how extensively the agency had to change its processes to fit the technology, compared to what the vendor originally promised;
  • whether the vendor stayed on schedule;
  • what the final impact of the change was on customer support effectiveness and efficiency, compared to what was expected (and maybe promised).

3. Administer smartly.

The phrase "pay me now, or pay me later" is never as important as when an agency decides how it will handle systems administration of customer support technology. Given customers' expectations and the systems capabilities for meeting them, this pivotal function must be competent, nimble and responsive.

Regardless of whether systems administration resides with the government, a vendor or a consultant, the control and direction always resides on the public-sector side of the fence. Outsourcing does not release you from the responsibility of acquiring the system-level understanding of your service or ensuring that the system is properly administered and evolves to meet consistently rising customer expectations.

One of the saddest situations I've seen was a federal support organization that ran its problem-tracking system under a contract so rigid and poorly written that the agency had to modify it whenever it needed new contact center performance data.

4. Be the user, not the victim.

The technology should work for you, not vice versa, and if you have successful, effective processes already in place to care for your unique customer base, you shouldn't have to modify them substantially on the whims of a software designer or system integrator who doesn't know or deal with your customers.

The best way to describe an effective and functional customer interface is using a pyramid as a model. Think of the bottom third as the foundation — the front-line team who knows your customers and their needs. The middle tier represents the processes you use internally to meet the expectations of your customers, based on their needs and preferences. These needs evolve from understanding the customers you serve, not from a system. Finally, the top of the pyramid is the technology, which ties the rest together. To build a pyramid, you always start at the bottom and work upward. Same scenario here; no exceptions.

Recently, more than 50 federal customer support managers convened to develop citizen-centric, service-level guidelines to cut across all customer contact channels. Participants were asked to envision themselves as customers, put themselves mentally "in the queue" and define how they'd like to be treated. Their results provide excellent truths for how customers in the public sector should be treated when seeking information, service and support from us. I hope you'll refer to this guidance when you design or modify your customer support technology.