The Customer Service Imperative

Citizens have an awareness of what constitutes outstanding customer service and an expectation that government organizations should meet it.

The government defends our strategic interests in the world, regulates critical industries and facets of our economy, and provides services to many constituencies.

The government defends our strategic interests in the world, regulates critical industries and facets of our economy, and provides services to many constituencies.

Each of these functions involves many organizations and people — and huge budget expenditures. Most of these functions carry some expectation of customer service for citizens. And CIOs and IT play a critical role in delivering high-quality customer service.

What’s the Perception?

The government’s customer service challenge is significant. Why? First and foremost because the scope of services performed involves thousands of programs and missions delivered by hundreds of large organizations. To further complicate things, the process and responsibility for delivering service are often shared by more than one organization, often from different departments. In addition, most government services are neither market- nor competition-driven. For most commercial organizations, those two factors provide the most compelling moti­vation to achieve service excellence.

The same citizens who are users of government services are also customers of products and services offered by commercial organizations. This creates an awareness of what constitutes outstanding customer service and an expectation that government organizations should meet that same level of service.

Competition forces commercial organizations to provide an acceptable level of service or suffer consequences, which could be as drastic as business failure. Because many government services are performed outside of a competitive market, the same drivers do not exist. That doesn’t mean there are no forces pushing for service excellence in government, but they’re not as powerful.

As such, it’s no small wonder that studies have found that citizens generally believe the government trails the private sector in customer service quality and should be doing a better job of meeting customers’ needs.

Why Is Customer Service Important?

Although government organizations must function in often radically different environments than corporate entities, it’s still critical for agencies to strive for world-class customer service.

There are numerous reasons. For one, the government should attempt to carry out the laws of our nation to the best of its ability, and services performed on behalf of citizens are part of these statutory responsibilities.

For another, many federal services are integrated into the processes of our economy, and government efficiency (or the lack thereof) has a significant impact on the pace of commerce and even on competitiveness.

A third reason might have more strategic impact: the link between customer satisfaction and citizen perspectives on government performance. Let’s examine this one in a bit more detail.

According to a Gallup study conducted in 2009, the most important driver of overall satisfaction is an agency’s ability to resolve problems in a satisfactory manner. The study found that where no problems were encountered in customer service, 69 percent of citizens expressed overall satisfaction with agency performance.

The study found lower levels of satisfaction (27 percent) among citizens who experienced service problems. But if those problems were resolved satisfactorily, citizens’ overall satisfaction increased significantly (to 76 percent). In this era of increased focus on government performance and with budgets under extreme scrutiny, the link between customer service experience and satisfaction with government performance becomes vital to retaining the support that citizens generally have for government programs and services.

Are There Opportunities for Improvement?

The fact that many of these challenges have been successfully addressed in the commercial world means agencies don’t need to invent new solutions, just adopt the best ones.


Illustration: Elizabeth Hinshaw
"Although government organizations must function in often radically different environments than corporate entities, it’s still critical for agencies to strive for world-class customer service.”

— Paul Wohlleben

Internet access, mobile devices and social media use have become almost ubiquitous in organizations that provide world-class customer service. The most successful organizations have created customer interfaces that are easy to use and responsive to users’ issues and problems; they even anticipate service questions and issues before they become problems. All of us have experienced some of these solutions. Interestingly, we typically recall these interactions as intimate customer service experiences from a provider that knows and anticipates our needs. Yet, most or all such experiences typically involve customer self-service.

There is more good news: Some agencies have already implemented customer service environments that emulate commercial best-of-breed options. Clearly, the online self-help model works for government as well as the private sector.

Where Does the CIO Fit In?

The government consists of many agencies, each with a distinct mission and set of demanding constituencies. Traditionally, every federal organization has acquired the IT necessary to implement its unique mission, and duplication has been the result.

Congress and the government created the CIO role to manage IT at the enterprise level and avoid duplicative technology investments. While there have been some successes, re-using common systems across multiple organizations has proved difficult to implement. If you’re not convinced, just look at some departments and count the number of call centers and websites.

We are at the leading edge of a move to improve government customer service. CIOs need to work with program executives to develop strategies and acquisitions that deliver the customer service improvements that programs need while ensuring that unnecessary duplication of systems does not take place.

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Oct 28 2010