Improving Customer Service: Web Is Essential, But Not The Only Channel

On April 27, 2011, President Obama issued an Executive Order on Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service. The Executive Order directs agencies to develop customer service plans before the end of October 2011. On June 13, 2011, Jeffrey Zients, the Federal Chief Performance Officer, issued implementing guidance for this Executive Order. A great deal of attention has been paid to a key component of that implementing guidance – a blog post over at the White House web site called “” It’s an interesting read, and I highly recommend it. It’s important to remember, though, that the Web is not the only channel through which citizens interact with their government.

Connecting with customers

With all the attention focused on the fragmentation of “.gov” Web sites, agencies may overlook a critical component of OMB’s implementing guidance here: coordinating across service channels (including on-line, phone, in person, and mail services).

A brief amount of “mystery shopping” on my end has shown that there is still a lot of progress to be made with “low hanging fruit.”  For example, making sure that the pages that show up in Google search results actually direct customers to the proper site, providing links that function correctly in Federal Register announcements, and managing their toll-free information lines effectively, etc.

For example, in my discussions with one Federal agency, we’ve identified some 159 toll-free phone numbers and, in one month alone, those numbers received 92,000 phone calls. For context, that’s over 500 phone calls per hour (during work hours, mind you).

Since the National Performance Review under President Clinton, Agencies have been collecting information about their customers and satisfaction with services (Executive Order 12862). I did a quick search at on the term “customer service.” 187 distinct information collections came back. I also did a search on the term “customer feedback.” That returned another 28 information collections. So, let’s just assume that there are about 200 mechanisms already in place to connect with customers across the Federal government. Where does all this information go, and what tangible impacts does it have on the way services are delivered?

More importantly, does the Federal government have the tools and techniques to understand the requests that are coming in through more expensive channels, such as phone, in-person, and mail, to adapt their Web channels to meet customer expectations?

Setting, communicating, and using customer service standards

A recent blog post on GovLoop advocates that companies (and, perhaps, government agencies), meet the goals – no more, no less. This is certainly one way to understand customer satisfaction. However, the Kano model teaches us that meeting customer service standards will result in indifference. I think there are a series of questions that Agencies need to ask in this space:

  • Do we have customer service standards?
  • If we do have customer service standards, do they align with customer expectations?
  • How do we communicate our standards to our customers?
  • How do customers communicate with us about the services they receive?

This is obviously closely related to the element of connecting with customers – it’s about feedback loops – and feedback along the way. As Agencies move increasingly to self-service channels, as desired by this Executive Order, feedback loops become increasingly important.

Agencies would do well to learn from online retailers and service sites – orders (and complaints) are assigned tracking numbers; customers are provided with options for following up on their order or complaint and escalating their issue to a “higher-touch” channel. And when something changes status, customers are notified (received -> in process -> shipped … with an expected delivery date!). These are the kinds of things that customers are coming to expect from their governments as well.

Understanding the Customer

While OMB’s implementing guidance asks agencies to focus on their high-volume services and critical transactions, agencies would do well to understand their customers first – especially if a group of customers accesses multiple agency services. Agencies need to fundamentally understand how citizens are finding their services, how their programs come together to serve a citizen, and what additional costs they incur when citizens can’t take advantage of these online services because they don’t work.

Agencies with consumer protection and information responsibilities frequently fragment their information programmatically, making it next near to impossible for consumers to actually submit complaints, find information, and make better choices. Going back to my discussions with that previously mentioned Federal agency, we found some 14 different forms that are made available for customers to complain about something. The innovative application of technology here could focus less on the services and more on the customers –providing the most “bang for the buck.”

Where to next?

Over 30 years ago Frederic Malek – the Deputy Under Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, wrote a memorandum to the Honorable George P. Schultz with the subject, “Priorities for the new Office of Management and Budget.” A passage in this memorandum is as relevant today as it was back then:

Most governmental units are organized along the lines of specific pieces of legislation and are charged with carrying out the provisions of that legislation. Such organizational arrangements foster a “product” rather than a “market” orientation among program managers: primary emphasis is placed on providing the services or carrying out the provisions of the authorizing legislation rather than on examining the needs of the population served and then determining how their program, in conjunction with other related programs can best meet those needs.

Now that the implementing guidance for the Executive Order has been issued, agencies will begin working on their plans – and, for better or worse, OMB’s guidance perpetuates this product-oriented approach to customer service by having agencies focus on services, rather than customers, first. I’ll be posting more about useful techniques and methods to achieve customer service excellence in government, including techniques for developing a customer-centric “signature initiative.” I’ll also be talking about OIRA’s guidance on soliciting customer feedback (OMB Memorandum M-11-26), and discussing what it means for achieving the objectives outlined above. Stay tuned!