Improving Customer Service: Driving Meaningful Performance

In my last blog about the President’s Executive Order on Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service, I focused on various aspects of OMB’s implementing guidance. In this post, I'll discuss a few examples of how to make customer service relevant to the mission - keeping a keen eye on customer service outcomes that provide value, not simply a better connection with government. Navigating the efficiency/effectiveness maze is key to designing a successful customer service improvement plan. Finding a Signature Initiative

In January 2010, at the White House Forum on Modernizing Government, the President said:

“If you can book dinner on Open Table, or a flight on Southwest or United online, why shouldn’t you be able to make an appointment at your local Social Security office the same way? If you can track your UPS package with your iPhone, then why not be able to check the status of your citizenship application on a Web site, rather than having to write a letter and wait for a letter back?”

Neat ideas, but they don’t capture the potential of revolutionizing customer service with technology. As agencies design their “signature initiatives” in response to this Executive Order, they should be looking back at their mission. Take, for instance, the mission of the US Department of Transportation: Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future. As a part of that safety mission, NHTSA makes sure the child safety seats are safe and provides information to make sure parents install those seats correctly.

Given that crashes are the leading cause of death for children from 3 to 14 years old, it’s clearly important that NHTSA provide potentially life-saving information quickly and effectively. Earlier this year, I participated in an event called Transportation Camp. I worked with another participant at that event to turn a the NHTSA National Child Safety Seat Inspection Station Locator Web site into a mobile Web site that uses a phone’s GPS location to identify the nearest inspection station.

Yours Is a Very Bad Hotel

Once upon a time, (arguably) the Internet’s greatest graphical complaint was developed. It’s called Yours Is a Very Bad Hotel, and I think it’s an excellent illustration of what happens when customer expectations (the “must be” characteristics of service) aren’t met and what meaningful performance is about. Doubletree is a Hilton property – the mission of Hilton Worldwide is to “be the preeminent global hospitality company – the first choice of guests, team members and owners alike.” Surely these  guests had no problem booking a room at this hotel – and that reservation was clearly processed and confirmed to their satisfaction, but those weren’t the metrics that Hilton should have been measuring if they wanted to accomplish their mission. Why should government services be so different?

Meaningful Performance With the recent passage of the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (GPRA Modernization Act), there is a renewed focus on meaningful performance measures. Agencies will be tempted to focus on process metrics, some of which are statutorily required. Examples might include:

  • Respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)  requests within 20 days (that’s required by law)
  • Calls shall be in queue no longer than 18  seconds, and average talk time should not exceed 2 minutes, 45 seconds  (that’s in an order from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA))

These are good customer service measures and standards – and they should be measured. But the mission of any Federal agency is not “answer the phone efficiently” or “disburse funds in a timely fashion.” Referring back to the Kano model in my last post, those are the “must be” characteristics – if those do not exist, the customer will be dissatisfied. When it comes to government services, though, customers often don’t have the choice of “going elsewhere.”

Recently, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked together to develop new fuel economy labels. Providing consumers with effective information at the point of purchase is one way that both agencies can work together to protect the environment and promote environmental stewardship. These labels also help protect consumers, because they provide some information about estimated fuel costs, and allow consumers to make educated total cost of ownership decisions – sure, the sticker price is important, but so is the cost to operate and maintain a vehicle.

Well, for quite a while, fuel economy information was presented on the sticker and that was the end of that. EPA runs an information clearinghouse at, but there was no direct link from the point of purchase to this powerful information and decision support Web site! The new fuel economy label changes that – the labels have QR codes®. They produced a video that briefly explains this powerful new tool. There is a great deal of potential in this small development. Right now, the fuel economy label tells you how much you could save over the average vehicle. Imagine if an enterprising individual decided to make an app that allowed you to enter information about your current car and driving habits and, when you scanned the new QR code®, scraped the fuel economy label information that was returned and used it to calculate personalized savings potential/annual gasoline costs. Would you be able to make a more informed decision about the car you would buy – and would that information potentially change your buying preferences? If it did, then DOT and EPA will have accomplished their mission. All with a simple bar code. That is meaningful performance.

Note: Dan Morgan’s current client is the US Department of Transportation.