Evolutionary change in federal customer service is coming

Commentary by Abby Herriman
Senior vice president of delivery and innovation, HighPoint Global

Customer satisfaction ratings for the public sector are at the lowest point in 16 years, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. The explosive growth of technology has dramatically changed the modes and speed with which the public expects to interact with service providers, including the government.

Abby Herriman (Photo: HighPoint Global)

Americans, as consumers, expect the individualized, customized and immediate responses they generally get from the private sector. Companies such as Zappos help shape these expectations with the high level of customer service they provide. It has been difficult for the government to keep up. Now agencies are not only being challenged by citizens, but also by the White House, via its customer service cross-agency priority goal, to up their game in terms of how they interact with the U.S. citizens who make up their customer base.

According to citizens, there is much room for improvement. Most have found their interactions with government agencies to be lacking.

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In a survey entitled “Uncle Sam at your Service: Federal Customer Experience Study,” 83 percent of Americans surveyed indicated that federal agencies could improve on the customer experience. In fact, the experience was perceived to be so bad, that 42 percent of citizens said they would be willing to pay more in taxes for better service.

What do people want?

  • Faster responses: 53 percent thought that federal agencies should reduce the time it takes to respond to requests and resolve issues.
  • More-consistent responses: 33 percent indicated that information received as a result of their inquiries was not consistent. While this problem was experienced by a smaller percentage of the total population, it’s a big problem for those affected. Fully one-third of people found that they received conflicting information from different government sources. This conflict makes it difficult for citizens to know how to proceed, which is a problem considering that there may be fines or legal issues associated with taking the wrong action.
  • More information online: 85 percent wanted federal agencies to provide more information and make it available online as a self-service tool.

While it is tempting to say that the government needs to adopt an Amazon or Netflix-like model, the comparison between customer service and citizen experience is not a one-to-one equation. As Joseph Penato pointed out, “Customer-driven governmental administration will be viable only if it does not undermine the principle that public administration is grounded in public law rather than modeled on the entrepreneurial concepts of the private sector.”

The idea of citizen experience is not a new one. A democratic government relies on its ability to engage effectively with citizens. So how does the government today meet citizens’ expectations while staying true to its commitment to be “grounded in public law”?

Technology can be a force of change in transforming how the government serves its citizens. This transformation starts with optimizing the transactional nature of the customer experience with more effective use of technology and more efficient processes. In addition to optimizing as a single channel or agency, it is critical to simplify, standardize and share activities that take place across agencies:

  • Simplify: Government must review all processes, policies and protocols and make sure they are simple to understand, follow and execute both for citizens in a self-service environment and for the service reps providing more personalized service. This will get citizens what they need faster.
  • Standardize: Government must look across agencies to find best practices and work to adopt those that are proven to drive out inefficiencies. In light of the push for service-driven technology architectures, avoid technology customization or local variations. Standardize within agencies and across government where possible. By using standard processes and employing automated tools across agencies, the government will give citizens more consistent responses, even across multiple agencies.
  • Share: Agencies must also provide more information online so citizens can find information, perform basic transactions and resolve common problems without needing to call a contact center. This will free agency employees to concentrate on providing help to those who truly need personalized subject-matter expertise to resolve problems or answer questions.

All of this must be done across the various touch points the government has with citizens, including contact centers, websites, social media, mobile applications, face-to-face, Web chat, fax and written correspondence. With technology as a driver for changing expectations, it is critical that agencies look first at the digital touch points that its core constituency uses in order to meet citizens where they are today. One in five Americans use only mobile devices for their Internet, so government must become more mobile and digital.

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Citizens want to be able to access information and check the status of their situation without having to place a phone call or wait for an email. Many agencies use first call resolution as a measure of effective service delivery and high customer satisfaction, but to truly deliver the ideal citizen experience, we should measure success by the calls that citizens don’t make. We should focus on proactively providing the information and self- service options that citizens need, which makes for smaller, more cost- effective, high-performance contact centers. By enabling citizens to find information and self-serve, significant savings can be created in contact centers and more time can be spent with the citizens who need personal assistance.

Today, Americans expect a service experience that delivers highly customized, personal attention. They expect to be able to choose from a variety of communication channels integrated to provide a seamless experience so they do not need to keep restating their problems and they can get quick resolution through the medium they prefer. Agencies should never stop listening and making adjustments to their initiatives accordingly. Focusing change on the communication channels that the majority of citizens want to use will usher in some quick wins, creating more positive citizen experiences and generating greater trust across agencies and government as a whole.

Abby Herriman is the senior vice president of delivery and innovation for HighPoint Global. HighPoint Global is a management solutions company specializing in improving citizen experience through improved constituent services.

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