Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Best of 2010

OK, holidays are nearing an end; and I’m back to thinking about government communications and customer service. What a year it’s been! Great progress in some areas, like social media. Modest progress toward our long-time goal to make top customer tasks easier to find and use. Not much progress at all (in fact, slippage) in reducing the volume of government content that customers have to wade through to find what they want. But hey – we’re about to welcome a new year, and I’d much rather focus on the positive outcomes of 2010. So, in reverse order (a la Letterman), here are my top 5 “Bests.”

Number 5: Web Manager University’s movement toward a certification program
For years, we’ve talked about needing a web manager certification program. The Federal Web Managers Council came up with a draft position description (with skills) years ago, and Web Manager University has offered courses in those skills areas from its beginning. But this year, we started seeing movement toward that certification program. Yay! Oh, it’s subtle. But look at the course titles…a number of them that include, “Essentials of…” A couple of those courses are already identified as “core” courses. Getting core courses in place is a critical step toward a certification program in government web management or – maybe – government customer service and communications. Looking forward to that next step…soon, I hope.

Number 4: Govloop
Govloop wasn’t born in 2010 – it’s actually a couple of years old. But it really exploded in 2010. Have you visited Govloop? If you’re a government employee (at any level of government) or interested in government issues, this social network is a terrific place to share your ideas, connect with like-minded people, find job openings, or just witness the truly “awesome” (a favorite word used by Govloop founder, Steve Ressler) passion for good government. This meeting place is a terrific asset, and I think its use (and power) will continue to grow in the coming years. Kudos to Steve, Andrew, Megan, Lauren, and Stephen (and the foresight of GovDelivery) not only for giving govies a place to convene, but also for nurturing the community with weekly email summaries and regular Tweets about new content and ideas.

Number 3: GSA’s leadership in government communications
I talked about this in my last blog piece, so I won’t spend a lot of time here. But leadership is essential for real progress, and GSA has to be commended for strong, sure, and visionary leadership.  They are bringing the federal communications community together; offering tools and guidance to foster commonality across government (a huge plus for great customer service); and hiring, promoting, and turning loose some of the best communicators in the government to lead all these efforts. I look forward to great things from GSA, in 2011.

Number 2: Emerging focus on customer service
In the past year, many (dare I hope “most?”) in the government web communications community have made that leap from “web management” to “customer service management.” That may seem like semantics to you; but to me, it’s a big step toward better government service. When you stop thinking in terms of “the web” (which is really a delivery channel) and start thinking about “customer service,” you shift the focus to the result, the broader goal…instead of the means, the process. You think about all the ways we serve customers…through the web, phone, mail, email, in person, publications…and how important it is to connect those dots, to make sure that we’re delivering high quality, efficient, consistent service no matter how our customers find us. This is a very good thing for citizens.

And the Number 1 “Best of 2010:” the Plain Writing Act!
After tons of effort by the government employees in PLAIN (Plain Language Action and Information Network), by the members of the Center for Plain Language (whose motto is “plain language is a civil right”), and by many others, Congress passed – and President Obama signed – the Plain Writing Act of 2010. It requires federal agencies to provide “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”

I know…this should be a “duh!” But anyone who has ever read a government document or visited a government website knows that much of our writing…well, frankly, sucks. It needs to be simpler, more concise, and more clear. And it needs to be organized better. We need words our customers use and understand and better organization and formatting (things like headers and sub-headers and bullets and white space). Having a law that requires the federal government to improve writing is the boost we’ve needed to cause real change in this fundamental of customer service.

Web managers have been talking about better writing, better organization, “less is more,” knowing your audience, and all those great concepts, for years. But without the management mandate, we lacked the clout to make it happen. Well, now we’ve got it. Now, there’s no excuse for those bloated, convoluted, incomprehensible documents and websites that leave customers scratching their heads and turning away, disgusted that the government that should be serving them doesn’t seem to know how. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this law will have the desired impact. But it’s a great start.

And while I’m on the subject of Plain Language…another good thing that happened in 2010 was the first Clearmark Plain Language Awards, sponsored by the Center for Plain Language. Nominations for the 2011 Clearmark Awards are being accepted now. So if you think you’ve got a document or website that really hits the mark, nominate it for an award. Deadline is January 21.  As govies work to improve writing, they need examples.  As Mel Brooks puts it...If you've got it, flaunt it.

2010 was a pretty exciting year. Now, onward to 2011. Can’t wait to see what will happen next!

Happy New Year, everyone!

Related Posts
Evolving from Managing Websites to Managing Customer Service
Customer Service Mantra: Listen, Respect, Follow
Bring on the Plain Writing Act

Monday, November 29, 2010

Three Thoughts As I Deck the Halls

I’ve been neglecting this blog. Too busy with holiday doings. So before I forget them, here are three quick thoughts that might deserve longer pieces…after the holidays.

1. Dashboards I’m beginning to wonder about the wisdom of all these performance “dashboards.” I understand that, in the spirit of open government, it’s good to have some way for agencies to report what they’re doing. But if your customers aren’t seeing real commensurate improvement in service, does this actually work against public trust? As my sainted grandmother used to remind me, “actions speak louder than words.”

2. Less Is More Ten ago, Sam Gallagher and I started traveling around the country doing web clinics to help HUD’s partners (nonprofits, state and local governments, public housing agencies, etc.) create good websites that deliver the services HUD funds. One of the take-aways we emphasized (before we’d even heard the term “top tasks”) was this: if you do nothing else, go to the person/people who answer your phones, find out the top 5 questions/requests, and put the answers to those on the home page of your website. If you do that, you’ll probably satisfy a significant portion of your web audience.

Hmm. What if we tried that on federal websites? What if you put your top 3-5 tasks on the home page, add a big search box, make sure you’ve written your content in plain language so searches are successful, and be done with it? Forget the complicated navigation. Give up all those hero boxes and photos. Just give them a few big ticket items and a great search. Wouldn’t it be fun to test that?

3. The Power of Leadership Finally, I’ve just got to give huge kudos to GSA for really stepping it up this year to become the strong, strategic, enthusiastic, bonafide leader of federal customer service efforts.

GSA seems to understand the difference between “leadership” and “management.” Customer service is the responsibility of every agency across government, and there are plenty of managers who are (or should be) responsible for making it work. What was lacking was a leader to form strategies and get all the players to work together, to deliver easy-to-find, easy-to-use, high quality services that customers want and need, across government. GSA is coordinating and supporting, without dictating and offending.

But here’s something even more important. GSA is nudging the federal government to look at customer service as a whole, not just a sum of its parts. So not only are they connecting the dots, they’re also causing new thinking about how we can collaborate to restructure customer service across government, across delivery channels, to improve service. Look at the mission statement for the Center for Customer Service Excellence: “…provides support and solutions for web, social media, mobile, phone, e-mail, print and newly evolving media.”

Leadership is a powerful asset – no, make that requirement – for lasting, positive change across government. Well done, GSA!

In case I don’t get back to this blog until 2011, Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Process Does Not Equal Results

I was talking to a web colleague a few weeks ago, asking what she’s working on. She said, “collaboration, innovation, participation, best practices – all good stuff.” Indeed, good stuff. But then I starting thinking, leading to what? What is she trying to achieve? The other day, I saw a new job posting at a government agency: “Director of Innovation.” At first, I thought, “wow – what a great job that would be!” And then I thought…but will that person innovate? Every time I go to, I notice that slogan at the top: better websites, better government. Better government? Better at what? The problem with all these examples is that they’re focused on process. Process does not equal results. And if you’re focused on process, you may not achieve results.

Citizens – our customers - want one basic result from government: great service. Fast, easy, accurate, best-in-class service that makes us satisfied that our tax money is being used wisely and well. But how many times have you gone to a meeting or a conference or training and spent all the time talking about process, without a single mention of the desired result: great customer service?

One of the reasons I’ve been so enthusiastic about the Federal Web Managers Council’s 2008 white paper, Putting Citizens First – Transforming Online Government, is that it laid out 6 customer service objectives that are the aim of the government web community.

“…when they need government information and services online, (citizens should) be able to:
  • Easily find relevant, accurate, and up-to-date information;
  • Understand information the first time they read it;
  • Complete common tasks efficiently;
  • Get the same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, live chat, read a brochure, or visit in-person;
  • Provide feedback and hear what the government will do with it;
  • Access critical information if they have a disability or aren’t proficient in English"
Brilliant! You’ve articulated your results. You know what success looks like. Now, talk about processes in terms of those results. Use these objectives as your compass.

Let me ask you this: have you sat down with your colleagues, inside and outside of your agency, to talk about how you’ll achieve those objectives? Have you looked at all the processes you’re involved in – all the things you do, day to day…meetings, conferences, training, planning, budgeting – to make sure you’re spending your time and resources on processes that will produce those results? When you’re in one of those long tedious meetings where everyone is quibbling over what you’re going to do, do you raise your hand and ask, “How will this help us achieve our 6 customer service objectives?” to help the group stay focused on the goal?

Look, I spent 24 years in the federal government. Nearly every new administration that came in vowed to improve the process of government. Total Quality Management. Management By Objectives. Reinvention. I know government processes need to be improved. I’m not questioning that. But process does not equal results. And – in my experience - we often got so consumed by the process that we lost sight of the desired results. Where is TQM or MBO or Reinvention today? What were their lasting results? Do you know?  Do citizens know?

So here’s my plea. Stop thinking and talking in terms of process. Start thinking and talking in terms of results. Keep your eyes on the prize. And next time your colleague or your friend or your boss or that reporter or a group of citizens asks what you’re working on, start by saying, “6 customer service objectives that will produce better service for citizens.” Results.

Monday, October 25, 2010

That "Ah-Ha!" Moment

I had been HUD’s web manager for 8 years before I actually watched someone use our website during usability testing. We had won awards for our customer-friendly content, and I was just so sure that we had most of it right. Then I watched 3 people struggle to find the answers to, what we thought were, simple tasks. And – bingo – I had that “ah-ha!” moment. It wasn’t just that I spotted some problems to fix. I became a better customer service provider when I realized that I never, ever should assume I know my audience completely – that they always have things to teach me about what they want and need and how they think and behave, and I must always listen to them, respect them, and follow what they teach me.

We did some guerilla usability testing of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service website, during the training I did there two weeks ago. It wasn’t pretty – we had 30+ people in the room watching the volunteers try to perform the tasks, and I made a couple of flubs in the instructions. We didn’t tape it, so we had to rely on people’s memories and notes when we discussed it. But it worked. Big time.

We did the testing on the second day of the training session, after they’d heard me yammer on about plain writing and top tasks and usability principles. I think – up to that time – I had won over many of them…but not all. And then we had 3 people come into the room and try to perform 5 basic tasks on the DFAS website. Honestly, I could feel the class members' thought waves practically screaming at the test volunteers to, “just click on it…just click there…that’s it…what are you waiting for?” as they watched people struggle with the words and choices they were offered. After the volunteers left, the room came alive with insights and ideas. It wasn’t just that they identified specific problems to fix. It was that “ah-ha!” moment when they realized that they have more to learn about – and from – their customers. That’s when they became a real customer service web team.

We used to think we had to hire a usability professional to do usability testing, that we had to find volunteers with specific demographics, and that we had to get access to a usability lab, to do it right. Don’t get me wrong – if you’ve got the money and access to those tools, do it. But Steve Krug, in his new book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, debunks the myth that you have to be scientific to learn what works - and what doesn’t - from your customers. As few as three volunteers – and they can be almost anyone, in almost any setting - will do the trick. Anyone – yes YOU – can do it. In fact, here’s a simple script you can use.

Definitely do all the reading you can about plain language and top tasks and usability principles. Talk about it with colleagues. Go to training and conferences. Practice what you learn. But if you really want to get smart about customer service, watch 3 people use your website. Go for that “ah-ha!” moment. I promise you – it will put everything into perspective, and you’ll be a better customer service provider.

Related Posts
Customer Service Mantra: Listen, Respect, Follow
Customers Know Best – It’s Their Results That Count

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Train Your Web Team...Regularly

I just returned from a great two-day training session with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service web team, in Indianapolis. Kudos to Debra Harris for organizing it. She’s a real emerging leader in the web community. I was doing the training, but that isn’t what made these two days great (well, gosh, maybe I had something to do with it...;-)). What made these two days so exciting is that – for the first time - most of the people who have been, and will be, working on the DFAS website came together. They merged from several different geographic locations and spent time learning together, working together, and building that sense of “team” that is so essential to delivering quality customer service through the web. It’s the first time since I retired from HUD that I’ve worked with a single agency, and it reminded how absolutely critical it is to train your agency web team.

Every agency relies on a broad group of employees (50, 100, 200, or more) to develop and maintain the content of the agency website(s).  That group changes regularly as employees come and go.  Some work on the site full-time. Most work on the site part-time, in addition to other duties. Many of these folks are thrown into web duties - they didn’t ask for it, and they likely have no prior knowledge or training in plain language and usability and top tasks and metrics and other critical areas. Many of them don’t even get credit for their web duties in their annual performance ratings - and they should!

Most agency web teams are spread throughout the agency, in different offices and – often - in different locations; and all too often, they feel like they’re operating in a vacuum. They need to feel part of a whole. They need to understand what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to relate to one another and where they’re headed. They won’t get that through osmosis. You’ve got to get them together and train them. Not just once, but often.  It’s that old adage: you get what you pay for.  Or, in this case, your customers get what you pay for.

Yes – you can communicate by email and conference calls. But there is no substitute for face time…time to get to know one another, learn together, build trust, hash out problems, laugh, argue, and get (re)energized to carry out critical customer service duties, as a single unit. That’s what I saw happening at DFAS. That’s what needs to happen at all agencies. It’s important. No…it’s essential.

I know from personal experience that there’s real value in getting someone from outside the agency to do at least part of the training. Outsiders are perceived as being neutral, which can be useful when you need to change behaviors. And then there’s that strange phenomenon where people believe an outsider over an insider. Go figure. But it’s true.

Agency web team training can be relatively inexpensive: the cost of a trainer and travel for participants to a central location that can be chosen for its low travel costs (it doesn’t have to be done in expensive Washington DC!). You can use a training room in an agency field office or in a GSA-managed federal building somewhere.

Here’s a thought. Wouldn’t it be great if Web Manager University were to offer an option for agency-specific training programs?  WMU has faculty who are well-versed in the best practices and goals promoted by the Federal Web Managers Council and the GSA Center for Customer Service Excellence. Send a trainer/trainers to the agency. Work with the agency to develop a program that meets its needs and that will build that team spirit. It’s a logical extension of the great training services WMU already provides, and it could address a need that currently is unmet in many agencies. Further, it would be a great way to reach out to that next tier of web communicators and invite them to get involved in the broader web customer service community.

However you do it, train your agency web team. Regularly. They need it. They deserve it. Your customers deserve it. 

Related Post
Take Time to Nurture Your Web Team

Friday, October 08, 2010

What's Next?

A couple of weeks ago, after I’d cut loose with some ideas for the government web community (and witnessed the weary and wary looks on my web colleagues’ faces), my good friend Bev Godwin bailed me out by saying, “as long as I’ve known Candi, she’s always asked ‘what’s next?’ We need to keep asking ‘what’s next?’”

Bev is right – we always need to be thinking about where we want to go next…what we need to do, or be, to keep improving customer service. Why? Because when you know where you want to go, you’ll be on the lookout for that path that could get you there. And when that vision is shared, you'll have a whole community looking for those paths. You’ll be ready for that unexpected elevator conversation with a key official or that last-minute lunch with the “connected” friend that starts the ball rolling. When you think ahead and keep asking, “what’s next?” you're being strategic.  You are creating the opportunity to shape your future, instead of having it shaped for you.

So – here are some thoughts on “what’s next” for the government customer service community. Yeah, I know. I’ve pushed some of these before. But maybe now is their time.

Customer Service Objectives
  • Focus like a laser on those 6 Customer Service Objectives from the Federal Web Managers Council 2008 White Paper. Use them as the context for all your work. Cite them as the introduction for all your efforts.  They articulate your community's vision. They describe the results you want all government websites to achieve. So talk, talk, talk about them. Sound a drumbeat. Do Web Manager Forum calls on each of them. Talk about best practices, and figure out what you could be doing better, across government. Make them the centerpiece of the next Web Managers Conference. Maybe organize that Customer Service Summit I’ve been talking about for months.
  • Gather some evidence. Establish performance standards and get baseline data to measure those 6 objectives. Come up with metrics that will give you (and the public) a good idea about where you stand. Ask all agencies to use those metrics, aggregate the data across agencies, and publish the results. Define some performance goals (for example, reduce the time it takes to complete top tasks by 10% in the next 6 months), ask agencies to make incremental changes, and measure again. Keep at it. Show the public what you’re doing – across government – to provide the best possible customer service through the web.
Plain language:  The Plain Writing Act has cleared the House and Senate, and – woot! – is on the President’s desk. We’re getting close. So why wait? Here’s an opportunity to create a strategy for making sure government websites – especially the most-used pages on government websites – are written in plain language. The key: focus on results.
  • Start by developing a simple list of plain language rules for websites. You don’t have to invent them – and have plenty. Involve the Web Manager University faculty - many of us teach these principles regularly. Besides me, there’s Gerry McGovern, Ginny Redish, Leslie O’Flahaven, and others. And of course, there’s our good friend, former colleague, and Plain Language Warrior Annetta Cheek. She’s sure to have something to offer. There's nothing new to discover - you just need to synthesize.  Don’t get too esoteric – start with major points. Publish the list on as a best practice, distribute it to the Forum, and issue it as a recommendation of the FWMC.
  • Sound a charge! I know everyone is worried about training people in plain language. But the truth is that we’ve been training web communicators to “write for the web” for years. Tons of people have been trained. The problem is getting people to use what they’ve learned – to rewrite that bad content and insist that new content be plain. So challenge the web community to “Get a Head Start on Plain Writing.” Urge agency web teams to review and re-write their top task content in the next 6 months. Make it part of the whole effort to improve customer service. Give it some hype: “Don’t wait to be told to write well…do it because it’s the right thing to do for great customer service!”
  • Now here’s the most important part: measure and promote the results. Set up a review panel. It doesn’t have to be “official” – create a panel of peers, sponsored by the FWMC, to do top task reviews.  Keep it friendly.  Encourage agencies to submit their re-written content to the panels, and do simple plain language reviews. Give them feedback. Ask them to make changes accordingly. Post “before” and “after” examples on Give awards for “most improved” at your conference next spring and/or collaborate with the Clearmark Plain Language Award folks. Celebrate the successes – it will inspire replication. It’s the review process that’s been lacking in the past. This is something you can start right now.
Governance:  So here’s my last one (for today). What do you want to be when you grow up, Web Customer Service Community? Up to now, you’ve been a grassroots operation. We found each other, linked up through the Forum, and created our own Council. So what’s next? Is it time to turn into a hierarchy? Both FWMC co-chairs are at GSA now, and GSA has picked up the reins on many support functions (best practices, new media, apps, etc.). Would it help you move forward if there were a more formal management function at GSA? Do you need a Chief Customer Service Officer at OMB? Do you need to be codified, like the CIO Council? Or would establishing a hierarchy at GSA and OMB detract from the grassroots community of practice that has worked well up to this point? Figure it out. Discuss and get some general agreement. That way, when one of you happens to be in a meeting where this comes up, you’ll be ready to say, “here’s what we need and here’s how that will improve customer service across government.”

Yes – it makes your head hurt to think through these issues. But improving customer service is a never-ending, iterative process. Keep envisioning new possibilities. Keep setting new goals. Keep looking for those opportunities to cause change.  It all starts with this simple question:  “what’s next?”

Related Posts
Metrics That Matter
Maybe It’s Time for a Citizen Services Summit
Keep it Plain!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Metrics That Matter

In my Web Manager University course, “Delivering Great Customer Service – Essentials for Government Web Managers,” I do a section on “metrics that matter.” I often start by asking folks if they collect performance data.  Heads nod.  Then I ask them what they do with it - how they use it.  Most use stats to track page use, unique visitors.  But if I ask them how they measure customer service...well, I usually get blank looks.

Gosh, I remember so well struggling to figure out how to measure the web’s impact on mission achievement and trying to decipher what all that data was telling me, when I managed HUD’s website. We got tons of statistics, spent a year using the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), had a contract with Nielson Netratings for awhile, and did a little usability testing. All right things. But how do you rack up all that data to find out if your website really is providing great customer service?

The truth is that many web teams haven’t identified specific customer service and mission completion objectives to measure. What to do? Step back. Pick just a few really important things to measure, pick just a few really good measures, and follow through. Use those metrics that matter.

The process is common sense.
  1. Start by identifying a handful – and I mean 10 or fewer – of key objectives for your website. At a minimum, 6 of those objectives should be the 6 governmentwide Customer Service objectives identified by the Federal Web Managers Council.
  2. For each objective, figure out 3-4 key performance indicators (KPIs) that will tell you whether or not you’re achieving the objective. Don’t get down in the weeds. Keep it simple.
  3. For each KPI, decide what data you need to collect. And I encourage folks to collect data in different ways, from different sources – statistics, usability testing, customer service surveys, writing quality reviews, etc. But don’t over-collect. Enough is as good as a feast.
  4. Collect and analyze the data to establish a performance baseline.
  5. Pinpoint places where you can improve customer service; and establish performance goals, like reducing time or improving the percentage of successes or reducing errors.
  6. Make incremental improvements, and collect and analyze data again. And again. And again.
  7. Report your findings to your web team, your bosses, your agency, and – in the spirit of transparency – the public. Explain the problems in terms of their impact on customer service. And let everyone know what you’re going to do to fix the problems. Let everyone know that you care about making your website as useful and usable as possible.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. It takes hard work to figure out those KPIs and make sure you get the right data to measure them. And it takes time and dedication to analyze the data, decide what you can do to improve, and make improvements. But gosh – this is so important. This is how you make your customer service the best that it can be.

Too often, web teams/agencies collect too much data. They get overwhelmed. They have trouble focusing on the biggest problems.

Or they don’t follow through. How many times do you think to yourself, “I know we’ve got a problem here – the data says it – but we don’t have the time or money to fix it right now.” So you keep collecting data that tells you the same thing. It’s a waste of time and money, not to mention a disservice to your customers.

Or they collect data first and then try to figure out what it measures. “Gee, we’ve got this great stats package giving us all this information. Hmm…what can we learn from it?” Doesn’t it make more sense to decide what you want to measure first and then find the data that will help you?

Or sometimes we think the data tells us something it doesn’t. For example, customer satisfaction surveys are important and are one great indicator about the effectiveness of your website. But they don’t give you facts about efficiency – they only report people’s feelings and perceptions about your site. I’ve heard people say, “oh, this site is so pretty and professional-looking. I love it.” But then you watch them use the site, and they have a hard time.

OK – so here’s an example of the way it should work. Let’s take FWMC Customer Service Objective #3: (Customers) should be able to complete common tasks efficiently. How do you measure that?

Well, I’d start with these three KPIs:
  1. Length of time it takes the average person to complete the task
  2. % of people who complete the task
  3. % of people who get the right answer
I'd measure those through:
  • Usability testing: Did they finish the task? How long does it take? How many wrong turns did they take? How many clicks did it take? What words didn’t they understand? Did they come up with the right answer?
  • Statistics: how many people come to the page to start the task? How many people visit each of the subsequent pages required to complete the task? What’s the drop-out rate?
  • Plain language peer reviews: did each of the pages required to complete the task score well?
Then I’d corroborate with a customer satisfaction survey for each of those tasks. Did people think the task was easy to complete?

Are these perfect metrics? Probably not. Are they adequate? Yes. They’d give you a good start on figuring out where the problems are (too many clicks? Wrong words or terms? Bad layout or design?) and how to fix them (reduce steps, change words, use more white space or bullets or sub-heads).

And you can do this pretty efficiently. You can identify most of your usability problems by testing 3-5 users. Almost any users. It takes only about 10 minutes to do a plain language review of a web page – that includes both individual reviews and group consensus. And you know exactly which site traffic stats you need, so you don’t need to plough through that entire WebTrends report.

Don't waste your time your time on data for the sake of data.  Think about what's important - what management purpose you're trying to achieve.  Focus on measuring customer service (starting with those 6 governmentwide objectives) and impact on mission.  Don’t over-think this. Don’t worry that it's not absolutely perfect. Just start at the beginning – what are the most important objectives, how will we know if we’ve achieved them, and what data do we need to measure those indicators? That’s metrics that matter.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Sad Day for Customer Service

Today I heard that HUD has abolished the Regional Web Manager positions we (the department) created, at the recommendation of an agency-wide task force, 10 years ago. If this is true (and I think it is), how sad. I’m sad, personally, because I helped find and train these 10 fabulous people. I’m telling you – they were (are) the best. But more important, I’m sad for an agency I called home for 24 years – an agency whose mission is so important to every single citizen…finding decent, safe and sanitary housing…an agency who really got it right about customer service through the web, for many years.

Ten years ago – under a Democrat administration – we determined that the American people value local information. Yes – they want to know how to buy a home. But what they really want to know is how to buy a home in Arizona. Or Illinois. Or New York. They want that local connection. A departmentwide task force recommended that 10 Regional Web Managers be created to help us complete that link from Washington DC to the people we hoped to serve. And a Republican administration made it happen. Everyone seemed to agree that local link was the right thing to do.

Now, that link has been broken. I’m sure there’s some good reason. At least I hope there is. But I wonder if anyone has considered the consequences. Is bridging the gap between Washington DC and “the people” who use the web to access government services a one-shot deal? You think you’ve done it and now you claim victory and are done with it?

OK - yes – I have a vested interest in this issue. But I know what these Regional Web Managers brought to the table, and I know how the public responded. In the very first month we put up “state” pages (with that local connection), they became the second most-requested content on HUD’s website…only behind HUD’s home page. Surely, there’s a message there. People value that local connection. They want Washington to appreciate and understand and keep abreast of their local differences and needs.

I’m a strong advocate for “the field” – for those employees who sit in agency offices located in every state, in every major community. I used to be among them – I know how savvy they are. These people know what our customers want because they actually live with them and interact with them, every day. In my book, we should be strengthening our links to citizens, through our field offices – not breaking them.

More Americans access the federal government through the web than through any other communications vehicle. Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can – especially establishing those grassroots, on-the-scene people who know and understand what our customers want and make sure Washington provides it, via our websites? I surely think so.

Oh -I so hope I'll hear tomorrow that this news is false...that instead of abolishing the local link, HUD has decided to embrace this pioneering effort to improve customer service. But just in case it is true, let me say to Diane Fournier, Eric Ramoth, John Carpenter, Diane Littleton, Mykl Asanti, Steve Meiss, Barbara Bates, Lynn Kring, Jim Graver, David Lockwood, and Rachel Flagg, HUD’s first-class Regional Web Managers - I salute you. You did the right thing for your customers. You made a difference.

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

As We Do What’s Exciting, Let’s Not Forget What’s Important

Improving government's customer service means constantly looking for new ways to do things, seizing new technologies, and experimenting. All good. But as we do what’s exciting and new, let’s not forget that we also need to do what’s important. Like implementing all the laws, regulations, and requirements already in place, for government websites.

A little more than 6 years ago, a group of government web managers came together under the umbrella of OMB’s Interagency Committee on Government Information (ICGI) and hammered out policy recommendations for federal public websites. Sheila Campbell and I co-chaired that group, and Bev Godwin was our liaison with OMB. The working group included many people whose names you’d recognize – Gwynne Kostin, Annetta Cheek, Brian Dunbar, Jeffrey Levy, Sam Gallagher, Janet Stevens, and others. In that effort, we documented all the existing laws, regulations, and requirements that applied to government websites and best practices already commonly in use across government. In December 2004, OMB issued a memo that embraced our recommendations and referred agencies to the newly-created, for guidance on implementation and best practices; and agencies were required to confirm they’d implemented the new policies. The web manager working group – which became the Federal Web Managers Council – was quite proud that this grassroots effort had really worked!

Fast forward to today. So – what happened? Are all of those requirements spelled out in the OMB policies firmly in place? I did just a tiny bit of checking this week and discovered, well, let’s just say there are some holes. I’m not going to call anyone out because I don’t think there’s malice here. I suspect what’s happened is that the web management workforce has changed extensively in 6 years, and there’s been a loss of knowledge. Even though Web Manager University offers a refresher course on laws, regulations and requirements almost every semester, I suspect many web managers believe they already have everything covered and don’t need a reminder.

You know what? I think every web manager should go through refresher training every year. Heck, I knew that stuff forward and backward, 6 years ago; and I couldn’t remember some of the specifics. Yes - some of it is boring and mundane, in light of the excitement of open government and social medial. But we have to remember: it’s important. These are basic protections and management principles that are the foundation of web-based customer service.

So here’s my challenge, government web managers (and any of you who care about how government communicates with citizens): print out one of the handy-dandy checklists on and see if your agency is complying with OMB’s policies, which include all the pertinent laws and regulations for government websites. Before you start, read the report of our ICGI working group – the one that spelled out why each of these requirements and best practices is so critical to customer service. Take a half hour and go through the chart that shows you how OMB Circular A-130 (which OMB cites in the policies) applies to web management. Do it for yourself, but – more important – do it for your customers.

As we march ahead doing what’s exciting, let’s not forget to do what’s important.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Lesson from Katrina - It Takes a Leap of Faith

Five years ago, we all sat horrified watching the ravages of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast. Seeing so many, many fellow citizens losing everything and facing enormous challenges to get their lives back was powerful motivation to act. And the government web manager community did just that – we came together to help. I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating…and looking at what happened afterward.

The day after Katrina hit, Bev Godwin (then Director of and Gwynne Kostin (then Web Manager at Homeland Security) got on the phone with their web manager colleagues across government and got us organized to deliver consolidated, coordinated information on our government websites. No one asked them to do this. They didn’t go to their bosses and get permission. None of us did. We instinctively knew if we acted together as a community, doing the right thing, we could succeed. We took a leap of faith.

This post-Katrina effort was a real milestone in government web management – and a model for future strategies – for 3 reasons:
  1. Leaders led. They saw a problem, and they jumped to action. They didn’t worry about possible recriminations from bosses. They showed the moxy that all successful leaders must have. They knew the right thing to do, and they did it.
  2. The community came together and acted as one. We trusted one another because we knew one another. We had a governance structure – the newly-formed Federal Web Managers Council – in place and ready to operate. And we had the government Web Managers Forum, an extended group of web managers across government and across the nation who had been comparing best practices and sharing problem-solving for 5 years. We had the infrastructure, and it worked.
  3. Most important, we looked at our customers as a whole. We, as a cross-government group, talked about the spectrum of needs of the people affected by Katrina: need to find their loved ones…need for housing…need for food and clean water…need for medical assistance…need to volunteer to help. We didn’t need a contractor to do an analysis. We didn’t spend months making sure we covered every esoteric want. We used our common sense and kept to the basics. Then we asked every agency what they could bring to the table in those categories; we chose the best, most useful of those options (we didn’t throw in everything but the kitchen sink); and we formed “lanes” around customer needs, with lane leaders to keep us organized and make sure we didn’t stumble over one another. We listened to our customers – every day - through email, through phone calls, and through government workers on site; and we added to and adapted our content accordingly.
Within hours, all government websites referred Katrina victims and others to information from across government, organized from the customers’ point of view – not by agency. It wasn’t perfect – but it was far better than anything we’d done before.

The Katrina crisis brought out the best in us – we believed in our community. We took risks to do the right thing. A group of government employees bound by common goals - not organizational lines - came together, developed a plan, organized our content around our audiences’ needs, and made incremental improvements based on customer input. A real Gov 2.0 victory.

And then what? Well, we drifted back to our organization-centric ways. Not entirely, to be sure. The Federal Web Managers Council and the team continue to urge agencies to work together to organize and consolidate content around customer needs. But without the mandate of a crisis, we faltered. We lost our faith in the power of the community.

Look…I know the federal bureaucracy (heck – government bureaucracy at every level) is an overwhelming force for chunking web content by agency. There is no motivation or reward for agency leaders to sacrifice personal or organization credit for the good of our customers. In fact, the reward system – better jobs, better pay – favors competition, not cooperation. Agency web managers face daunting challenges operating in the culture of organization-centric government, as they try to establish customer-centric service delivery.

But it is not hopeless. We know what to do, and we know how to do it. We proved it in our response to Katrina. When we trust the power of our community – our critical mass - and take risks to do right things to provide the best possible customer service, we can succeed. We don’t need a crisis. We need to take that leap of faith.

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Evolving from Managing Websites to Managing Customer Service
Want to Be a Web Superstar?
Courage, Web Managers!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Clearing the Clutter - a Success Story

For years, many of us have worried there is too much content on government websites…that we’ve let the clutter overwhelm the content that our customers really want and use. Well, let me tell you what Sam Gallagher, my friend and former colleague at HUD, has accomplished because this is an honest-to-goodness hoorah success story in “clearing the clutter.”

HUD – mostly Sam – has come up with a terrific strategy for archiving obsolete - but important - web content so that customers (particularly researchers) can still refer to it, but it doesn’t obscure the current stuff.

Several years ago (before I left HUD), Sam proposed setting up a separate website called “” The idea stemmed from concern among top executives that obsolete documents, news releases, reports, and such from prior administrations could be misconstrued as current. It’s a legitimate concern, and Sam’s idea was a great way to deal with it. It took awhile to get off the ground, partly because he needed to work through federal records issues; but Sam now has some great results to report.

In one year, HUD has reduced the number of files on the active site by a whopping 47%! They’ve gone from almost 400,000 files (of all types) to about 210,000. While many of the files removed were graphics files, they’ve reduced the “content” files – HTML, spreadsheets, PDFs, text files, etc. – by 22%. In one year. That’s a huge start on clearing the clutter!

Sam’s strategy is straightforward. A year ago, he established these rules for archiving:
  • Move content from previous administrations and their initiatives at the end of their tenure.
  • Move dated cyclical material (e.g., funding announcements, grant applications, etc.) at the beginning of the next cycle.
  • Move press releases, statistical reports, and other serialized content after one year.
  • When a program becomes obsolete, move basic program content. 
  • If a page on HUD’s public websites is being deleted, review it to see if it should be archived.
When content is moved to archives, it’s no longer reviewed or updated. The content carries the “” masthead; and at the bottom of each document, it says “content archived (and the date).” The archives home page explains that the content is no longer current and that you can review it either through categories (like “funding announcements” or “initiatives”) or by using the archives “search.” Customers can get to the archives from HUD’s home page, under “resources.”

Is there more to do? Sure. Sam estimates that, of those 210,000 files remaining, only about 60,000 (29%) are being used regularly. And, of course, more content gets posted every day.

But gosh, you have to applaud an agency that is addressing the governmentwide content tsunami head on. HUD is making real progress clearing the clutter…and making it easier for customers to find what they want. Well done, HUD. Well done, Sam.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Governance Blues? Build the Blocks

Government websites have been prevalent since 1995. Fifteen years. Yet agencies still have internal struggles over who should “own” the website and web team; and there is no commonly-accepted model for a web governance structure across government. Even agencies with seemingly strong “web governance” have seen it all fall apart when administrations changed. Governance seems to be a common frustration among web managers. I hear it all the time.

Well, you can sit around and wring your hands, feeling powerless and frustrated. Or you can step up, assess the situation, and start putting the blocks in place.

A few years ago, I taught my first course on web governance. I centered it around 5 building blocks that form the foundation of web governance. Since then, I’ve done more thinking and observing and talking to government web managers; and now, I see 7 building blocks – 7 “R’s” - of web governance:

1. Reason: What is the purpose of your website(s)? I left this important “R” out of my first try, and I’ve come to realize this has to start the whole thing. You (and that means the whole agency) have to know why you have a website. Who are your customers? What are you trying to accomplish? And here’s a biggie – what are your overarching priorities, in order? Is it to deliver services? Is it to distribute message (news)? Which comes first? You need that statement of purpose – that “reason” – to guide your decisions and operations. And it needs to be in writing.

2. Roles: Who needs to be in your governance structure? I suggest:
  • An agency executive – someone who can “trump” all others;
  • Program heads – those responsible for the content;
  • The Public Affairs or Communications Director – the person responsible for representing the agency with the public;
  • The CIO – the person in charge of technology;
  • The Director of Contracting/Procurement – the person who makes sure that contractors who provide web content or technology support abide by all federal laws and requirements and agency web policies;
  • The Director of Field Operations – the person who ensures that agency field offices support web operations;
  • Web Managers – both at the agency level and the sub-agency level;
  • New Media Directors – people who are promoting the website(s) and creating other channels for service delivery;
  • Web coordinators or reporters – the staff people who create/manage web content within their branches or offices;
  • GTRs (Government Technical Representatives) – those who are responsible for managing technical support contracts for the website(s)
You may wonder…do web coordinators and GTRs really have any part in decision-making? Well, yes – I think they do. I think it’s far better to have an inclusive governance structure that encourages people at all levels to offer ideas, raise issues, and solve problems together, than to make it a top-down operation. After all, even in government, websites grew through a bottoms-up grassroots movement. So yes – I think all these people should be at the table.

3. Responsibilities: What does each person in the governance structure do?

4. Relationships: How and when should each person in the governance structure interact?

5. Rules: Policies and procedures (both publication procedures and operating procedures)

6.  Road Map: A strategy, a plan. This is another one of my late “adds.” But the truth is that – like the “Reason” – a governance team absolutely has to start at the same point and go in the same direction. Otherwise, it falls apart. And we’ve seen many examples of that.

7. Review: Evaluation mechanisms. Ways to hold people accountable for following the rules. Ways to measure the performance of the website and make improvements. Management controls to protect the agency (and the public) from fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.

All of this needs to be in writing.  Governance building blocks aren't real until everyone can see them.

What should these blocks look like? How should you put them together? There are many models. Shape each one to the needs of your agency. Realize that those needs may change over time, and you’ll have to rebuild. Just make sure you have 7 blocks. 

OK – you’re looking at this list and you’re thinking, “Gee, we’re missing some of these blocks.” Well, you probably do have most of them. They may not be pretty, but it’s a place to start.

Document what you have now. You do have some rules, even if they’re just in your head – write them down and publish them. You’re already functioning somehow – write down your current “roles,” “responsibilities,” and “relationships.” Don’t worry that it’s not perfect – just recognize what you have. And tell everyone in your agency. It may flush out disagreements – but that’s good. Then you can solve the problems and move forward.

Next, compare what you have to what you should have. I created a little governance self-assessment that I use in my courses (it’s posted on Pinpoint what you’re missing and what needs to be improved. Set priorities. If you can make the fix yourself, do it. If you can’t, raise it to the person who can fix it. And don’t just say to your boss, “hey – we need the contracting officer in our governance structure.” Brief him/her on why that’s important. Then produce the memo for your boss to sign or take to his/her boss. Make it easy to make the fix.

You will run into obstacles. You will see blocks start to crumble. Don’t panic! Rebuild your blocks. Find new ways to make your points. Find new allies to help you spotlight the issues. Find new solutions. Use the web manager community for ideas and support. Critical mass can be convincing.

Here’s the thing. Government web governance is more art than science. Government web managers operate in a political and Political environment; and “the web” – by nature – is constantly evolving and morphing. People change, priorities change, public expectations change, technologies change, and – boom! – what you thought was a perfect governance structure starts to tilt. Don’t let that throw you. Take a look at your blocks. Start rebuilding.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Customers Know Best - It’s Their Results That Count

Have you discovered Anne Holland’s wonderful website, “Which Test Won?” I discovered it through a recent Gerry McGovern article, “It’s Not What People Say – It’s What They Do;” and – of course – I had to play. Each week, Anne posts two side-by-side test sites. She tells you what specific element or words were being tested (which is important because, most times, it’s hard to see what’s different). Then, you get to pick which one you think tested better.

Now, I am a seasoned web manager. I am off the chart in “intuition” on the Myers-Briggs tests. I had a minor in psychology in college and took counseling courses in grad school. I’ve been known to be pretty cocky about my ability to figure out what my customers want on the web. But you know what? I have picked wrong more often than I’ve picked the winner, on these side-by-side tests. The moral of the story? Customers know best. And it’s their results that count.

This week’s test on Anne’s site is especially intriguing to me. This example came from Sony, and it has an interesting twist. They were testing an email promo with a link to a specific page. In one version, the email says, “Save 25% on the Vegas Pro Production Assistant.” It leads to a page with a banner that says, “Never start Vegas Pro with an empty project again!” The other version switched those two. The email said, “Never start Vegas Pro with an empty project again!” It led to a page with the header, “Save 25% on the Vegas Pro Production Assistant.”

I won’t tell you which version won – go make your own guess and see. But I will tell you that this test puts a new spin on “winning.” Because though one version got more opens and clicks, the other version actually generated more sales. Web designers probably were thrilled with that first version. But I guarantee you that Sony is much more interested in that second version. And, as the evidence showed, so were the customers. It’s not enough to drive the traffic to the web page (though that’s certainly important). It’s whether the customer completes the task that matters.

So, what does this mean for government web managers? Very simple. Learn from your customers. Focus on their results. Find out if they can complete the task. It’s not enough to count hits or clicks or page views and think your customers are successful in using your site. It’s not enough to ask their opinions about the site (because – like in house-hunting – what customers say and what they actually do often are not the same). And it sure as heck isn’t enough for you to sit in your office and think you can guess how your customers will behave. What matters is this: what did your customers actually accomplish?  Were your customers successful in completing the task?

I’m not saying this is easy – especially in government. If you’ve got a service like selling stamps or applying for passports or paying taxes – services that start and end online – then you have no excuse. You should be honing in on those start and completion stats, perfecting the wording and steps through usability testing, and interviewing your customers about the experience, routinely. You should know with relative certainty how successful your customers are in completing the task and shoot to improve that percentage.

When your service is offering information or the beginning of a process that has to be completed elsewhere, it’s much more difficult to measure results. But it’s not impossible. Several years ago, HUD had a successful web-based kiosk program that provided information about homebuying, low-rent housing, and services for the homeless. How do I know it was successful? Because we hired a researcher (and honestly, it didn’t cost that much) to watch and interview and follow-up with kiosk users all over the country. We looked at their results. And we found that 74% of the 1,500 kiosk users observed (a statistically significant percentage) actually did something with the information they found. We learned which parts of the kiosk content produced the most/best results – and which didn’t. That was really helpful. That enabled us to make our services better, more focused…and drop those that weren’t being used and were only muddying the waters.

Do you have to go hire a contractor to measure your website results? Of course not, though that certainly is one option. There are many ways to observe your customers and measure their results. The point is: do it.

I love Anne Holland’s “Which Test Won?” website. It’s humbling. Every week, it reminds me that it’s the customers – not me - who know best. And it’s their results that count!

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Creating a Culture of Customer Service - “And Would You Like Catsup for Your Fries?”

Last week, a friend told me about a presentation she’d just done for some local elected officials, on making government websites customer-friendly. She said the session had gone really well – they got it. But this is what caught my attention.  She said some of these government officials had never thought about their websites in terms of customer service. They used them as tools for program delivery.  Kind of here it is. One-way. No engagement. Not like the drive-up window at McDonalds, where we not only hear, “How can I serve you,” but also, “And would you like catsup for your fries?”

Are these officials anomalies among government leaders? Nope – I don’t think so. Nor do I think they’re bad because they hadn’t thought about their websites from their customers' point of view. The culture in government traditionally has been, we know best. Not, how can we serve you?  If we want government to deliver great customer service, we’re going to have to create a real culture change.

Some of you may think this is an impossible task – right? Government is too big. Too entrenched.  Well, you know what? Change already is afoot: social media. Look how many agencies are jumping on the social media bandwagon. True, some of them are doing it because it’s cool and honestly don’t have a business case (yet). But there are some who really do get it…who really are using it to listen to and serve customers better.  And they’re out there pushing. They’re risk-takers. They believe in the basic premise of social media - trust the crowd to get it right.

Changing government culture to value the customer – to trust the customer to get it right - is a huge challenge. It’s finding more and better ways to listen to customers and watch how they behave and adjusting our services accordingly. It’s re-thinking how, when, and where we deliver government services and integrating delivery channels so service is consistent. It's humanizing our service delivery.  It’s training employees at all levels to honor and respect our customers and rewarding employees who go that extra mile to give customers the very best experience possible. It’s showing customers we know and care about them by answering their questions before they even ask. “Would you like catsup for your fries?”

So, what next? Well, at the risk of being redundant, we need a Customer Service Summit to map out a government-wide (note I said “government-wide” – not “agency-by- agency” or “silo-by-silo” - because our customers see us as a whole) strategy. But you don’t have to wait for a Summit to start causing change.

To my government web manager friends… With great respect and affection, may I suggest you start by changing your motto from “better websites – better government” to “better websites – better service?” Serving customers better is the goal. I know that’s what you believe…saying it will help others catch the spirit.

To every single government employee... Put up a picture of your mom or your brother or your friend or someone in a magazine, with this caption under it: “I am your customer – can you help me?” Every day, in all you do, imagine that your customers are sitting right there with you. If your customers were in this meeting, what would they say? If your customers were helping you write that memo or complete that assignment, what would they ask?

Pledge to never say, “No, I can’t help you.” Or, “I don’t know.” Or to make customers feel stupid or wrong. Be a role model of customer service for your colleagues. Share what you learn about, and from, your customers. When you get that email or answer a phone call from a customer, take another minute to make sure you’ve really told them everything they need to know just as clearly and concisely as possible. Point out next steps or alternatives. Anticipate their questions. Leave them thinking, “Wow!  My government knows what I want even without my asking.  I'm really getting my money's worth when I pay my taxes.”

“And would you like catsup for your fries?”

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Does Your Website Show Your Commitment to Customer Service, Government Executive?
Does Your Website Say “We Care?”
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Monday, June 14, 2010

Evolving from Managing Websites to Managing Customer Service

I was delighted to read Web Manager University’s first blog entry on Govloop the other day. Delighted for two reasons – first, that they’re using the widely-read Govloop to advertise the wonderful courses offered through WMU. But I was even more delighted when I read this: “WMU is expanding our training to include all aspects of delivering customer service (including phone, email, print etc).” Yes! Yes! Yes! This is the right thing to do. This is the way we should be evolving. Broaden our focus from managing websites to managing customer service. Focus on the customer – not the delivery mechanism.

Of the 6 customer service standards established by the Federal Web Managers Council in their first white paper, this is the one that is so key: when citizens need government information and services, they should be able to get the same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, live chat, read a brochure, or visit in-person. We’ve got to stop working in silos built around delivery mechanisms (web, phone, publications) and start organizing around customers.

Expanding the scope of WMU (dare we hope it will be re-named “Customer Service University?”) is a great start. I’d still like to see a Customer Services Summit (note that my vernacular has changed from “citizen services” to “customer services”) to come up with a comprehensive, far-reaching strategy to improve government’s customer service. Bring together players across government and across delivery channels…representatives of both the management ranks and the staff who actually interface with customers. Involve customer service experts from outside government. Make it a model of open government by involving citizens…before, after, and during. Stream some or all of the sessions. Take suggestions online.

The outcome should be a strategy for improving the way government, as a whole - not by agency, not within delivery silos – can and will improve the way it communicates with and serves its customers. The Summit should be just the beginning of ongoing gatherings and discussions across government and with customers, so we can monitor progress, make course corrections, and be transparent about what’s going on.

It looks like the folks at GSA and the Federal Web Managers Council (maybe one day the “Federal Customer Service Council?”), which co-sponsors WMU, are thinking big. That’s great. They are providing leadership. Now we need to get more people –inside and outside government – involved. The time is right. We’re building critical mass. The evolution is underway. Let’s see government step it up and really give us some great customer service.

Related Posts
Speaking With One Voice – A Basic of Good Customer Service
Customer Service Standards Worth Living Up To
A National “Communicating” Strategy

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Want to Be a Web Superstar?

So you want to be a web superstar! Doesn’t everyone? Well, in government, administrations change, priorities change, and technologies change. But the formula for being a web communications superstar – the ones with the great (or greatly improving) websites, the best web organizations, doing the most exciting new things - doesn’t change. Web superstars follow these 5 basic principles:

1.  Put your customers first
How many hundreds of times have we said this…listen to your audience and they will tell you what to put on your website – and where. They’ll even tell you what words to use. Believe it.

Know who your customers are, understand what they want and need, and do everything you can to deliver it to, when and where they can find it and use it. Be their advocate. Fight for doing the right thing for them.

Embrace the customer service standards established by the Federal Web Managers Council, and add your own. Measure them regularly, and make changes accordingly. If your bosses want you to do something you know isn’t right for your customers, don’t just salute and obey – share what you know about your audience; and suggest other ways they can accomplish their goals, while still meeting the needs of your customers.

Listen to your customers every single day. Read their email. Read what they’re saying on Twitter and Facebook. Get out and talk to them. Listen, respect, follow. Customer service - that’s Job One.

2.  Teach and preach
Web superstars are great communicators. They’re both savvy teachers and committed evangelists. Teach your agency what you learn about your customers – what they like and don’t like, what they need and don’t want. Show managers how to use the web to work faster and smarter and serve your customers better. Use social media to teach your audience how to find and use your agency’s services. Use your passion to convince others to try new things and venture into the unknown, to improve public service. Proselytize. Persuade. Inspire. Teach and preach.

3.  Stay organized
You always will have too much to do and too many people to please. That’s the world of government web communications. It’s how you handle it that separates the superstars. You absolutely have to stay organized.

Build your team – those assigned to work with you, those you need to work with you, and those you may want to work with in the future. Put in the time to train them, encourage them, and keep them on track so you’re working together like a well-oiled machine. Publish policies, content guides, and operating procedures so everyone has standard rules to follow. Work with your bosses to establish accountability across the agency.

Make time to plan. Publish work plans and monitor implementation. Be ready to make adjustments and trade-offs, as priorities change and opportunities arise. Keep everyone informed about those changes. Balance your workload. If you can’t do what you promised, raise the flag or make changes before it’s too late to succeed at anything. Roll with the punches.  Do your job, help others do theirs, and know the difference.

4.  Insist on plain writing
Government websites (including social media) live and die based on words. Good writing – good service…success. Bad writing – confusion, frustration, wasted time...failure. Use plain language yourself, and insist that everyone who contributes and maintains content on your websites or social media venues uses it, too. Stand up for good writing. Attack bad content. Find it. Test it. Fix it.

5.  Lead
Above all, web superstars are great leaders. They’re visionaries. They look into the future and see new ways to serve citizens. They see new technologies and imagine how they can be used to improve customer service. They’re excited about the destination, and others follow because they want to share that excitement. Web superstars don’t give up when they hit a roadblock…they start looking for ways around it – or a better destination.

Be strategic. Read. Listen. Network. Analyze. Know where you’ve been and where you’re going. Look at the past. What worked? What didn’t? Why? What might work now that couldn’t work before? What successes can you replicate (do not reinvent the wheel!)? Look at what’s happening now – what’s good? What’s bad What can you fix? What should you stop? Look at what’s coming – what are the opportunities? What problems can you avoid?

Be courageous. Show some moxy. Step into those voids. Be decisive. Brief those executives. Write that memo. Risk failure to do the right thing. When you do fail, recognize it and change course. Quickly. Celebrate success – and lavish credit on everyone who helped create it. Stay focused, stay positive. Lead up, lead down, lead sideways. Draw the map for others to follow.

Look at the superstars in the government web community – the people you admire and trust - and you’ll see people who follow these 5 principles. Want to be a web superstar? There it is. Go for it.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Does Your Website Show Your Commitment to Customer Service, Government Executive?

Great customer service starts right at the top of any organization – private or public. Top executives set the tone and the standards for customer service. When those top executives pay close attention and make customer service a priority, they create happy customers. Happy customers – better business.

Nothing new about that.

But have you thought about this, Government Executives? Do you realize that more of your customers (citizens) seek services and interact with your agency through the web than any other way? Do you know what services those web customers want and use most? Do you know if they can find what they want, understand what they find, and act accordingly? Does your website(s) reflect your commitment to great customer service?

It’s no secret in the government web manager community that the most successful web teams (and, therefore, websites) are those that have strong support from top executives. At HUD, we sailed forward in those early years, establishing a website that provided really good customer service. Why? Largely because the web team was part of the Secretary’s office. The Secretary and his team knew us and trusted us, and we had their complete support. The Secretaries (Cisneros and Cuomo) had a strong commitment to customer service, and it showed on our website.  We got the first Digital Government Award for good citizen service. Citizens started seeing HUD favorably (we were still recovering from scandals) because they could see we cared about serving them.  We learned first-hand that providing great customer service is the best marketing you can do. 

The web team at EPA is enjoying this same kind of bounce right now. Savvy top executives met with EPA web leaders early and often, asking the web leaders for their ideas to improve customer service, listening to them, and supporting them. EPA’s web customer service strategy is leaping ahead of the pack, as a result. When top executives take a personal interest in providing great customer service, everybody wins. And the biggest winners are the customers.

OK - I know you’re extremely busy and you have a lot on your platters, Government Executives. But let me suggest just a few things you can do that could really promote great customer service in your agency:
  • Meet with your agency web communication director and new media director regularly. Tell them your customer service standards and your priorities. Ask for their suggestions to help you achieve your priorities, enhance mission achievement, and improve customer service. Ask them to brief you on the goals and priorities of the government web management community, and talk with them about what your agency can do to improve customer service across government.
  • Invite your web leaders to your executive staff meetings – let them brief your team on how the web is improving customer service and what they can do to help.
  • Make sure your web leaders have the resources and support they need to improve customer service. Be available to break through organizational bottlenecks when your web leaders need support.
  • Let your whole agency know that quality customer service through the web is a real priority. Effective service depends on effective communication, so encourage all of your managers and staff to learn and use plain writing for anything that is posted on the web (or delivered to the public in any way).
  • Work with your web leaders to evaluate your customers’ satisfaction, through usability testing and surveys. Hold your organization accountable for improvement.
Make sure your website(s) reflects your commitment to great customer service, Government Executive. Everyone knows - great customer service begins at the top.

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