Thursday, February 25, 2010

Customer Service Mantra: Listen, Respect, Follow

From my very first presentation about being a government web manager – way back in the mid-90s - I’ve said this: “if you listen to your audience, they will tell you what to put on your website.” Listening to your audience is absolutely the cornerstone of great customer service. But it doesn’t stop there. You also have to respect what they tell you and follow – yes, I said “follow” – what they say. I know it’s very, very hard to do…especially when you know more than your audience knows – right (wink wink)? But if you want citizens to trust you, like you, use your services, participate, you’ve got to apply the principles of customer service. Listen to your audience. Respect and follow what they tell you.

OK – I need to digress here a minute. The other day, a friend said to me, “Candi – what’s the deal with you and ‘customer service’ all of a sudden? You always preached ‘citizen service’ – not ‘customer service.’ You always reminded us that citizens are not ‘customers.’ They own their government. Why the sudden change of heart?” Well, mea culpa. That is what I preached. But I finally stopped and listened. And respected. And followed.

“Citizen service” isn’t a concept that people outside of government understand. Really, they don’t. Just ask friends or family members, “how do you think government should provide great citizen service?” They get this glassy-eyed look on their faces and then stumble around trying to come up with an answer. But ask them, “how do you think government should provide great customer service?” and you can see the understanding on their faces. That’s a concept that resonates. That’s a concept they can apply. They can tell you what they think government should be doing to give them great customer service.

Honestly, I have to thank Craig Newmark for this wake-up call. Craig is all about great customer service…he uses it as the basic value behind Craigslist. He blogs about it and talks about it all over the country. He praises others who deliver it…like his praise for the state of Georgia’s exemplary customer service efforts (and if you haven’t followed the ground-breaking things they’re doing in Georgia, I posted a link below to an article about it). I have a lot of respect for Craig. And I finally listened to him – to the words he uses…to the way he talks about the concept that I always have called “citizen service.” Duh, Candi. Practice what you preach. Use the term that citizens use and understand…people who are NOT in government…people like Craig. Listen, respect, follow. If we want to know what we can do to improve our service to citizens, we have to ask them using words that are meaningful to them.

So, are you a good listener? It takes practice to be a good listener. Here’s a little exercise we used all the time in grad school counseling courses. Sit down with an acquaintance or colleague – someone you don’t know too well. Ask him/her 5 questions (questions more complex than “what’s your favorite color” or “do you like sushi,” please!) Don’t take notes – just listen to what he/she says. After you’ve listened to all 5 responses, repeat back what you heard. Ask him/her if you got it right. Did you really understand what you were hearing? Did you get it all? Did you pick up the nuances? If so, bravo! If not…do some more practicing. We all need to be better listeners. Now go read some of that web manager email or watch some usability testing or get out of your office and go talk to some average folks about what they want from your website and apply that listening skill.

And once you hear and understand what your audience wants…what they’re interested in (and not interested in)…what they want first…what words they use to describe what they want…then you’ve got to respect what they’ve told you and follow their lead. If “buying a home” is more important to them than “see what we’re doing in your community,” then put it first. If they prefer the term “jobs” to “employment,” use “jobs.” If they tell you that your processes are slow or too complex or they can’t find what they want, do something about it. Fix it. And here’s a hard one for many government agencies – if they tell you they want to see what you’ve got to offer in the way of services before they see your news releases and photos of your agency heads, believe them…honor them. Put the services and information your audience cares about most up in that prime space at the top left and center, where they see it first. Listen, respect, follow.

Providing great customer service from government IS a big deal (another Craig-ism). It is – or should be – the number one reason we have government websites. If you listen, you will know the right thing to do. If you respect and follow, citizens will be – and will feel – well-served. I’ll end on a quote from Craig, when asked in a recent interview for his advice on creating great customer service: “Treat people like you want to be treated.” Yep – my mom said the same thing. So simple to understand. So hard to do. Citizens want their government to listen to them and to respect and follow what they say. Do that, and you will serve well.

Related Links
Georgia Praised for Customer Service

Related Posts
The Power of Watching and Listening
If We Engage, Will You Listen?
Knowing Your Audience Is A Web Manager’s Most Important Asset

Friday, February 19, 2010

Speaking With One Voice – A Basic of Good Customer Service

A recent Federal Computer Week article began by saying that, for fun, I sometimes ask a question through various channels at a government agency to see if I get the same answer. Well, I’m not sure I’d call it “fun.” But I have done just that when preparing to teach a class – mostly to get a feel for the state of customer service in the government. Unfortunately, I’m typically disappointed. Agencies fail to speak with one voice. One of the 6 terrific Customer Service Standards established by the Federal Web Managers Council is this:

Citizens…should be able to get the same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, live chat, read a brochure, or visit in-person.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But in many (most?) agencies, it doesn’t happen.

What exactly is this test that I do? Well, I pick some topic that would interest most citizens - I want to send my child to college...can the government help? I want to buy a home…can the government help? My child is obese and I want to know what kinds of foods to fix to help him. That kind of thing. I pick one agency to test (many topics cut across agency boundaries…so part of what I hope to find are suggestions for where else to look). I go to that agency’s website(s) to see what they have to tell me. I send an email to the web manager through the “contact us” link on the agency website. I go to the Frequently Asked Questions section on the website and see what it says.

Then I call the agency. I call at least two numbers - the general number listed on the website (usually a locator or call center service but sometimes just a recorded message) AND the number for the agency's local office. Once, I wrote a letter to the agency head (which means it’s answered through their correspondence unit), asking the same question. If the “Contact Us” page shows other ways to communicate with the agency, I try them. I particularly like to try the live chat, if they have one.

Sometimes I take another step or two – I go to and see what their FAQs say about the topic (GSA coordinates responses with the agencies). Or I go to the Federal Citizen Information Center (you know – those Pueblo, Colorado folks) and see what information the agency has available there. Or I try the live chat. I always ask the same question, the same way.

Here’s my recent experience. The good (and the bad) news is that most channels referred me back to the web. Good news in that they're citing one place to go (though it wasn't uncommon to be sent to different pages on the website - not the same entry point). The bad news is that if I'm a citizen who doesn't have a computer, doesn't like computers, or just prefers to talk to a live human being on the phone, I'm out of luck (too many of those darned recorded phone messages that don’t include a human alternative!).

Though I was glad to finally talk to a human being, I found it frustrating when I landed in a call center with people who really just acted as switchboard operators and didn't have personal knowledge of the subject. Most times, they eventually got me to a place to start (again, normally on the web), but it wasn’t always the same place I’d been directed by other channels. Too often, they send me on a scavenger hunt because they really don’t know enough about the subject to pick the best place to start.

OK – so why do agencies fail this test? Because communications channels are managed by different parts of the agency, and they don’t check with one another to make sure they’re all speaking with one voice. There’s no one assigned to coordinate among the channels, and no one is doing – routinely – that very simple test that I do to make sure customers are getting good service.

How could you solve this problem? Well, you could put all of those channels under one umbrella organization – an Office of Communications or and Office of Citizen Service. Hold one manager accountable for making sure everyone sings from the same songbook. That makes a lot of sense – improve citizen service and probably save a bit in overhead costs. I’ve been an advocate of this approach for years, and I think it’s the right thing to do. But it could require significant reorganization at some agencies (not to mention the political – small “p” – hurdles)…and that can take months (or years).

Here’s another idea. Maybe the “New Media Directors” that many agencies have designated could turn into “Directors of Communications Strategy.” They already create strategies for using internet-based channels – just add print, correspondence, phones to the mix. They could work with managers to decide which channels to use to deliver content AND – as important - make sure that the public gets the same message, no matter how the content is delivered.

In the best of all possible worlds, the whole government would speak with one voice. At the very least, an agency needs to speak with one voice. It’s a basic of good customer service. And it’s the right thing to do.

Related Links
3 Must-do's for Agencies to Improve Citizen Engagement (Federal Computer Week)

Related Posts
Customer Service Standards Worth Living Up To
Citizen Service – That’s What It’s All About
Dear Santa: Here’s My Christmas List

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The New USAJobs – Great Customer Service!

And the award for Best Customer Service goes to…USAJobs! Finally – a federal agency (the Office of Personnel Management) that really, really listened to its audience and gave us what we want. Plain. Simple. To the point.

The new USAJobs website looks like Google. It’s a stripped-down version of its former self (which really wasn’t too bad). It recognizes that people want to do one basic thing when they visit: find government jobs. Yes, you can still get background information about working for the federal government. Yes, if you are you in a special audience group - veteran, student, person with disabilities – there’s a link right there for you, front and center. But nothing gets in the way of that single top task: find a job.

No trouble seeing where you should go first. No overwhelming long lists of choices. No unnecessary photos or graphics to distract us. We don’t have to wind our way through what the agency thinks we should know or news about what the agency is doing.

And when you go to second level pages, they’re just as easy to use and understand. They anticipate audience questions, without explaining every tiny esoteric little nuance or potential exception, ad nauseum.

What a breath of fresh air! What a terrific model for other agencies. You listened.  You got it.  You delivered what we want, in ways that make sense to us.  Now that's what I call good customer service! Very well done, OPM.