Sunday, January 23, 2011

Get Organized for Great Customer Service

At long last, the customer service bandwagon seems to be rolling in government. The latest evidence: GSA just quietly unveiled a fabulous new website: It puts requirements, best practices, training, and tips for all forms of customer service delivery (web, call centers, publications, social media) under one customer service umbrella. Bravo! Finally, we can focus on what and why we’re communicating – not just how.

So now I’m thinking about what agencies might do to make great customer service happen. Step one is a strategy, and I still think we need a cross-government customer service summit to get everyone working together. But enough on that.

Step two: get organized for great customer service! Designate/hire, train, and empower a cadre of your best to lead, coordinate, and evaluate your customer service plan.

“So, what would you do, Candi?” I thought you’d never ask! Here’s a draft to start the discussion.

Establish a Customer Service Team.

Hire or designate an executive Customer Service Director – someone really skilled in analyzing customers and their needs and coming up with/implementing winning customer service strategies. Make sure that person understands the government customer (citizens and others).

Assign the agency web manager, the new media director, the agency call center manager, the agency publications editor/manager, the director of correspondence, the director of field operations (if field offices have any contact at all with the public), the Open Government manager, and the Plain Language Manager to the Team. Ex officio members (with dotted line relationships) include the Director of Public Relations/Affairs (press/news), the CIO, and the agency Contracting Officer (because contracts should adhere to agency customer service standards and requirements). Oh, and don’t forget to coordinate with the program officials – the people who actually manage the products and services your agency provides.

Put the Customer Service Team as close to the top of the agency as possible (report to head of the agency or his/her deputy), to make sure customer service gets the attention across the agency it deserves.

If there is a field component in the agency, set up Regional Customer Service Teams, reporting to the agency Team. Include regional representatives of the web, new media, call centers, correspondence units, and publications operations. Make sure they consult regularly with people who answer the phones and handle walk-in traffic in local offices to be sure we stay on top of trending issues.

I’d charge the Customer Service Teams with 4 primary functions:
  1. Tell us about our customers: who they are, what they want, and how they want it (delivery channels)
  2. Tell us what we need to do to improve the way we deliver our services to our customers (including strategy, process improvements, quality controls, and evaluation)
  3. Teach us to deliver great customer service
  4. Work across agencies to make sure we all deliver the best possible customer service to the American people.
What would it look like? Try this

OK – there you have it. Don’t like it?  OK.  Come up with your own ideas.  But start thinking.  You need to get organized for great customer service.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Consistency, Customer Service, and the Community

Consistency is one of the building blocks of great customer service. Look at McDonalds. No matter where in the world you are, if you walk into a McDonalds, you know how it will look and what you’ll find and how it all works. You can complete your task quickly because you know exactly what to expect, from one McDonalds to another. It’s easy. It’s familiar. It’s predictable. Customers love easy and familiar and predictable.

How does McDonalds create that consistency? Well, part of McDonald’s success is its consistent design. You’ve got the golden arches, the big windows, the counter in the back, the seating in the front, maybe some playground equipment outside. Consistent design counts. And yes – I am an advocate for a consistent website design across government.

But that’s not what I’m focusing on today. Today, I’m thinking about people…the people who manage and operate the 31,000 McDonalds around the world. McDonalds ensures consistency because it has service standards and it trains its people to carry them out.

The U.S. government has an estimated 24,000+ websites. If you figure that each one of those websites has at least one federal employee in charge (even if it’s managing a contractor who actually operates the site) and most have many people who write and manage the content for the site, that’s a heck of a lot of people charged with delivering great customer service through government websites. I wonder – how many of them have been trained? How many of them know where to look or who to ask for help? How many of them are reinventing the wheel, or – worse – serving poorly?

How many of them are up to speed on the ever-changing requirements and best practices for federal government websites? How many of them not only know the principles of plain writing but can actually do it? How many of them know the principles of customer service and how to deliver it well?

And what about the turnover among all those feds who are working on government websites? People leave, move up, move on…new people come in…are they getting trained? Or do they start from scratch?

McDonalds’ service is consistent because the bosses require training and evaluation. If you don’t perform up to standards, you’re out. We don’t have those requirements in the federal government – yet. But that doesn’t have to stop us. The government web management community has caused change and improved customer service for 15 years through the power of critical mass. The more we come together and adopt common best practices, the more we create that consistency our customers love. We don’t have to wait for our bosses to tell us to do these things. We just have to find our colleagues and bring them into the fold.

So, what can you do? Reach out!
  • Look at your own agency. Do you know everyone who contributes content to your site? If not, find out. I don’t mean just those people who have a position description that says, “will work on the website.” I mean all those hundreds of people who do it part-time or routinely, under that catch-all phrase, “other duties as assigned.” Network with them – offer support.
  • Have a brown bag lunch and go through together. Talk about specific sections that could help improve your site.
  • Encourage anyone who contributes web content regularly to join the government Web Content Managers Forum. It’s free, and it is a great source for updates and best practices. You don’t have to have the title “web manager” to join.
  • Encourage everyone to sign up for Web Manager University courses. Not only do you learn, you also get to network. You don’t have to be a web manager to attend. Many of the offerings are webinars (no travel required), and some are free.
  • If you’re in Washington DC, reach out to all the people in your field offices who work on web content. I often hear from field web managers and contributors that they feel isolated and don’t get the word on changes and best practices.
  • Establish an orientation program for new web managers and web contributors. Offer it regularly so all those who are new to their web duties get up to speed quickly.
  • Organize an agency-wide web conference or a series of conference calls. Include all those key content contributors. Cover the regulations, rules, and responsibilities for great customer service.
  • Find out who manages other websites at your agency. Encourage them to join the Forum, attend WMU courses, and visit Network with them regularly.
  • Seek out web managers and contributors from agencies who are not participating in the community. Send an email to the web manager through the “contact us” link. Engage them in community discussions and activities.
Here’s the thing. Citizens tend to judge all of government by their experience with any part of government. That goes for our websites, too. If they have a bad experience with one of our websites, we all get the blame. So we need to do all we can to make all government websites the best they can be.

Consistency is critical for great customer service. It takes a community to make it happen.

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Monday, January 03, 2011

Three Goals for 2011

Ah, a new calendar year! A fresh start! Time to look at the year ahead and figure out how we can make the best of it.

So, what goals would I set as a government communicator? Three things jump to the top of my list.

Develop and implement a governmentwide customer service strategy

Most of us know that we need to make customer service our priority and that we need to work together to make sure customers are getting consistent answers/services, no matter how they access their government. OMB (Office of Management and Budget) is encouraging a customer service philosophy. GAO (General Accounting Office) issued a report last October, suggesting ways government could improve customer service. GSA (General Services Administration) is leading the way, turning the web best practices unit into a Center for Customer Service Excellence and incorporating all delivery channels. The customer service bandwagon is rolling, and everyone is getting onboard.

Next step? Get down to the nuts and bolts, with the nuts and bolts players. Get everyone together to figure out exactly what we need to do - at each agency and among agencies – to accomplish the changes needed. If ever there were an initiative that requires cooperation and coordination across government, customer service is it. Start with the premise that our customers don’t know – and don’t care to know – how we’re organized. They just want to get great services from “the government.” They see all of us as one. So this cannot be a competition. It has to be a group effort, and we have to get together and stay together to achieve success.

Start with those 6 simple objectives offered by the Federal Web Managers Council in their 2008 White Paper. See if they still make sense or need to be tweaked. Figure out steps that each and everyone can and should take. Form teams to help one another. Use ideas and help from customer service specialists and gurus outside of government. Create a communications plan (beyond a dashboard) to let everyone – inside and outside government – know what you’re doing and what you’re achieving. Invite customer feedback and ideas and involvement.

The upcoming Web and New Media Conference (is it time to change that title to “Customer Service Conference?”) in March would be a great venue for a strategy session. Or at least a good place to kick off the idea and build excitement.

Improving customer service should be the theme of the year. Let’s figure out exactly how we’re going to do it.

Make sure all top tasks are (re)written in plain language.

Oh, I am so hopeful! With the mandate we always needed (the Plain Writing Act), let’s really tackle that bad writing on our websites and in our government publications and documents. Start with your customers’ “top tasks” – that information and those services that your customers want and use most often. That’s only 3-5 “tasks” per agency. A very reasonable and doable first step.

Web Manager University is offering webinars and courses on plain writing, if you don’t have the skills in your own agency. PLAIN ( and the Center for Plain Language have tons of resources, including experts who can help you.

Before, during, and after your re-writes, don’t forget to test with typical customers. Watch them try to find the answers to their questions. Listen to them struggle with wording and organization. Then fix it. and offer all kinds of support.

This is neither hard nor expensive. Test. Write. Test. Write. Test… If we don’t communicate effectively, we can’t serve our customers effectively. Write right!

Trim the fat. Lose weight. Get healthy.

I’m talking about all that content, friends. It’s killing you. It’s killing your customers.

In 2010, we saw the proliferation of “micro-sites.” Some folks got so frustrated with their behemoth agency websites, they just gave up and started rolling out theme sites. OK, maybe that’s a good strategy. Not sure. But the problem is they didn’t fix the bloated websites. They didn’t take down all that excess content. They just added more content to customers’ search results.

So it’s time for a diet. Time for tough love. No more procrastinating. No more excuses. It’s a question of will power. It doesn’t require years of expensive analysis. Look at your usage stats and just eliminate anything that hasn’t been used in 6 months. If there is an outcry for something you took down, put it back up. Want to start a pool on how often that will happen? Let’s help our customers and make our own lives easier. Trim the fat. Get healthy.

It’s a new year! Set just a few goals, get them done, and then move on to others. These would be my 3 goals for 2011. If they work for you, too, get going. If they don’t, pick 3 others. Shake off the old and start anew!

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.  Some blunders and absurdities have crept in.  Forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day.  You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense." – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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