Thursday, April 28, 2011

Are We Ready to Provide Great Customer Service in Government?

Yesterday, April 27, 2011, President Obama issued an Executive Order: Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service. In a nutshell, it directs agencies to develop and monitor customer service plans and measures and to solicit customer feedback to improve service. It calls for agencies to use technology to streamline customer service and to emulate practices that have worked well in the private sector.

This isn’t the first Presidential customer service initiative - President Clinton issued an Executive Order in 1993, requiring agencies to establish customer service standards - but it’s a huge step at a time when public expectations of government service have never been higher. As a long-time advocate for great customer service in government, I’m turning cartwheels!

But, wait…can it work?

My good friend, Bernie Lubran - fellow government customer service passionista and Regional Manager for ForeSee Results (home of the American Customer Satisfaction Index) – sent me a link to a great article last week, “The Rise of the Chief Customer Officer,” by Paul Hagen, published in the Harvard Business Review. It talks about a new kind of executive at many top private sector companies: the Chief Customer Officer (CCO). If you care about customer service in government, read it.

What really struck me was a quote from Roei Ganzarski, the CCO at the Training & Flight Services Division of the Boeing Company, "… in order to continue growing successfully, we needed to be more focused on our customers than ever before. Our organizational culture wasn't optimal to say the least. Our operations departments were focused on our products and services, our finance teams on collecting payments, and our sales and business development teams on meeting short-term revenue goals. But no one was looking at things from the customers' holistic perspective. We knew we needed to change our culture to better serve the one reason we all exist — our customers."

Does that sound familiar? How many government agencies are so wrapped up in carrying out mission that they fail to look at things from their customer’s point of view? How many agencies (and sub-agencies and divisions and officies…you know – all those silos) are so busy meeting those management goals that they forget their services may be just part of what their customers need to solve their problems and achieve their goals. Is achieving mission really the same as providing great customer service?

So back to President Obama’s initiative. Oh, I do so want it to work. I do. I do.

I remember when President Clinton’s Executive Order was issued. We knew it was the right thing to do. But – honestly – it asked so little of us. And we were so busy doing other good things. So while agencies met the letter of the requirements, there was no commensurate change in culture. And we didn’t have a leader dedicated to the effort – a Chief Customer Officer – to see it through. Leadership is oh-so-essential if you really want to create change.

So what do we need to achieve a happy ending this time? Real, comprehensive change to create great customer service from the federal government?

Well, we need to address the two problems. And do one more right thing.
  1. We need a real firm mandate to look at government services from our customers’ point of view. My one disappointment with the Executive Order is that it lets each agency do its own thing. I wish it said, “we need to look at things from our customers’ point of view and build our services in ways that make sense to them, even if – especially if - that means working across agencies to package a service.” Achieving your mission isn’t enough if the customer can complete only half the task. We need executives, managers, and employees across government to adopt “customer think.”
  2. We need a strong leader. We need someone to serve as our CCO – to inspire, excite, advocate for, oversee, coordinate, poke, prod, goad, and do whatever it takes to create great customer service across government. The Executive Order says the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Division, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy will provide support and best practices. That’s great! And necessary. But we need one leader who really understands our customers (both individual citizens and other entities), who has the ear of the President, who will be at the table with all the other executives making decisions about how resources are handed out and what the priorities are, who can bring private sector customer service experts together with public managers to identify and adopt great customer service practices, who has the time and talent to cause the culture change we need, and – most of all – who has the passion to do this hard job because it’s the right thing to do.
  3. If we really care about open government and customer service, why not involve customers in this initiative? Establish a Customer Service Panel of typical customers – maybe at each agency, but certainly across government – to try out ideas, offer suggestions, and be partners in this whole thing.
Ok – and because I’ve been harping about it forever – suggestion 4 is to have a Customer Service Summit.

Are we ready to provide great customer service in government? Oh, I hope so. I believe so. I want it to be so. If not now, when?

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Wordies Need What Nerdies Have

In the beginning, federal government websites were published by IT staff or rogue tech-savvy employees who were fascinated by this new information disseminator, the internet. They taught themselves HTML, and they embraced new design tricks and emerging technologies with gusto. It was a new frontier to explore, and these Nerdies were scouting the wilderness!

But soon, we realized our growing web audiences wanted more than just a place to visit. They wanted to be able to do something. Nerdies could build the storefront. But we needed someone to create the product…someone with the ability to turn the agency’s mission into clear concise services that our audiences want and can use. And web Wordies were born.

I remember going to the first meeting of Rich Kellett's Federal Webmasters Forum, back in August 1996. From the very first meeting, it was clear that the people in the room had two distinct interests. The Nerdies wanted to talk about coding and software packages, while the Wordies wanted to talk about audiences and how to gather and organize content. Eventually, the Wordies broke off and formed the Government Web Content Managers Forum.

We got it that there are two critical tracks. We got it that our websites were growing so large and demands so strong that we need skilled specialists in both areas. And we got it that we are symbiotic – Nerdies and Wordies have to work together to succeed.

So what’s my point? Wordies need what Nerdies have.  
  1. Being a Wordie, like being a Nerdie, is a job requiring unique skills. Nerdies have a job series. Wordies need one, too.
  2. Nerdies have a high-level advocate and leader at OMB. Wordies need one, too.
For the most part, federal government Wordies have written our own rules, defined our own jobs, identified our own best practices, and organized our own community. It's a real grass roots success story. And we’ve liked doing it that way – it mirrors the way the internet has grown.

But let’s face it:  we've hit a wall.  We need more authority to cause the cross-agency coordination and consistency that we know will improve government service.  So we need more traditional legitimacy for Wordies. 

We need a bonafide job series, with clearly defined knowledge and skills requirements, authorized by the Office of Personnel Management and consistent across government.  We need a functional advocate and leader at OMB to help us create content strategies and preserve uniform standards and performance objectives across agencies and across administrations. 

Wordies need what Nerdies have.  They're both essential for great government customer service.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

The Biggest Barrier to Great Customer Service? Egos

I had an interesting discussion with an esteemed colleague about my last blog post on making sure portal sites add value. One of my suggestions was to adopt a common design and publication standards across all agencies covered by the portal. He said, “Here's a fact...every government entity will do what is in its best interest...program, business unit, a bureau or a department will do what is in its best interest…there is no incentive for them to try to coordinate/manage.” Sadly, he speaks the truth. And though I’ve only worked in the federal government, I’m guessing that truth extends to state and local governments, as well.

In huge bureaucracies, the customer often gets lost among the competition for budgets, power, and prestige (which might lead to a better job). Both political executives and career employees – even web managers – thrive on doing something better than another office or agency. Normally, I think healthy competition is a good thing. But not in government, where great customer service often means bridging silos and cooperation is paramount. Self-interest – even if it isn’t personal…even if it’s for your office or agency – is the biggest barrier to great customer service.

So how do we overcome that barrier? How do we make it more important to serve our customers than to serve ourselves? The answer is both simple and horrendously difficult: change the reward system. Change both the tangible and intangible rewards for doing a good job. Reward government employees for cooperation and working together to produce the best customer service possible.

OK – so we aren’t the President or Congress or OMB. We can’t change things at a high level. But there are many things we can do to start changing that “me, me, me” culture.

Start with ourselves. Take a look at your to-do list. How could your customers get better service if you picked up the phone and called that colleague at another agency to see if you could team up to do something together? Look for opportunities to cross those organizational boundaries and connect the dots to make it easier for customers to complete their tasks.

Then there are things we can do as a community. Some examples:
  • Refocus awards to recognize groups of employees – not individuals - who work together to overcome barriers and improve customer service across agencies.
  • Sponsor an “Innovation in Customer Service” contest, and challenge agencies to work together.
  • Spotlight cooperative efforts in best practices and case studies used in courses and on
  • Invite conference and webinar and Web Manager Forum speakers who can relate real-life examples of customer service successes produced by employees working across organizations.
  • Publicize good examples of team efforts to break down barriers and improve customer service. Success begets success.
I’ll bet you can think of other fixes. Let’s hear ‘em.

Look, we can be cynical and sit back and sigh and say government executives and employees are only human and will always be self-interested and government will never change. Or we can try to do the right thing and cause that change, one baby step at a time.

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Monday, April 04, 2011

If Your Portal Doesn’t Add Value, We’ll Use Google

I remember when I first heard the term, “portal.” The concept of a home page that would aggregate links to content from other sites around themes made so much sense to me. Indeed, it was a huge step in the right direction – more than 10 years ago.

Today – many years later – customers’ expectations are so much higher. And search engines are so much better. So if your portal doesn’t enhance our experience (make it faster, better), we’ll skip the intermediary. We’ll just use Google.

The other day, I visited a state government portal. Like most web customers, I’m in a hurry. I want to complete my task as fast as I can. So I land on the portal site – gee, it’s great! I figure out how to navigate, find the content I want…super easy! But then – what’s this? I’m linked to a site that looks completely different. In a pop-up window – which I hate. This site is a mess.  Can’t find what I want. Grrr. That state portal set me up for disappointment. Bad portal! Bad state government! I should have used Google.

I started looking around at other government portals. Lots of examples. Go to Nicely designed portal site. I see the top tasks on the front page. Navigation on the left where I expect it to be. Yes – the governor’s photo is there, but it’s on the top right…it isn’t the first thing my eye sees. So I choose “Education,” and I go to a second level page that follows that same clean navigation. Yay! But – ut oh – when I choose “Department of Education,” I go to a different design. More complex. Harder to find what I want. Not sure I want to be here. And the only way to get back to the main Iowa page is through the “back” click (there’s no “home” button to get me back to the portal). Wait – it won’t even let me do that. I’m in one of those truly exasperating sites that won’t let me back out of it! Oh boy… now, I’m really a frustrated customer.

I love Who wouldn’t feel at home with those four big ol’ customer-focused choices: Do, Discover, Connect, Ask?  But I go down a click or two and end up on an entirely different looking site with that ominous “welcome to our website” greeting (whenever I see “welcome,” I pretty much know the rest of the site is going to be sub-par). I’m so disappointed. Why, beautiful Why did you let me down?

Don't get me wrong.  I think a front door to a state or city or federal government is a good idea. But you’ve got to add value to the customer’s experience. You've got to make it easy to complete our top tasks, especially when those tasks cross agencies or departments.  You’ve got to show us where to start and what to do next and pick out the best choices among all the choices.  You’ve got to give us something Google can’t.

So...two suggestions.

First, establish a common design with common navigation (so we learn it once and use it throughout all parts of the site) and – pay attention here – common publication standards, across all the subordinate sites. I’m talking about portals for units of government here: city, state, federal. Your customers think of you as a single entity. All of your components work under the same umbrella. You can do this.

You can let each agency run its site – but within a common design and common plain writing rules so it all works the same customer-friendly way. Then, if task-completion crosses entities, the customer never needs to know it.  If you need to accommodate a unique mission or audience for one agency or department, you can still use common elements (header, general layout) and publication standards. I know it’s hard. But lots of cities and states and even large federal agencies have done it. Look at EPA.

Second - do the work. If you’ve got multiple sources on the same topic, take your customers to the ones that can help them complete their top tasks best. Analyze. Test. Make some judgment calls. Don’t list every single resource available – Google can do that. Choose the best. Yes, you might hurt some officials’ or web managers’ feelings. On the other hand, you might force them to step up and improve their content. The goal here is to help your customers.

Portals need to offer customers something they can’t get from search engines. They need to make the customer’s experience easier. If you don’t add value, then we might as well (and will) use Google.

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