COMMENTARY

Think like a customer, not like a techie

Candi Harrison is former Web manager at the Housing and Urban Development Department and former co-chairwoman of the Federal Web Managers Council. She retired in 2005 and now teaches courses at Web Manager University and writes a blog called “Candi on Content.”

President Barack Obama’s April 27 executive order, “Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service,” directs agencies to develop and monitor customer service plans and solicit customer feedback to improve service. It calls for using technology to streamline customer service and emulating practices that have worked in the private sector.

Customer service initiatives aren’t new. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both had them. Agencies did what they were asked: They established standards and published reports. But we didn’t change our frame of reference, so our customers didn’t see much difference in the way we served them.

How can agencies ensure a better outcome this time? By looking at government from your customers’ point of view. Here are some ideas.

  1. Involve customers. Customer service strategies start with the customers. Watch typical customers use services on the Web or at call centers. See what works and what doesn’t. Talk to customers — not just in Washington, D.C., but across the country. Ask local employees to get feedback. Try out ideas on customers before you invest time and money in making changes. And test improvements throughout the process.
  2. Start with what you know. The Federal Web Managers Council has been working on customers’ “top tasks” for 10 years. Every agency knows the two to three things that a large percentage of customers want and use regularly. Start there. Make those services the best they can be.
  3. Improve service by customer tasks, not by agencies. In his State of the Union speech, Obama said 12 agencies deal with exports and at least five agencies deal with housing policy. Pick almost any topic at USA.gov and and you’ll find links to multiple agencies that have some role in or information about that topic. Reach out to other agencies. Consolidate information, eliminate steps, and connect the dots. Make it easier for customers to use all the resources in government to complete their tasks.
  4. Connect experts with customer service staff. Seek out chief customer officers from the private sector and experts in online customer service, usability and customer feedback. Have them work with employees who provide customer services: subject-matter experts who answer questions, Web managers and people who run call centers, CIOs and the communications staff. Don’t forget about the people who answer phones and handle walk-in traffic at local offices. Bring together experts and players at all levels to share knowledge and ideas and change the culture.
  5. Treat the executive order as the minimum requirement. Setting standards and measures isn’t hard. Changing how you think about customers is. In a guest blog post on the Harvard Business Review website, Paul Hagen, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, quotes Roei Ganzarski, chief customer officer at Boeing’s Training and Flight Services division, as saying, "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."

Sound familiar? Many agencies are so busy meeting management goals that they lose sight of the fact that their programs might provide only part of what customers need to complete their tasks.

Want to provide great customer service in government? Change your point of view.

About the Author

Candi Harrison is former Web manager at the Housing and Urban Development Department and former co-chairwoman of the Federal Web Managers Council. She retired in 2005 and now teaches courses at Web Manager University and writes a blog called “Candi on Content.”

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