Customer service in government: not like selling burgers

Nearly everywhere they turn, federal agencies are getting the message that they must do better at delivering customer service to the public.

The point has been highlighted recently on three separate occasions: NASA’s online dialogue with the public regarding its open-government plan, the General Services Administration’s Making Mobile Gov campaign and an April executive order from President Barack Obama on the topic.

It sounds straightforward, but government agencies are not McDonald’s. Their success depends on factors more complex than how many burgers and fries are sold in a given day.

Experts say you should start by getting to know your customers and what they want — whether you do it in person, on the Web or by some other means.

Before becoming the new federal CIO, Steven VanRoekel spent two years overhauling the Federal Communications Commission’s IT infrastructure. His first step was to send employees to FCC call centers to hear what types of information the callers were seeking. His goal then became to deliver that material more easily on the Web.

Here are some of the lessons agencies are learning as they step up their efforts to reach out to customers.

1. Meet your customers in person whenever possible. David Hale, project manager for the Pillbox online pill identification tool developed by the National Library of Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration, strongly recommends meeting face to face with customers.

While Pillbox was in the conceptual stage, Hale attended innovation conferences and developer events on his own time and approached random people to ask for their insights.

“How do you get out of the silo?” he asked. “You have to literally get out — leave your office. I would ask people, ‘Can I hang out with you for a bit?' You have to spend time with customers.”

What he does not say, though it’s obvious when you meet him, is that his enthusiasm for connecting with people and sharing ideas likely helped him attract supporters.

Hale said he got lots of nitty-gritty advice and technical input at all stages of the project and encouraged people to get involved. Eventually, he said, he was able to bring together a group of developers who were willing to write code for Pillbox mostly for free.

Nevertheless, Hale said he often felt “we did it blindly” because the solutions involved were so new and complex. But by taking small steps and spending wisely, the risks were minimized, and the project, though still in beta, has been proclaimed a success.

2. Accept that customer needs can be counterintuitive. The average person who sees the Social Security Administration’s iClaim website would never guess that it ranks at the top of all federal websites in customer satisfaction.

The site is designed to allow retirees to apply for benefits online. It has no videos, graphics or animation, and marketing experts would say it looks like something from the 1990s, said Larry Freed, CEO of market research firm ForeSee Results.

And yet iClaim regularly scores extremely high in customer satisfaction on the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which ForeSee helps conduct.

The site scored 90 out of 100 on the July 26 index — the highest score of the 104 federal websites measured. By comparison, Amazon scored 87, and Netflix scored 86.

The iClaim site’s plainness and simplicity are comfortable for its audience, Freed said. “It meets customers’ needs and exceeds their expectations,” he added.

3. Expect surprises. The Smithsonian Institution routinely conducts customer surveys for new applications. But sometimes there are unexpected turns.

That’s what happened when the Smithsonian and its partners developed the free Leafsnap application so researchers could submit photos of tree leaves and check them against a database of images to identify the tree.

Although intended for scientists, the iPhone application was quickly snapped up by nature bloggers and the media. Now it is a popular educational tool for the public, said Nancy Proctor, director of the Smithsonian’s mobile initiatives. “When you go for Goal A, sometimes you get Goal B,” she added.

As long as your customer is happy, it might not matter how you got there.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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