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By Steve Kelman

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Smiley faces come to federal government customer service

Shutterstock image (by ra2studio): businessman holding a smiley face emoticon.

(ra2studio / Shutterstock)

In 2013, I wrote a blog post titled "Better service, one smile at a time" in which I discussed touchscreen systems I had experienced in Asia. In men's rooms and information kiosks at the Singapore airport, at passport control in China, systems invited customers to give an overall rating of their service, from a big smile to a big frown. After writing the post, I experienced something similar at Heathrow Airport in London.

I wrote, "Smiley faces are…a great idea that we should really be looking to adopt. They are far easier to complete than long customer satisfaction surveys. They cost the government very little. And, in addition to providing managers with good performance information, they are a visible statement to the public that government cares about how well it treats people in interactions with them."

At the end of the blog, I said: "These smiley-face ratings systems have become common in Asia. Why are we allowing ourselves to fall behind?"
Well, as of about two months ago, smiley-face ratings have come to the U.S. federal government, thanks to the General Services Administration and Vicki McFadden, a career civil servant who is deputy chief customer officer at GSA. Her position was established in mid-2014 to bring, in her words, "a small dedicated team with a customer hat to the table."

GSA established a cross-agency group to look at customers' experience with in-person service. (Many agencies already capture data on web traffic, offer satisfaction surveys at the end of phone contacts and conduct annual customer satisfaction surveys.)

The idea for the smiley-face one-question real-time survey resulted from a "listening tour" officials took to learn about practices in other government agencies. That's when they came across the smiley-face system in London. (It turns out such systems are being introduced in some grocery chains in the U.S. as well.)

In August, was launched at the 27 in-person customer service centers run by the State Department for rush passport applications and renewals and 14 centers run by the Social Security Administration for applying for Social Security cards and asking questions about benefits. At each counter serving customers in those offices, a small kiosk is set up right in front of where the customer stands. When they are done with their interaction, customers are invited to press a button indicating a smile or a frown for their service, across a range of four response alternatives.

The pilot effort, which will run into the middle of next year, is funded by a GSA appropriation that supports citizen service efforts, but starting next June, officials will need to find other funding. One possibility would be transfers from agencies that would want to use GSA's accumulated expertise to set up and manage similar systems. National parks and public restrooms in federal buildings come quickly to mind, as well as a number of local government services.

GSA is receiving about 1,300 customer ratings each day from those service centers. Because they ask only one question that can be answered quickly, the response rate is quite high. (Customers are also given the opportunity to go online and provide more detailed feedback, but fewer than 1 percent do so.) GSA is compiling information on hour-by-hour and longer trends in the feedback.

The ratings show a generally high level of customer satisfaction. However, there are noticeable dips during peak times of the day, and the agencies have responded by posting messages on their websites to advise customers of the best times to visit the centers.

There are also some differences in satisfaction across locations, and GSA is trying to learn whether they are attributable to differences in policies and practices, with the aim of transferring best practices from high performers to those with more problems.

And although the kiosks allow agencies to ask only one question, SSA wants to try some other questions to learn about and improve specific aspects of the customer experience.

Recently, I blogged about data-driven meetings involving senior agency leaders that are designed to track performance and discuss solutions for situations where improvement is lagging. is an example of a similar use of performance measurement to improve performance, but it involves a system in the trenches, not at a senior leadership level.

One fair question to ask about is whether this concentration on in-person service represents the wave of the past, given the big move toward service via the Internet. McFadden said some people still prefer face-to-face service and that lessons learned from the effort can be applied to digital services later.

Meanwhile, it's good to see that smiley-face ratings have come to the federal government, and I hope the practice spreads.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 15, 2015 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Thu, Oct 15, 2015 Bruce Waltuck

In 2001 in Singapore I met Dr. Chan Meng Khoong. He was talking about government service "beyond one stop." His notion way back then was a predictive pattern recognition that would enable "zero stop" service- service in which the agency anticipates your needs and delivers the product or service transparently. No request. That is what Singapore was aiming at 15 years ago.

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