Does The Government Really Care About Your Opinions?

Who hasn’t stood in a lineup trying to access a government service?

Most of us have been in a long government service lineup at some point.

Trying to access a government service. Be patient!

It’s so easy to bash government service departments, especially when you’ve spent an hour in a lineup only to be told you are missing something and have to start all over.

Or you are filling in an online form and it glitches and you have to start all over.

Or you’ve been on hold for half an hour only to have the line go dead.

Today’s podcast guest, Micheal Martino, is trying to change all that. The government agency he works for has about 5,000 staff, spread over 14 cities, serving 3 major customer groups.

Shrinking Budgets & Rising Citizen Expectations

In the past, many governments have felt that it was just fine to have citizens waste their time, but, as with customer service in other types of organizations, people just won’t put up with that any more. At least not in the countries most Frank Reactions podcast listeners and readers live in.

Apart from public pressure to improve service, governments are looking for ways to streamline service and be efficient.

That’s one of the great things about customer experience improvement: making it better for customers often makes processes more efficient and cheaper to deliver.

As Martino put it, “Where the biggest effort is for a citizen is also your most inefficient process.”  

That said, there’s a big up-front investment to get all the systems in place, and in the short run at least, you can’t just replace your other government service delivery channels, like phones, with online only. Complex problems still need help from a person.

But a well designed website can significantly cut the number of people who need to call or line up at the same time as making citizens happier. Most of citizens want to do the simple things online.

User Experience is Key

Note the words “well designed” in the paragraph above. Coming from a UX (user experience) background himself, Martino knew that key to getting it right was really understanding the customers and their needs.

So his staff hit the road and spent 150 hours doing 50 ethnographic interviews, spending entire days with customers and learning what they really needed from his agency, and how it would fit in with their work and lives.

He made a few discoveries that might surprise some anti-government cynics.

The Surprising Truth About Government Service

[Look at that sub-head: I must be reading too much BuzzFeed!]

Their customers told them that they really want to help make the government agency work better. They are willing to spend hours giving feedback and participating in research studies. Customers care! 

They actually spoke positively about the call center staff! It was call center time pressures, not people, that were destroying the relationships.

Your people are really good on the phone but it always seems that you want to get us off the phone,” they told the researchers.

As in so many organizations (private sector too), call center reps are pressured to keep the “average handle time” low. So they start out being friendly and empathetic, but as their systems signaled that they’d been on the phone too long with a customer they’d rush to cut the call off, even if the problem hadn’t been solved.

Think about it from a call center rep’s point of view: If their average time on a call goes up, they’ll get punished. If they fail to solve the problem and somebody else has to deal with it, it is the next rep who has to take the long call. (Mind you, immediate post-call surveys can help offset that pressure. They don’t want a bad evaluation from the customer.)

Another surprise to some: the government service reps really want to provide better service. “People want to change, its just that the right direction needs to be given to them,” says Martino. (Read more about the government service providers wanting to feel pride in their work in this interview with government employee Donna Crooks.)

So his agency has created a cross-divisional governance committee, with decision-making-level staff on it, to drive the change. The goal of that committee is straightforward: improve customer experience.

Figure out “what an effortless experience would look like and then reverse engineer that,” urges Martino. OK, so “effortless” may be unlikely, but you can sure get a lot closer than many government departments are right now.

Also in This Interview

  • Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) scores versus Customer Effort scores. Not always the same.
  • Barriers to improving government service.
  • How customers are partnering with government to make improvements.
  • The importance of real-world user testing.
  • The risk of going for quick wins instead of staying focused on the bigger goal of consistenly great customer experiences.
  • The value of personas.

Resources/Links Mentioned in the Interview

Amazon Go store. An experimental shop without any customer service staff.

The Effortless Experience. Fantastic book by Matthew Dixon.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers. A fictional but not so far-fetched look at how companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook could ultimately destroy freedom and democracy even while they think they are doing good, not evil.

Active Inbox and HubSpot CRM. Two free or inexpensive tools that let you schedule emails so that you can write them whenever you want without your staff feeling pressured to respond in the middle of the night.

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