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No longer ‘nice to have’: Why neglecting customer service is bad for federal government
by Steve Foley

For much of America’s history, customer service has been considered a ‘nice to have’ by successive governments on each side of the aisle. It’s not hard to work out why – when you consider the challenges both at home and overseas in recent decades and the issues that have shaped policy and galvanized voters, federal customer service has been far down the list.

But this is changing. As Stephanie Thum, Chief Advisor for Federal Customer Experience at Qualtrics, told CMS Wire last year: “For the past several years, the federal government's customer experience community has grown.” One reason for this is because in private sector industries, customer service is one of the main battlegrounds between competitors, resulting in enormous investments ploughed in every year in search of that competitive edge. In contrast to federal services – which have no competition – this investment is harder to argue. And as the gap between the tech-savvy, data-driven customer service offered in the private sector becomes wider, the shortcomings of federal services have been laid bare.

Sooner or later, this will result in a cost to the government, perhaps not in money but in votes. As Deloitte explains: “Government does not just provide services to citizens; citizens also provide “services” back to the government. The most obvious example of this is when citizens elect leaders.”

However, these services can be much more creative. “It can also be extended to solution design and even policy development,” Deloitte goes on to say. Neglecting customer service at a federal level means that these agencies are missing out on valuable insights to shape what the public really wants. There’s an ideological argument here but also a very self-interested one – governments can turn federal services into the best research tool they have to measure public mood.

This is already happening on some levels. For example, the National Weather Service has spent time learning how their users like to be spoken to in recent years. “We worked hard to really embed with our users, understand their lingo, ‘speak their speak’, so we could help them understand weather threats in their own terms,” says Laura Furgione, former deputy director of the National Weather Service. What if this could go further? What if this could become a two-way conversation instead, where the agency could gain insights from the most engaged members of the public?

This is why achieving excellent customer service is important. Agencies can gain far deeper insights if they have an engaged audience. Never has this been highlighted more than by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which placed extreme strain on federal agencies at the beginning of lockdown. Calls to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased 100-fold at the start of the pandemic, while the Veterans Affairs Department had to ramp up telehealth capabilities by 1,000%, providing more than 100,000 appointments in May[1]. Speaking to Nextgov, Justin Herman, who heads public sector business for remote contact center provider Twilio, also points to courts using video-conferencing tools and more personalized experiences being offered, such as the method of communication they would prefer. “The fact is that this isn’t going away,” Herman says.

Now that engagement is taking place in a more digital way, the opportunity for trapping these insights is ripe for the taking.

Negative experiences tend to have a larger impact on customer satisfaction than positive ones at the best of times, as shown by the diagram below. During a crisis, this is even more accentuated, and the stakes are that much higher. A cancelled telehealth appointment could have a number of dire consequences but at the very least it results in a deeply unsatisfied member of the public. There’s intrinsically a cost connected with this. According to McKinsey: “Unhappy customers tend to generate a disproportionate amount of the cost to serve that agencies bear, for example, through problem phone calls, as well as risks, through lawsuits. Identifying and addressing these issues - even with temporary fixes - can build momentum toward deeper, longer-term improvement.

“Furthermore, our research suggests that customers who receive “excellent” resolution of their issues often experience even higher satisfaction than those who never had any issues at all.”

Federal services cannot afford to fall farther behind private sector leaders when it comes to customer experience. It was important before the spread of Covid-19, but like many trends accelerated by the pandemic, greater customer service is now fundamental, no longer a ‘nice to have’. The risks in not prioritizing customer service range from disengagement to lost votes to lawsuits. The reward for agencies is gaining a deeper understanding of the people they work for and the possibility of creating world-leading government services.

Though federal services lack the deep pockets of the private sector, the good news for them is that the private sector has done the trial and error and there are some fantastic examples to shamelessly copy for the good of all. In my next blog, I explore how federal services are evolving.

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[1] https://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=5467

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