Grumpy feds won’t give good customer service

As last Sunday’s Super Bowl recedes into old news, I think there’s a lesson for federal employees who work far below the political level. People watched a football games to see gifted players in an intricate ballet. Whether you like football, opera or circus acrobatics, it’s always compelling to see people doing well at something really difficult.

Nobody was watching the National Football League. People follow teams and players and tune into games, not umbrella organizations.

In that sense, the government is like a league of agencies. When someone or some entity comes to the government seeking a product or service, in their eyes they’re dealing with the IRS, or the Transportation Security Administration, or Social Security. If the service is bad enough at too many places, people start to think the whole organization is shabby.

That’s the danger, and it’s why administration after administration has pushed a version of improving service to the citizen. Government service, by some independent measures, is below that of the private sector, but it has its stronger and weaker agencies. The recent annual findings from the American Customer Satisfaction Index show the range. The pandemic did a number on operations for the IRS and Social Security. This shows up in the satisfaction scores.

Agencies have the money and policy support to deliver that great customer service envisioned by the CX executive order from December. IRS tech people are working on this problem on several fronts. I also think the average federal employee also wants to offer great service. The question is whether they work in an environment geared towards letting them do so.

Everyone has stories of both terrible and fantastic CX. I recently bought a new motorcycle helmet from an online retailer. This isn’t some cheap piece of molded plastic. It’s hand-made in Japan and costs what at one point in my life was a month’s pay. It was hard to get it in the color I wanted because of, you know, the supply chain. It finally arrived, only in a manner less that what I’d come to expect from the retailer. The box looked beat up. A tiny bottle of lube was missing. But the speed at which the company rectified the situation, through email from an identified individual I could actually answer, saved a “meh” experience and left me planning to buy there again.

The incident came to mind in reviewing a study called The Future of Government Contact Centers, just issued by Deloitte. It outlines what Deloitte calls strategies for “quantum leap improvement.” With some agencies struggling with service, quantum leaps in effectiveness seems like a good idea. Basically it says to resolve each contact using the right method from a menu. The menu items range from do-it-yourself online to a phone conversation with an agency expert on a complicated case. The future center integrates all of the modes — text, chat, email, phone — for both agents and visitors. Add a touch of artificial intelligence, and voila, the best of the commercial outfits are already there.

Great customer experience is more than a technology challenge. It’s also a human capital question. The two feed off one another. If you give people the tools they need, they’re more likely to rise to the occasion. The average Social Security or IRS employee wants to help. But if they work with antiquated systems, don’t have the data they need at their fingertips, and lack access to CX metrics, things won’t improve.

That integration is also key. Sometimes people hit digital cul de sacs. The transaction, even if partial and unresolved, should be recorded and available to contact center operators who can pick up where the self service failed. I applied for a certain license in another state, sending in a non-refundable fee. This was all done online. Turns out the license is only available if you have a similar license in your home state. My state doesn’t issue them. One email, and a person in the other state government closed the case and issued me a refund anyway.

The Deloitte report stresses the importance of that it calls tech-supported human interactions. Nothing is worse to a constituent than being shuttled from person to person, because no one has all the information they need to solve the problem. This leads to another ingredient for CX, an enhanced employee experience. States the Deloitte report, “Miserable employees can’t provide great service.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Robert O’Shaughnessy

The largest denomination of currency ever printed by the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing was the $100,000 Series 1934 Gold Certificate. It featured the portrait of President Woodrow Wilson.

Source: Department of Treasury

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