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The Question Governments Need to Ask: How Are We Doing?

There is a range of customer-feedback tools, including very simple ones.

Obit Ed Koch
The late New York City Mayor Ed Koch
(AP/David Bookstaver)
Ed Koch was the brusque, feisty, confident mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. He loved engaging people, and whenever he walked the city's streets or gave a speech he asked his signature question: "How'm I doing?" People were taken by his openness and chutzpah, and loved to tell him what they thought.

Back then, Koch was almost unique in continually asking how he -- and by extension, the city government he led -- was doing. Today, of course, we're bombarded by hotels, car-rental companies, online retailers and others that pester us for feedback on the services they provide. Governments are also getting into the feedback game, and it's a smart thing to do. Governments ought to focus on customer service just as much as hotels and car-rental companies do. But how do you find how your agency is doing?

The usual answers include surveys, focus groups, individual interviews with key stakeholders, program participation numbers, and number and types of complaints received. All have strengths and limitations. Surveys are the most efficient way to capture large numbers of responses ... if people fill them out. They may tell us where to look, but they lack depth. Focus groups, on the other hand, allow us to probe deeply for the reasons why small numbers of customers do or don't like a particular service. The number of people attending a class or requesting a service is important for management purposes, but the numbers alone don't reveal the reasons behind an increase or decrease -- quality? cost? convenience? competition?

Tracking complaints (as well as praise) is important, as long as the results are understood in context. One federal survey found, for example, that people share their experiences of poor service with seven other people on average, while they share their good service experiences with only three others. And certain agencies are going to get higher customer scores than others simply because of their missions: The tax department's scores are never going to rival the library's. Managers who don't understand that will create fear among staff rather than an openness to examining the data.

What to do? Here are a few tips:

• Use customer feedback to continually improve service, not as a punitive tool.

• Ask program managers what kind of customer-satisfaction data would be useful for them as management tools. They'll be motivated to use such data.

• Use more than one method. Surveys can be helpful if accompanied by individual or group interviews.

• Keep surveys very short (four or five questions, max, for most purposes), in order to increase the response rate. You can use longer surveys with certain customer groups that are motivated to complete them, such as those who have registered complaints.

• Publicize changes you've made that were the result of customer feedback. Doing so can increase your response rate.

• Pay attention to trend lines. If a new permitting system is developed, track customer satisfaction in the months before and after implementation.

Surveys and focus groups certainly have their place, but so do simpler, automated customer-feedback tools. One that's gaining a lot of attention is the HappyOrNot system, which offers a simple way to get real-time feedback from large numbers of customers. HappyOrNot uses terminals with four "smiley face" buttons -- signifying very happy, somewhat happy, somewhat unhappy or very unhappy. Customers simply push the button that reflects their experience. The data are fed wirelessly to a web-based collection and reporting system. Responses are date- and time-stamped, allowing managers to monitor trends by time and location. People who would never fill out a 15-item questionnaire are willing to pause, touch one of the buttons and go on their way.

Thousands of businesses are using this system in countries around the world, and it's beginning to catch on in government, where a number of U.S. hospitals, airports, and passport and Social Security offices, along with some cities and counties, have installed HappyOrNot terminals. Riverside, Calif., has used the system since 2015, when its city council identified enhanced customer service as its top priority. There are HappyOrNot terminals at 11 city departments, as well as on the city's website (go to and wait about 15 seconds for the smiley and frowny faces to appear). The city is also using HappyOrNot terminals to monitor employee morale, a creative way to keep a finger on the pulse of the workforce.

You can create your own version of the happy-face product. It works because it's easy to understand, takes just a few seconds to use, is available immediately after service is provided, and provides location and time-specific information about the feedback. When managers receive ongoing customer feedback data and dig beneath the numbers to learn what they mean, they can make much better decisions.

Ed Koch died in 2013, so we'll never know what he might have thought of something like HappyOrNot, but it's reasonable to speculate that he might have liked the idea. How easy is it for your customers to answer the question, "How are we doing?"

A management consultant, educator and author
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