Serving Customers in Government

In government, the customer may not always be right, but they're still always the customer.

If we are ever going to master customer service, one of the hurdles that government needs to clear is the idea that the customer is always right.

Quite frankly, this statement is impossible to balance with some of our regulatory and safety functions. For example, I've worked with a lot of correctional facilities, and when the idea of customers comes up, many administrators say the same thing: "These people are convicted criminals, not customers. I don't really care what they want or how they want it."

It's not that corrections officials don't care about the well-being of offenders, because most do. It's that thinking of them as customers in the traditional sense almost gives them a power we don't want to grant. The concerned officers don't want the baggage that comes with customer satisfaction, in particular, the case that the customer is always right. They know
many of their customers aren't happy. They're in prison — it's not a happy place.

That's extreme, of course. But the fact is that many of government's "customers" would choose not to use government if they could. Nursing homes might choose not to have inspections. Businesses might choose not to have to get a permit. And most of us would prefer not to use the IRS, or to get a speeding ticket. Because of this dilemma, it is often easier to skip the customer debate all together. While skipping the debate may make our jobs easier, however, it creates a disconnect with our customers, like a creaky old bridge connecting two shorelines. On one shore is the work we do; on the other, the outcomes we want. Without a strong bridge between the two, we have trouble connecting them.

For an example, let's look at any number of government programs aimed at keeping a community healthy. Many county health clinics offer free immunizations, particularly for children. They gather quantities of vaccines and lollipops awaiting the victim — I mean, the kid — to stick with the needle. That's one shore. Across the water is the outcome we're after: a healthy community free of particular diseases. To bridge the two, we need a customer (or in this case, a customer's parent who can drag him in and hold him down). Without a customer bridge, we have all the medicine and noble intentions, but no way of connecting that with the goal of a disease-free community. If we don't know how to reach out and let them know the vaccines are available, or if we offer shots only at inconvenient times and locations, then we end up with lots of needles and no healthy kids.

We have prison programs because we want safe communities, but without meeting offender needs we fail to connect these programs to the outcome. We have inspections and permits because we want clean air and water. Without the cooperation of businesses we have no bridge.

Just because our customers may look at us the same way a kid about to get stuck in the arm would look at the doctor, it doesn't mean they're not the customer. Granted, we will always have to balance their wants with the wants of those people who count on us to keep them safe, healthy and prosperous. (In Ken's book We Don't Make Widgets, Ken puts it like this: We "make invisible things for people that do not want them on behalf of others that do.") Still, every effort to strengthen the customer relationship, even with people who may not want it, helps to get us more of the noble outcomes we are after.

Last year, I worked with a state health department to review its nursing home inspection process. The agency had a lot of unhappy nursing home administrators, but above-average customer survey scores. The leaders wanted a team to look at what was really going on.

Some state inspectors said, "This is sour grapes. If they get a bad inspection, they complain. If they had their way, there would be no inspections at all and they'd do whatever they wanted."

We had representatives from the nursing home industry who said, "The state is nit-picky and is driving people nuts with the constant changes to requirements and an inability to communicate what they want from us."

Together we conducted 14 focus groups with various types of facilities. We learned that, with the exception of one establishment, everyone recognized the state's role and the importance of the inspections. They just wanted them to be easy to understand, consistent and fair.

The team then took on the task of redesigning the inspections so that facilities would have a better understanding of what inspectors need to look at and what is expected of them. We developed checklists and standards to make the process more consistent among all the inspection teams, and we reinforced some internal mechanisms to help ensure fairness. The same inspections still occur, and we increased customer satisfaction with the process, hopefully leading to better, safer, facilities.

Over and over we find that our customers recognize the need for government involvement. Even if I'm a nursing home administrator and I may not be thrilled with the state coming to inspect again, I still recognize, as a child of aging parents, that it's important for the state to ensure the quality of assisted living facilities. As taxpayers, we all want to know someone is looking out for the elderly who need this type of care.

Prisoners are never going to get the VIP customer treatment while behind bars. We're not going to start catering in the lobster bisque from Craft Steakhouse, or have Extreme Makeover: Home Edition come in and bling up the cells with flat-screens and appliances from Sears. But we still have an obligation to strengthen the bridge and offer better drug treatment, educational and reentry programs.

Customers are not always right. We cannot always do what they ask us to do, nor should we. But we must recognize that customers are the key to increasing our profit — the noble outcomes we are after. If we want more and better outcomes, we must strengthen that bridge by building better relationships with our customers. We can only do that by talking to them and really understanding what they need from us, so together we can help our communities, our states and our nation.

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism