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What Do We Mean By 'Customer Service,' Anyway?

For the public sector to get 'service' right, we first have to know the definition.

When we opened up the Public Great request line last week, we had a feeling we'd get some great questions. And we weren't disappointed. The depth of the questions has been fantastic, and we will do our best to answer as many of them as we can. In many cases we had multiple questions that hit on the same theme, so we will paraphrase those and address them as one.

We had many questions on the meaning and utility of customer satisfaction in the public sector. It was best expressed by "Angie" in Washington:

"What is the definition of customer 'satisfaction' in the public sector? Is it about timely and accurate processes? Is it about getting everything they wanted? The term 'satisfaction' is so subjective -- how to we get down to the detail we really need to know to do root cause analysis and actually make positive/constructive changes."

So what is the definition of "customer satisfaction" in the public sector? Well, first let's put the concept in its original context. Why does the private sector care about customer satisfaction? To get more customers -- including repeat customers -- in order to make more money. They want customers to have a positive experience so they will come back and refer friends. And why do they care about that? To make more money (so they can survive and grow). Customer satisfaction is not an end; it is a means.

In the public sector, we also need to recognize that customer satisfaction is a means and not an end. We strive for customer satisfaction not because it feels good, but because it helps us achieve our "profit." As we've mentioned many times here on Public Great, our profit in government is not measured in dollars but in the outcomes we are here to achieve (clean air, safe neighborhoods, high quality of life, economic opportunity, public health and so forth). Our investors, the taxpayers, invest in our agencies to maximize ROI. They want the most of these outcomes possible with the smallest possible investment -- just like private-sector investors.

But how does customer satisfaction in the public sector actually lead to these outcomes? Couldn't we accomplish these outcomes whether or not the customers are happy with their experience? Maybe, but it's a lot harder.

Where things tend to go haywire in the area of customer satisfaction in government is the fact that most of our customers are hostages. They didn't choose us, they don't want to be there, and given a choice they'd run as fast as they could in the opposite direction. Customer loyalty is not our issue. So who cares if the hostages are happy?

I talked about this issue at length in We Don't Make Widgets, but to sum it up succinctly: If customers can't successfully use our widgets, we can't achieve our outcomes. The way government achieves things (like clean air, safe neighborhoods, and quality of life) is by customers/hostages using the widgets that we produce for them. How do we get clean air? By widgets like environmental permits, notices of violation and environmental standards. How do we get safe neighborhoods? By widgets like arrests and probation visits. How do we get quality of life? By widgets like zoning ordinances and building codes.

You will notice that in most of these examples, these widgets are being produced for hostages. A convicted felon doesn't want to go to probation visits. A speeder doesn't want a ticket. A plant manager doesn't necessarily want a government permit. But such is the nature of most government work. We don't always do things for people, we often do it to them. (But that's what our investors want.)

Whether we want to call these people "customers" is really irrelevant to me. Whatever you choose to call them, the issue is the same: If they can't successfully use these widgets, we can't achieve our outcomes. If the plant manager can't understand the permit, we don't get clean air. If the probation visits aren't useful and helpful, we don't reduce recidivism. If the building codes are not clear, consistent and meaningfully enforced, we don't get neighborhoods with high quality of life. The challenge in government is to work with those who don't always want us, to make our widgets the best we can so we can achieve the outcomes our investors demand.

That was a long slog through the woods to get back to the central question: "What is customer satisfaction in the public sector?" But it was important to set the context, as I hope you will see the clear difference between the private sector and the public sector. The private sector is focused on capturing the loyalty of voluntary customers. The public sector is focused on capturing the cooperation of often involuntary customers. The private sector, operating in a highly competitive marketplace where customers have a choice among many widgets that are equally effective, focuses on differentiation. The public sector, operating in a monopoly marketplace where we need hostages to successfully use our widgets, must focus on efficacy.

Customer satisfaction with any widget is made up of three elements: the outcome we accomplish by using the widget; the attributes or characteristics of the widget (how easy it is easy to use, whether it's cheap, and so on); and finally, the features of the widget. For example, let's take my iPhone. My satisfaction with it is based on the three factors:

  1. Outcome: stay connected to family, friends and the world
  2. Attributes: lightweight, convenient, easy to use, long lasting
  3. Features: battery life, size, apps, color, 3G, wi-fi, retina display, processor speed, Face Time
In the customer experience, all three matter. But of the three, outcomes (efficacy) is most important. My iPhone has all those wonderful features. It can do anything imaginable, including tune my guitar and measure my golf distance, but it can't make a freaking phone call! I absolutely abhor the thing because I can't talk for more than two minutes without dropping the call. (This could be AT&T's fault.)

Customers care most about outcomes. When the outcome is not achieved, nothing else matters.

Attributes and features are irrelevant if I can't make a call. The flip side is that when the outcome is achieved, everything else matters. That is to say, if all the widgets produce the same result, then we as consumers look to the attributes and features to make our choice (differentiation). For example, all airlines provide the same result: You will arrive there safely. Given that, we then make our choice based on differentiators like price, schedule, leg room, cookies, flight attendant humor, etc.

Much of what we have been taught about customer satisfaction deals with the attributes and features: Make your offering more friendly, easier to use, faster. Delight your customers. That stuff is all fine. But our primary focus needs to be on the outcomes: Can our customers successfully use our widget? Can they make a call on our iPhone?

Perhaps a government example will be useful. Many years ago, I was working with federal job-training centers. Specifically, there was one job-training center that was confused. They had done extensive surveys with their customers to find out what they liked in a job-training center. They set about changing their hours, their decor, their smiles, and everything else. Still, customers rated them very low on customer satisfaction. This was evident by the few customers they actually had. Meanwhile, across town was another job-training center located in the basement of a run-down community center. It looked more like a condemned building then a service center. But there were customers lined up out the door. Why? The outcomes/efficacy. This job-training center was an eyesore, but it was also a life-changer. It got people jobs and helped people get back on their feet. Could the center have used better carpet and more up-to-date computers? Sure. But in the public sector our emphasis has to be on efficacy -- customer success. When we've accomplished that, then we can worry about adding features that "delight" customers.

For example, Bill and I were participants in a brainstorming session a few years ago where the assembled were trying to come up with innovations for a tax agency to improve customer satisfaction. One high-level exec came up with the idea of sending thank-you cards to taxpayers after they filed their taxes. Bill and I did a tandem spit-take as the idea caught on around the room. I respect this man deeply, but it was quite simply the worst idea I'd ever heard. What would the card accomplish? At what cost? What would it say? "Thanks for paying your taxes. We recognize that the tax code is as incomprehensible as our forms, that you had to pay a couple hundred bucks to have someone do your taxes for you and that there was no way we would ever answer your calls for help. But hey, thanks anyway"? Customer satisfaction efforts in tax compliance should be about helping the hostages successfully use our widgets, not trying to make them feel better about the horrible experience they had.

Having said all that, let me return to the central theme: Why does customer satisfaction in government matter? Simply, there is no faster way to achieve culture change than when we open up our doors, let the customers in (those that need to successfully use our widgets), and let their goals become our goals.

I will close my long answer to a short (but profound) question with an excerpt from a previous column of mine, titled "Free the Hostages":

Even though you may be a monopoly, there's no reason you have to act like one. Instead, act as if your customers had a choice. Act as if your competition was relentless. This "acting as if" forces you to pursue excellence. The surrogate for competition is high expectations.

If your customers had a choice, what behaviors would that cause you to adopt? You'd probably spend time trying to figure out what they care about, improving your performance to meet their expectations and then seeking their feedback on how you are doing. Well, what's stopping you from doing that now?

What if you faced relentless competition in the market? You'd probably benchmark your performance against your competitors, learn what the best ones are doing and adopt best practices. Well, what's stopping you from doing that now?

You'd probably continue to look for ways to add value to your offering, to increase performance while lowering costs. You'd probably have to innovate, to look to the future and anticipate the next great thing in your industry that will propel you from follower to leader. Well ...?

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