Shame on Us: Part II

In government, good customer service means never having to call.
by | September 14, 2011 AT 3:15 PM

We started the theme of Customer Satisfaction in Government one night after I had watched National Lampoon's Vacation . During the movie, I saw commercial after commercial featuring Social Security lawyers telling you they'll fight the evil empire and get you the money you deserve. We've gotten a ton of great comments and questions, many of which you'll see in future articles. But Ken and I are getting ready to change up themes, so we thought we'd wrap up this theme the way we started: with a scathing post on how governments treat customers.

Truth is, one comment we heard at a workshop has been stuck in my brain like a Yo Gabba Gabba! song. It has nested like a Ceti eel and is driving me mad. I just cannot escape it until I jump, shake, and shimmy out the "1-off dial."

The "1-off dial" haunts government employees who are unfortunate enough to have a phone number a digit or two different from a hotline, an ombudsman, the office of citizen relations or any other published number that typically rings off the hook. Savvy callers know that in large organizations like government, if nobody picks up at 555-555-5678, chances are that somebody will answer at 555-555-5679, or 5680 or 5681. So when no one answers the hotline, customes dial one number off in an attempt to reach someone. When they do, they have a new best friend.

At a recent workshop, a federal employee told me that some of his most rewarding work-related moments had begun with a "1-off."

Someone needed help navigating the pipes of his agency and when their contact number rang busy, they 1-off'd and got him. The good news is, he was able to help. The bad news is, at times, we are so bad at answering the phones that our customers will dial random numbers in desperation.

I have known caseworkers who refuse to have voicemail because the moment they turn it on, it is full. I've worked with call centers scared to look at the number of abandoned calls and wait times. I've even had personal experience with this: I once was stuck with a phone number that previously had been listed (around 1997ish) as the number of the Office of Excellence in Customer Satisfaction. For a decade, I got calls ranging from "Where can I find a list of state parks?" to "Can you tell me last night's lotto numbers?" There were days I just dreaded answering the phone.

In my case, the problem was a recycled number. But for many of us, the problem is more often volume and capacity. There are simply too many calls and not enough time to take them all. When we get calls, we have to take time away from doing the work. When we take time away, we get behind. When we get behind, we get more calls wondering why we haven't finished the work we had to set aside yet.

It's what Ken calls the crazy cycle. Once you get on, you may never be able to get off. (He's written about the crazy cycle in both his books, We Don't Make Widgets and the brand new Extreme Government Makeover.)

If you work in an agency that gets a lot of calls, chances are someone you pass in the hall is riding the crazy cycle. If your number is one off of theirs, chances are you despise their inability to keep up (and you may quickly be on your way to joining to them on the crazy cycle).

Shame on us for our phone etiquette. Despite our best efforts to build state-of-the-art call centers and expensive computer systems that track volume, wait times and dropped calls, we still find ourselves buried in calls and our customers find themselves desperation-dialing. We hire managers who track time per call, schedule bathroom breaks around peak times and monitor each employee's break. What those managers always fail to realize is that the secret to customer service isn't about having a call answered in under three rings — it's about customers never needing to call in the first place.

The tricks to good customer service, which we've been talking about over the last several articles, are also the tricks to getting off the crazy cycle and returning order to our phone lines. We need to stop doing the things that make people call. If they are calling to see the progress on their permit, we need to put out permits so fast they don't have time to pick up the phone. If they are calling because they don't understand the letter they just received, we need to stop sending them letters filled with legalistic jargon, letters that make the iTunes agreement terms look like Goodnight Moon. If they call because their fill-in-the-blank isn't done, we need to get it done and back to them.

We need to fix the pipes.