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Want fries with that treatment, soldier?

Customer service is all the rage in the federal government.

Again.

A series of lapses that includes the healthcare.gov rollout and the well-documented problems with service provided by the Veterans Affairs Department have alerted the administration to the need for better customer experiences, whether in person, on the phone or online. The digital strategy is supposed to take care of improving the online part. It is one in a series of initiatives dating back to the Clinton administration’s E-gov project. That in turn had antecedent in the “Service to the Citizen” movement of the George H.W. Bush administration of the pre-Web days. E-gov’s offspring was the Quicksliver series of projects of the George W. Bush administration.

It’s good that these efforts are revisited periodically. Technology and expectations change. Too bad the government has to lurch from crisis to crisis to get with it, though.

I had to chuckle when discovering that VA Secretary Bob McDonald brought in former McDonald’s executive Tom Allin, the fast food chain, as the chief veterans experience manager. As a habitue of McDonald’s for its coffee and occasional Egg McMuffin, I’ve seen customer service there up close. Don’t tell me you don’t go to McDonald’s. Nobody goes to McDonald’s like nobody watches television or listens to the radio unless it’s NPR. Yeah, sure.

At McDonald’s, I noticed the other day that counter employees work in an incessant cacophony of beeping food preparation apparatus, back-shop employees shouting at one another, and piped in Musak. They have to scurry to and fro for all of the detritus — bags, napkins, cups ketchups, and the food itself — that make up an order. Something’s always broken, like the receipt printer, the credit card reader, the machine that squirts out “ice cream,” … something. When the young lady finally collected herself and met my eyes, I couldn’t help but ask, “Are you still taking orders?” To myself, I thought, if this is fast food, what the heck is slow food? As one of only two people in line I wondered, How do they cope when it’s crowded?

I’d walked over from my car dealer, where I’d left my car for an oil change. It was quieter there, but the customer service representatives had all of this elaborate paperwork, had to dart back to a bank of printers, and out of their booths to the rear. It felt like it took as long to check in a car for an oil change as to actually change the oil.

These service employees face the same bureaucratically-induced barrier of process complexity and unreliable systems as their counterparts in the government. It’s a fine step for VA to have metrics for appointment wait times, or the IRS for phone answering times. But unless the systems are geared to enable people to reach these goals, they won’t happen. Insufficient staff, crappy software, an overly complex process — these can all get in the way of the even the most dedicated humans who are trying to do a good job.

I spoke about customer service the other day with Deloitte principal Greg Pellegrino, who headed up a survey on the state of customer service in the federal government. The survey’s basic finding, to not put maple syrup on a pickle, is the government thinks it gives better service than the public thinks it does.

Pelligrino points out three data points. One, the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index shows federal service getting worse, at the bottom of the heap. Two, Gallup polls show a slippage in public confidence in the government. Three, the most recent Viewpoint survey of federal employees shows a decline in job satisfaction. The third point is related to the first two, Pellegrino says. Basically, a combination of stingy budgets, lack of focus on customer service and unhappiness on the job have combined to weigh down the experience have with federal services.

All that plus a mismatch of intent and the technology to carry it out.

A new way to think about this, or perhaps it’s an old way dusted off at a time of great technological change, is outlined in a Harvard Business Review article by Jon Kolko, a vice president of Blackboard. He describes an approach called design centric thinking. It’s a “set of principles [encompassing] empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and a tolerance for failure” all aimed a creating a customer-centric culture. Translation: You combine clear thinking with agile development principles.

Kolko says design-centric thinking applied originally to physical objects. Now organizations are applying it to services. And get this: There’s a great example at the Veterans Affairs Department, of all places. VA’s Center for Innovation used this kind of thinking to envision a “customer journey map to understand veterans’ emotional highs and lows in their interaction with the VA.” A map like that can point the way to better customer service by aligning systems, processes and what the customer wants.

Image that.

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