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Posts Tagged ‘customer service’

Want fries with that treatment, soldier?

August 14, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

OPM left a sizzling burger on the counter. The dog ate it. Who do you blame?

June 16, 2015 1 comment

Dog trainers like to say there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. I know. We have a now-elderly greyhound. She rules the roost, mostly. But because of her mild personality, she’s never out of control, never pulls on the leash, and has never so much as made a growl at anyone. Mostly she saunters into the middle of the room and lays on her back, her tummy available for anyone who cares to rub it.

But leave a hamburger on the counter, a cold drink on a side table, or an unattended dinner plate of food, and oh boy. Don’t turn your back. She’ll pretty much have it devoured before you can turn around and say, “No!” One time the extended family retired to the living room and family room after Thanksgiving dinner. After putting away some dishes I went into the dining room to pull the tablecloth. There was Lizzie, atop of the dining room table, licking up crumbs and tidbits.

Unlike China, which denies everything when it is caught stealing data, a dog caught stealing food looks at you and says through her eyes, “What did I do? You left it there.”

Dog on table

A young Lizzie cleaning up after Thanksgiving.

This is what I thought of when reading comments former CIA Director Michael Hayden made to a Wall Street Journal conference regarding the awful database breach. The U.S. personnel records were “a legitimate foreign intelligence target,” Hayden said. He added that our intelligence apparatus would do the same thing if it had half a chance. Hayden said he wouldn’t have thought twice about grabbing any Chinese government database the CIA could.

“This is not ‘shame on China.’ This is ‘shame on us’ for not protecting that kind of information,” Hayden said.

OPM left a juicy, sizzling hamburger on the counter. The dog snatched it.

Perhaps the U.S. government does do the same thing to rival nations. We don’t know for sure. Let’s hope so, because at the least it would leave things in a rough state of Spy vs Spy equilibrium. Because it is justifiably embarrassed, and because it can’t really do anything about Chinese cyber behavior, the accusations from the administration have been mild and sporadic.

Unfortunately, I see no other recourse other than for OPM Director Katherine Archuleta to resign. I don’t say this with any satisfaction. Not that she was personally responsible for the breach. Not that she’s a bad person. But the warnings were there, she had the knowledge that the hacked systems were behind on their FISMA certifications, and of the string of attacks going back a year. It all happened on her watch and it potentially harmed enough people to fill New York City, Chicago, Baltimore and Dallas. It’s not that she was personally malfeasant, it’s just goes with the territory. Had a rocket landed on the OPM building, that would have been one thing. But an egregious organizational performance lapse of this scale claims the person ultimately responsible.

Recall what happened back in 2012 at the General Services Administration. A conference 18 months earlier on which regional officials spent indiscreetly and contracted criminally came to light. Administrator Martha Johnson resigned before the reason why became known. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki toughed it out for a while, but ultimately had to step down after the drip-drip-drip of bad news from the patient scheduling scandal of last year.

OPM, as Francis Rose points out, has lost its credibility. Now it needs new leadership to restore it.

So, Federal Senior Execs To Get Nods For Customer Service

December 21, 2014 1 comment

When President Obama deigned to meet with members of the Senior Executive Service and other managers earlier this month, some three thousand of them showed up. Not a lot of new ideas rolled out, but the old “customer service” idea resurfaced. Specifically, the still-to-be-developed idea of giving some sort of award or bonus to SESers whose agencies deliver excellent customer service.

This notion goes back a while. In the George H.W. Bush administration, they called it service-to-the-citizen. That was before online services came along, but the idea of government services equal to what people get from the private sector took hold. Notwithstanding that customer service in many areas of the private sector stinks, the idea has endured. Nowadays, the comparison mostly refers to online, and to some degree, telephone service. My comment on that is, the newest form of customer service, online chat, is something the government ought to explore more. I’ve resolved many a technical issue with neither e-mail (rarely any good) or telephone (it depends) by using chat.

I remember a one-star Army general who retired and went to work for a large software company, working in its federal division. At an editorial retreat I held for one of my magazine staffs, he was a guest speaker. He got a lot of laughs when he said, “I was trained to break up things and kill people! Now I’ve got to learn to delight the customer!”

I’m not sure what “delighting the customer” might mean for services from the government, but the latest online trend seems to be a hybrid of online transactions executed flawlessly, together with what they used to call high touch, individual-to-individual followup. It’s actually not that new. Six or seven years ago I ordered occasional computer parts from CDW, and the e-mail receipt always had the signature of a real person with a direct phone number.

Let me tell you about a really delightful commercial experience I had this month. Having been a four-eyes since the age of six, I’ve bought many a pair of glasses. I did contacts for 30 years, but gave up on them because of the discomfort and the tiresome routine. A couple of years ago I bought three pairs of glasses from a storefront shop — two contrasting styles for daily wear and retro-looking sports glasses for running (think Kareem Abdul Jabbar). The three pairs cost me more than $2,000. The store provided fine services, if you back out the schlep of driving there twice and parking, and waiting in the store for help. Recently lost of of the pairs, Ray-Ban frames, and I realized I couldn’t read a computer screen with any of them. It was affecting my broadcast delivery. I could see closeup and far away, but not that magic 18-24 or so inches.

Having read about the online glasses phenomenon, I decided to risk it. Long story short — the outfit sends customers five pairs to try on. I e-mailed them a picture of my fancy-shop prescription together with a selfie with a credit card held under my nose, pressed against my upper lip. This wan’t the payment system, it was how the retailer could figure out the distance between my pupils, since the credit card is a universal, fixed distance. Get it? The prescription I had was for so-called progressive lenses, bifocals with out the little line in the middle. The optician there extrapolated the single focus prescription.

I felt I was taking a risk, but at only $99 for frames and coated lenses, I felt if was a tolerable risk if the glasses turned out junky. I’d only be out a c-note. The glasses arrived a few days later in the mail. This after a couple of clarifying e-mail exchanges from an actual person at the retailer.

Amazing! They are perfect. All frames, including the fancy designer names, are made in China. These were imitations, privately branded, and as nice as anything in the storefronts. The glasses arrived inside a soft drawstring bag, inside a hard clamshell case. Nothing cheap about them at all, but a third the price I’d have paid at the shop connected to my opthalmologist. Most important, I can see a computer screen finally. I ordered a second pair — this time with only a couple of mouse clicks since their system remembered me. Not only that, the same person with whom I’d corresponded sent me a chocolate bar in the mail — with a handwritten note! of thanks!

For me, that’s the new “delightful” bar for great customer service. The federal government isn’t going to send chocolates. But it can, with the right resources and focus, reach the kind of service that makes people say, “Gosh, that worked out pretty good!”