Government and Customer Service – Yes, It’s Important

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This is an older article from a number of years ago that still has relevance. The need for government to consider itself in the customer service “business” is critical even if the definition of customer is different than for other sectors. The original entitled Do Governments Have Customers is available here.

In our work in training government staff to deal with abusive or hostile members of the public, we often refer to those members of the public as “customers”. Occasionally, we will be asked to do seminars on this topic but to eliminate the word “customer” from the title because many government staff reject the idea that government customers are the same as, let’s say customers of Wal-Mart of any other retail or service establishment.

The difficulty with this resistance is that if we don’t consider the public our “customers” that we run the risk of acting in bureaucratic, non-responsive ways, fulfilling exactly the negative expectations of taxpayers and users of government services. Resistance to the use of the word “customer” is generally based on an inaccurate notion of what the word customer means, in retail, service or public sectors. Let’s clarify this.

The major confusion about the word customer lies in the old saying: The customer is always right. Clearly, if this accurately describes customers, then it does not apply to government situations, simply because government has
obligations above and beyond providing a direct beneficial service to the public.

Frequently, government regulates, or requires things that are NOT beneficial to an individual. Governments collect taxes, apply regulations and so on that are sometimes distasteful to those at the other end. If the customer is always right, then we have a problem. We need to collect taxes even if the “customer” doesn’t want to pay them. We need to regulate even if the customer doesn’t want to be regulated.

The problem is the saying. The customer is always right has never, ever been accurate in any sector. No business follows that rule. Period. I cannot go into Wal-Mart and steal something just because I am a customer of Wal-Mart. I cannot get lasagna from a restaurant that specializes in chinese food just because I am the customer. In the exact same way, I cannot get everything I want from government, just because I am the customer. There is simply no difference. What we need to do is define what we mean by the word customer much more clearly, to eliminate this silly myth.

The Word: Customer

We need a way of thinking about customers that allows us to think about the customer as important, but not tyrannical. We need a way of thinking about customers that is realistic across sectors, and reflects what we all know: the customer is not always right.

The customer (be it in private or public sector) is someone with whom we interact with for a specific purpose. We conduct transactions with the customer within a set of rules or constraints that exist, again regardless of sector. For example, while I may be a customer of Wal-Mart, I must conduct myself in accordance with a set of “rules” or expectations that are part of the relationship.

I cannot steal, I cannot destroy their property, and I cannot abuse their staff. I cannot order Chinese food from them. In turn, Wal-Mart has some obligations to me as a customer. I expect that I will be treated with respect by Wal-Mart staff…that I will not be yelled at; that if I have a complaint or concern, that I will be heard and listened to (but not necessarily obeyed). As a customer I expect to be provided with appropriate information and explanations. I expect to be helped even if I can’t get what I want.

This is no different than members of the public who serve as “government customers”. When I walk in to renew my licence, I expect to be treated politely and efficiently. I expect that I will be provided with appropriate explanations and I expect that if I have a complaint or concern, that I will be listened to even if I can’t get my own way. However, as a customer, I cannot order Chinese food from the Motor Vehicle branch, any more than I can order Chinese food from Wal-Mart. Whether we are talking about a government office or a retail establishment the customer operates within the constraints and rules.

Government Customers

The ultimate issue for government with respect to customers is this: Regardless of whether we provide services, products or regulate and apply laws, how can we HELP customers? This is easier with services and products and not so easy for regulation and law application. What we need is a mind-set shift. Where are we and where do we need to go?

The traditional approach to regulation and enforcement is that the mandate is to ensure that people comply with the relevant regulation and enforcement. That is a reality, but it isn’t the entire reality. If we focus only on that we reduce those that we regulate to adversaries, non-customers who we must control or manipulate.

There is a different way. In regulation contexts, we can reconceptualize our role within the context of customer. Our role is to HELP customers comply with the regulations or laws so that they are inconvenienced as little as possible. That doesn’t mean they won’t be inconvenienced at all..what it does mean is that we try, as public sector staff, to make it as easy as possible for customers to understand the why’s, how’s, etc. It doesn’t mean the customer can choose not to be regulated, anymore than a Wal-Mart customer can choose to walk out with a stolen television. It does mean that we help the customer comply with the rules and laws, just like the retail establishment help the customer purchase a television legally, and with the least inconvenience.

Conclusion

Even in government we can use and benefit by a shift to customer focus, provided we understand that using the word customer does not give license to be “right” all the time. By considering our government role as a “helping” role within the context of our jobs, we can keep the customer in a central position without feeling tyrannized by the customer. Let’s close with a specific example.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak at a government conference in Reno, for a substantial speaking fee. That meant crossing the border. At the airport I was interviewed by a U.S. immigration official who was loathe to allow me to enter without, minimally, an offer letter, and a copy of my graduate degree (which I don’t routinely carry around). So, I didn’t, through ignorance, have what I needed to have.

Now there are two ways the immigration official could think of me. He could consider me an adversary; someone he needed to do something to (keep me out), because the law is the law. That’s a defensible reasonable position. The problem with it is that it IS adversarial, and would give him licence to play the hard- nosed government regulator; the bureaucrat who need not give me any additional information or help. He could simply say no, and send me back home. That would be his right.

A different mindset, placing me in the position of customer who could be helped would lead to something slightly different. If the immigration official were to help me, what would it look like? Simple. He would attempt to make sure that in future, I would be prepared properly. He would give me information that would help me comply with the immigration rules. He would work with me to see if there was any way that I could be legally admitted, rather than dismiss me out of hand. Note that that doesn’t mean shirking his obligation, to apply the immigration lies. But note also that it means working with me to help. That’s what customer means in the context of government.

What happened? Actually I got in…he found some way of allowing that. He wasn’t so good at the explanation part, or the helping part, but heck, he’d probably been an immigration control officer for decades, rather than a customer service person. Still, he helped.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Robert Bacal
Robert began his career as an educator and trainer at the age of twenty (which is over 30 years ago!), as a teaching assistant at Concordia University. Since then he as trained teachers for the college and high school level, taught at several universities and trained thousands of employees and managers in customer service, conflict management and performance appraisal and performance management skills.

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