Think about the service you get from government agencies.
What comes to mind? Perhaps you think about your last trip to the DMV, an interaction with the city planning department, or a municipal utility.
Outstanding customer service may not be the first thought that crosses your mind when you think about the public sector, but several million dedicated professionals go to work each day in service of the public.
I sat down with Wendi Brick, President and CEO of Customer Service Advantage, Inc. to get her perspective. Brick's company helps public sector organizations deliver world class customer service.
She's also the author of The Science of Service: Six Essential Elements for Creating a Culture of Service in the Public Sector. I highly recommend her book for any public sector employee.
Q: What are some challenges unique to serving customers in the public sector?
"There are two primary differences between customer service in the public and private sectors.
"The first is in the public sector, the customer is not always right. A police officer making an arrest for a crime is first concerned with protecting public. If you think of the person being arrested as the customer, they might not walk away 'satisfied' with the process in a traditional sense. Someone working in a city planning office can't approve an eight foot tall wall when the zoning regulations say the maximum height is six, no matter how much that customer wants the wall to be eight.
"The second difference is the service provided by government agencies is often regulatory or enforcement oriented. In the big picture, government exists to protect people in some way, whether it's food quality, public safety, or something else.
"It's not the Disney Way or Nordstrom, but you're still there to help, even if in the end, the customer doesn’t walk away with exactly what they want. Satisfaction with the outcome isn’t always the goal for the interaction."
Q: If public sector agencies aren't always targeting traditional customer satisfaction, what should they be targeting?
"The focus should be service delivery. In my book, The Science of Service, I outline three criteria for excellent public sector service delivery.
"First is professionalism. This means doing your job and doing it well. You want to treat customers with courtesy and respect.
"The second is knowledge. Public sector employees often need to keep track of extensive rules, regulations, laws, and procedures. It's important that you have accurate information to share with your customers.
"The third is timeliness. We're all familiar with bureaucratic red tape. Public sector employees must navigate through that too to provide the fastest possible service.
"At the end of the day, a customer may not get exactly what they wanted, but they should walk away believing they were respected, they received accurate information, and they didn't waste their time. And maybe they feel they were offered some options that would work, even if they weren’t exactly the same as the original request."
Q: Public sector employees don't always have the best reputation for outstanding service. Why do you think that is?
"I can tell you that 99 percent of the government employees I meet are really dedicated. They make less money and often put in more hours than their private sector counterparts because they really believe in what they do.
"So it's heartbreaking to these employees when one of their colleagues does something wrong, especially when it makes the news or is held up as an example of what's wrong with public sector service.
"Keep in mind that a lot of customer service is driven by systems and process. There are so many instances when a public sector employee would like to do more, but they're constrained by an antiquated system or cumbersome process.
"Working in the public sector really is a noble mission. It takes a certain type of person to do it. The vast majority of people who work in government do so because they really want to help."
Q: It sounds like public sector service can be frustrating for employees too.
"It can be. Employees give a lot of themselves, so the biggest risk is burnout. People can get jaded.
"I always try to remind people that it's a marathon, not a sprint. It's important for public sector leaders to help their staff prevent burnout. This includes giving people time to recharge and letting employees talk through their frustrations.
(Side note: download this exclusive report on the causes of contact center agent burnout.)
Q: What are some of the similarities you see between the public and private sector when it comes to customer service?
"In any industry, an organization's reputation is built on everyday impressions. Employees need to understand that everyone has a sphere of influence. You might make an impression on a customer or even a coworker.
"That makes it important to model the right behavior so you can have a positive impact on others."