Customer Service in the Public SectorAs public sector organizations move toward providing better service, they must anchor their strategies in the knowledge that government service delivery is more complex than the private sector.
The public service has three related and often overlapping functions:
1. The service/operations component, which sometimes resembles the private sector. It provides benefits to customers by transferring resources or information directly to the public through various facilities such as schools, hospitals, parks, recreation and cultural centres, public health care and welfare services.
2. Regulatory and enforcement responsibilities, which protect the public interest by imposing constraints, duties or obligations on citizens and institutions. These include collection of taxes and fines, detention and imprisonment, surveillance and supervision of citizens.
3. Development of policy proposals and legislation to support ministers, and help achieve the objectives of government. This includes the advice given to decision-makers and the drafting and revision of legislation to facilitate policy decisions.
In addition to the above public service manager faces the following challenges:
1. A high level of complexity, interdependence and uncertainty.
2. Little formal authority due to the balances and checks inherent in government.
3. Managing in a fish-bowl environment.
4. Dealing simultaneously in the world of ideas, operations, personalities and politics.
5. Carrying out an enormous range of functions in very short time segments and operating at all levels of decision-making, from broad strategy to specific details relevant to their priorities.
6. Reporting to several senior executives and working with groups such as personnel, finance and even other departments to get their job done.
7. Balancing professional standards (e.g., engineering, accounting) with the management requirements of the organization.
8. Balancing the priorities and concerns of the minister and senior management and those of the organization and staff for which they are responsible and the clients they service.
9. Defining priorities for their organization and adapting these priorities as required. Due to the turbulent environment of government, it is difficult to specify clear objectives and focus on them for long periods of time.
10. Working with a complex web of internal and external groups, many of which are dependent upon for support, resources or decision.
11. Working within many constraints to spend their budget, and difficulty of responding quickly to shifting priorities of ministers and deputy ministers.
12. Learning to manage constraints by determining how departmental and central regulations affect their program and figure out where they require flexibility and where the existing constraints are useful to them.
13. Managing programs efficiently and effectively in the context of government downsizing. This must be done while facing increasing demands for services and new programs. In addition, other considerations (e.g., access to information, human rights, equal opportunity) all must be addressed with diminished resources.
14. Understanding the social and cultural dynamics of their particular organizations and how to influence and shape key activities to ensure that their organization carries out its functions.
15. Attracting and retaining top performers in the public service. With little growth in the public service, and a relatively young work force, there are few opportunities for advancement. This means that the ambitious employees will seek opportunities elsewhere, either in the private sector or in their own business. Also, limited flexibility in compensation plans hinder recruiting and keeping high performance staff.
Consequences of poor service
Poor quality and service in public organizations may result in:
1. Complaints to politicians
2. Complaints to public managers
4. Pressure groups
5. Tax resistance
6. Restructuring and downsizing
Benefits of good service
Some benefits from an improved service quality program are:
1. Reduced costs and the ability to do more with less.
2. More time to do work and less time spent on damage control or dealing with dissatisfied customers.
3. A more pleasant and satisfying working environment.
4. Less stress.
5. Public support for the organizations in times of privatization and restructuring.
Trends Impacting on Customer Service
Here are some trends that are impacting customer service in government.
1. Customer expectations. In the fierce competitive private sector, ways are constantly being sought to improve customer service and thus gain a competitive edge. Buy now, play later, free delivery, electronic ordering, payment by credit card, extended hours all set the expectations of customers. These expectations are carried over by customers dealing with the public sector.
2. Downsizing. All levels of government have been significantly reducing the levels of staff in order to reduce budget deficits. This has had three implications for customer service:
a) Less people available to deal with customers.
b) Poor morale among those remaining due to uncertainly and increased work loads.
c) The people that have remained do not necessarily have the knowledge and skills to provide excellence in customer service.
3. Fiscal constraints. Part of the impact has been downsizing discussed above. But reduced resources also mean fewer offices, shorter hours and fewer services - all that can negatively impact on customer service.
4. User fees. More and more departments are charging their customers users fees to recover some of the costs of services. Along with the fees come customer expectations of better service. Customers tend to be more patient if the service is free.
5. Twenty-four hour society. There is strong evidence that North Americans are becoming a 24 hour society. Customers are beginning to expect service at any time or any day. Extended shopping hours and the ability to buy 24 hours a day are becoming more common. Customers would like to get government services at their convenience. This is especially true as we have more two-parent working families.
6. Want it now. People have been conditioned to expect results in one-hour, e.g., one-hour photos, one-hour cleaning, one-hour glasses. People expect to get what they want within a short period of time and don't like to wait.
7. Electronic communications. Organizations and the public are becoming accustomed to using electronic communications technology. Fax machines and on-line systems are now available in many businesses and a good number of households. People would like to use this technology in their dealings with the public sector.
8. Customer service. Many companies provide training to their employees and staff in customer service. The business media constantly focuses attention on the importance of customer service. This awareness in the public at large increases the demand for better customer from all organizations.
Therefore despite reduced resources in public sector organizations, the demand for high levels of customer service is likely to increase.
What is Service Quality
Service Quality is the combination of two movements:
1. Service, which means knowing what the customer (or client) wants and satisfying that need;
2. Quality, which means doing it right the first time, and continually improving the product and service.
Service Quality is the best of the Service management movement and the best of the Quality management movement.
Some facts about Service
1. 96 percent of unhappy customers do not complain.
2. The average customer who has a problem with an organization tells 9 to 10 others about it.
3. Customers who have complained to an organization and had their complaints satisfactorily resolved, tell an average of five others about the treatment they received.
Some facts about Quality
1. Customers increasingly demand high quality in all aspects of the output they receive.
2. The customers' perceptions of an organization are based on the quality of both the products and services they receive.
3. In forming their overall impressions of an organization and in assessing their level of satisfaction, customers do not differentiate between the quality of the product and the service they receive.
4. Any flaw in any aspect of the package will be generalized to the entire output of the organization.
The Quality Concepts
Investing in quality improvement reduces costs and increase sales.
- Doing things right the first time (zero defects).
- Designing products and services to meet customers' needs.
- Setting product and service standards.
- Measuring performance.
The Service Concepts
- Finding out what customers want.
- Designing a service to meet customers' needs.
- Providing customers with extraordinary service.
- Setting service standards.
- Measuring service performance.
- Empowering staff to meet customers' needs.
Key dimensions of client satisfaction
Market research in the private sector has uncovered five factors which capture what is important to customers. They include:
- Reliability -the ability to provide what was promised, dependably and accurately.
- Assurance - the knowledge and courtesy of employees, and their ability to convey trust and confidence.
- Empathy - the degree of caring and individual attention provided to customers.
- Responsiveness - the willingness to help customers and provide prompt service.
- Tangibles - the physical facilities and equipment and the appearance of staff.
The Internet and Service Quality
The basic rule in providing excellent customer service is to make it as easy, convenient and pleasant as possible for your clients to do business with you. This means you must make it easy for customers to:
- find you or your unit, branch or department
- find the information they need
- get in contact with the right person
- get the service the need
- pay for the service
- receive follow-up service and support.
The Internet can be used to improve customer service in the public sector. Here are just some ways:
1. Your clients and the general public can use the Internet to find you and get information about your programs and services. If you have a Net presence, this can be done 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from anywhere in Alberta without long distance charges.
2. The Internet is a great tool for professional development, research and networking. This means that staff can be more informed and therefore can be more helpful to their clients.
3. By putting as much information on-line, the work load on your staff should decrease as they have to handle fewer routine inquiries. This allows them to provide better service to those customers that have unique needs or problems.
4. Putting your newsletters, reports and policies on-line will not only provide your clients with an option to get this information at their convenience, but can also save significant amounts of work and costs associated with traditional information dissemination. Give your customers a choice of getting the information on-line or via traditional methods.
5. Providing options for your clients to input information electronically can also have significant benefits for all parties involved, e.g., submitting of student marks. Encryption is needed for confidential data.
6. The Internet can be used to survey your clients to assess their needs, get input on proposed plans, and to obtain evaluation on existing programs and services.
7. The Internet can be used to work more effectively and conveniently with partners involved in projects. Committees may not physically have to meet as often, but still can work together electronically and exchange documents. This could save significant time and costs for all involved.
8. The Internet can be used to provide better customer training and support. This can be done through e-mail, FAQs, on-line documents and interactive problem solving.
9. Putting statistical and comparative data on-line, can allow your client organizations to develop and implement more effective business plans.
10. Create a moderated newsgroup where your customers can exchange and share information, and engage in discussion of important issues and problems facing their organizations.
Why a World-Wide Web Site
So why would you want a World Wide Web site for your government branch or division? There are six major reasons for having a web site:
1. Image. Some 72% of companies said they have a web site to enhance their image. So if you are a public official who is concerned about your unit's image, you may want to put up a web site. After all, its a cool thing to do and shows you are innovative and at the leading edge.
2. Marketing. About 75% of companies said they use the web to provide product and price information to their customers. So if you are selling products or services directly to consumers, a web site can be an important marketing tool.
3. A business. Creating a web site and charging individuals, companies and other organization to list on your web site can be a business in itself. Income can be earned from listing fees, or as a percentage of the business earned as a result of listing on your web site.
4. Public information. This is the most common application by the public and non-profit sectors. The goal is to provide current and relevant information to your clients, stakeholders, partners and the general public in an easily accessible and convenient format.
5. Save money. Many organizations are using the web as a means of saving money. A web site can result in significant savings due to reduced long distance phone charges, less staff to take calls and answer questions, and reduced printing and mailing costs.
6. Enjoyment. Another good reason for setting up a web page for your unit, is as a learning experience or for the fun of it. The best way to learn about the technology is to actually do it yourself. Then you can become a consultant to other organizations interested in setting up web pages. Many people also set up web pages related to their hobbies or interests.
A World-Wide Web site offers government departments and branches a number of benefits. These include:
1. Improved communications. The World-Wide Web site can provide information 24 hours a day to many customers. Electronic messages can be sent any time and responded to by your staff.
2. Better service and support. Rather than just relying on staff during business hours for assistance, a web site can provide answers any time.
3. Improved efficiencies. Less staff time will have to be devoted to personally answering questions and solving problems. If clients have options to getting the answers they need, fewer demands will be made on the staff. Also, the electronic distribution of information, updates and user training can result in significant savings over the longer term.
4. Low cost strategy. The Internet is here now and is being used by thousands of people in Alberta, including many of your clients. Most departments have the infrastructure in place to run web sites. The the creation and operation of branch web sites can provide significant benefits at modest costs.
5. Expandability. The Internet is evolving. Today it is mainly a static information dissemination service. However, software is becoming available to do dynamic linkages to databases. Most branches can start small and expand their services as the technology and resources become available.
6. Consistent with directions in information technologies. The Internet is experiencing an explosive growth rate. Your use of a web site is consistent with the direction millions of companies and organizations are going.
7. Setting an example. The Alberta government wishes to encourage the use of technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its operations and those that they fund. Your web site could be a model for your public sector clients.
What should be on the WWW Site
So what should be on you Web site? Anything your managers and staff consider useful and important for their clients and stakeholders to know. This may include:
- Announcements (new legislation, policy changes, etc.).
- News releases
- Calendar of events
- Policies, regulations and procedures
- Important dates and deadlines
- Contact information - who to call/fax/e-mail
- FAQ (frequently asked questions) by functional area
- Newsletters - text and past articles
- Reports, publications and manuals
- Project status reports/updates
- Customer surveys, comments and suggestions
- Access to aggregate and statistical results
- Employment/contract opportunities
- Interactive diagnosis/problem solving
- Electronic mail
Challenges and Issues
Developing and operating an Internet presence in the public sector has some unique challenges. These include:
1. Responsibility. Your clients will only use your Web site if it has useful, timely and relevant information. The more the better. Therefore, it is critical that someone be given the responsibility of ensuring that your Internet-based data systems get updated on a frequent and regular basis.
2. Coordination. The government and each department has policies and procedures in place regarding information systems. Many departments insist on a co-ordinated effort to set up web sites. The upside is that the look-and-feel is consistent, and duplication and redundancy is minimized. The downside is that it takes much more time and effort to establish a Net presence.
3. Political ramifications. Public managers and staff are sensitive to the political realities of their jobs. Therefore, extra care and attention must be taken about the content, nature and tone of the information place on Net-based systems that are available to the public.
4. Confidentiality and privacy issues. A real concern about the Internet is the lack of security for confidential data. Extra care needs to be taken when using the Internet to transfer data of a confidential nature. Some form of encryption needs to be used. Also, what data can be made available to your clients and the public? All departments have policies and procedures regarding privacy and these need to be extended to the Internet. Until these issues are clarified, make only non-sensitive information available.
5. Security issues. You would not want some hacker to get into your departmental data. Therefore, extra precautions need to be taken to establish secure "firewalls" to protect your data. One option is to have a separate server just for public information.
6. Financial controls. If any money is involved, than the requirements of the Auditor-General will have to be taken into account. At this point in time, it is not recommended that credit card numbers be transmitted over the Internet. Secure financial transactions are expected shortly, but for now caution is advised.
7. Measuring success. All government departments have identified performance indicators and measures of success in their business plans. The same should be done with their Internet-based information systems. Government units should be able to monitor and evaluate how successful their Internet systems are in providing better service to their customers. This could include such things as tracking use (number of hits), reduced costs to traditional information distribution, and customer surveys.