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Is Your Agency Trying to Improve Customer Service? Don’t Overlook These Key Factors.

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By Tracy Haugen and Jodi Simco February 24, 2016

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Tracy Haugen is a director and Jodi Simco is a specialist leader for Deloitte Consulting’s Federal Human Capital practice.

When it comes to understanding Americans' satisfaction with their government services, federal agency executives can refer to many sources. The American Customer Satisfaction Index, Gallup polls, “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” all provide insights into the employee and customer experience and feedback on various aspects of government performance.

For a more tailored view of customer satisfaction, many federal agencies also conduct their own research, using the Office of Personnel Management’s Customer Satisfaction Survey or tools from organizations like SurveyMonkey. For example, the Internal Revenue Service alone has fielded about 55 current and recent customer satisfaction surveys that are conducted by mail, telephone, and online.  

While such surveys can offer valuable insights into the customer experience, there is another, even more readily accessible source of intelligence about customer satisfaction: your employees. Federal agency employee satisfaction and engagement data, along with certain behavioral indicators, may offer early warning signs about your organization's ability to meet customer expectations and fulfill your mission.

The Value of Front-Line Intelligence 

People who join the federal workforce often do so with a strong sense of mission. Across the government, motivated employees pursue their passion to serve.

But what if employees feel their agency doesn’t understand how to provide the support they need to deliver quality services?

What if, ultimately, they feel the agency itself is making it harder—not easier—to fulfill their mission? Performance barriers such as these can reduce employees’ engagement to do what they know needs to be done to deliver excellent service to their customers. Signs of these problems often show up in employee engagement survey results and even in the day-to-day actions of employees. In fact, a considerable amount of research suggests that highly engaged employees create a better customer experience than less engaged employees.

Federal agencies have different levels of interaction with their customers – the American taxpayers – and fall along a “retail to regulator” spectrum.

Retail organizations such as the U.S. Postal Service sell products and services to consumers competitively among other providers, while retail-like organizations such as the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services offer theirs without competition. Mission organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and Department of Health and Human Services foster innovation through research and advance national well being through consumer education. Regulator functions such as the Defense Department and Securities and Exchange Commission enforce laws and protect the nation and its people.

Although their missions vary widely, agencies along this retail to regulator spectrum share an important trait: front-line employees shaping the customer experience. They are there every day serving customers and dealing with customer issues, so they are impacted by the customer experience.

If employees have the tools, knowledge, authority and leadership support to provide an excellent customer experience, their own engagement levels tend to be higher. But if they are neither enabled nor supported by their organization or they feel that leadership is oblivious to their—and customers'—needs, employee engagement can deteriorate.

In light of this, federal agency and department leaders seeking to improve the customer experience can benefit from understanding certain indicators of potential employee disengagement, considerations for improving the employee experience, and potential benefits of taking action.

Issue Indicators

What might indicate that all isn’t right in the employee ranks? Here are some possible signs:

Passion but apparent reluctance. Workers who are highly motivated in their current jobs sometimes pass on promotions. Why? While they may know what needs to be done in the elevated role, they may also have the perception that the organization lacks the ability to accomplish it, and so choose to stay put. Increasing vacancy rates could suggest that workers are starting to doubt their ability to make real change and consider a promotion a less desirable career destination, leaving some slots unfilled.

Low employee satisfaction and engagement scores. According to the 2015 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, the gap in employee satisfaction and commitment ratings between the federal workforce and the private sector remains high, as it has for several years. This is in spite of a slight improvement in employee satisfaction in 2015 after four consecutive years of declining scores. That ongoing disconnect can reflect employee frustration with their ability to carry out their mission.

Trouble attracting and keeping needed talent. Agencies and departments often compete for specialized talent such as IT professionals and cybersecurity specialists. Inability to keep these roles filled can signal a less-than-engaging employee environment, a perception reinforced by word of mouth from current employees who are frustrated with antiquated systems, inconsistent policies, and limited autonomy to provide customer service.

Employees as frustrated customers. Federal workers can engage with government agencies and departments as citizens as well as employees, either to take care of their own business or to help a friend or family member navigate the systems. If they have difficulty doing so, it’s likely others will as well.

Customer experience data. Customer dissatisfaction with federal services can be revealed in complaints, surveys, and even news headlines. It’s likely a poor customer experience is at least partially an outgrowth of a poor employee experience.

Improvement Considerations

Federal agencies can enhance the employee work experience, to the benefit of the government, its customers, and employees themselves. Here are some potential opportunities:

Establish better line of sight to emerging and persistent customer needs. Information flow from the frontline up to agency leadership and the perspectives of those closest to the customers are essential to knowing and responding to employee and customer needs. While abandonment rates might suggest there could be an issue, learning more about the context of—and barriers to—creating a positive customer experience, as well as hearing anecdotes, might reveal other key indicators of the situation.

Strive for customer-centric infrastructure. With many federal organizations, processes and IT systems being built to deal with transactions, a citizen can become a case number in multiple programs. Think in terms of how to take care of someone as a person rather than as a set of separate transactions with no connections. Convey the importance of customer experience to employees in support roles such as HR, IT, finance, and marketing. Link the work those in support roles do to the customer experience. Consider a one-stop portal that allows employees to serve customers in a similar way as other available external sites. And stay mindful of stakeholders outside of government who can lend a strong, credible voice to customer experience issues.

Understand that complete message control isn’t possible. Information is disseminated in countless ways today, and every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to shape the federal brand and reputation. Set the tone and the parameters and then let employees shape the agency’s message and customer experience in both their words and actions.

Engage and empower frontline employees. Imagine an environment where the customer is at the top, the next tier is the frontline employee, and everyone else in the organization is in service to those two tiers. That mindset can help reframe how investments are made, priorities are established and success is defined. Continual employee feedback can help leaders understand barriers to delivering exceptional customer service in the field. Also, analytics can be used to help understand how employee experience is driving customer experience.

The Employee Experience-Customer Experience Payoff

Employee engagement and empowerment are critical factors in providing a superior experience to federal government customers. After all, what influences that experience more than the person on the other end of an encounter? Awareness of issues that indicate a need to improve employee experience and considerations in taking action to address them can help federal leaders meet the increasing expectations of citizens and stakeholders.

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