Here’s What the Government Gets Right When it Comes to Customer Service

The feds get dinged a lot, but it’s important to shed some light on positive government efforts, too.

In most customer experience comparisons with industry, federal agencies don’t fare well. Two new recent reports—one from Forrester Research and another from the Partnership for Public Service—delve into why there is often a divide between agencies and the customers they serve.

But it’s important to shed some light on positive government efforts, too.

The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, for example, now employs a virtual assistant named Emma that answers immigration-related questions. Emma’s language-processing skills have continued to improve since she was launched in late 2015, and her human overseers proudly report that she can answer approximately 90 percent of the questions customers—internal or external—pose.

“Her ‘I don’t know’ rate is only 10 percent,” said Mariela Melero, associate director for USCIS’ Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate, at an event Tuesday hosted by the Partnership for Public Service.

Emma, Melero said, “speaks a language that is immigration-centric,” learned and improved upon “by engaging directly with customers.” And naturally, because so many USCIS customers speak a foreign language, Emma is also in the business of learning foreign languages, beginning with Spanish.

“We have a lot of work to do with Emma,” Melero said. “In 45 days, she will also be speaking español.”

Importantly, Melero said the fee-funded agency collects feedback in real-time for all the customer service tools it uses to maximize its bang-to-buck ratio.

“We’re not in the business of collecting or giving; we’re in the business of delivering services to people who are paying for them,” Melero said.

Carolyn Colvin, the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration, said during her tenure the agency has worked to improve customer service.

SSA’s Vision 2025 plan, which explicitly places importance on “superior customer service,” has helped the agency attain an 85 percent customer satisfaction rate, Colvin said. SSA handles 40 million visitors to some 1,300 field offices nationwide and receives (and answers!) 1 billion phone calls each year. The behemoth agency still manages to “be agile,” she said.

For example, customer feedback essentially demanded more online services, Colvin said, so SSA responded by providing an online service for replacement Social Security cards. Data suggested the move would elicit a significant return, considering about 4 million people find their ways to a field office each year to replace lost cards.

The online feature is available in five states.

Colvin’s most important message, however, revolved around the link between employee engagement and superior customer experience. SSA, she said, tests its prospective hires through role-playing exercises designed to mimic “situations they deal with every day.”

She explained: “In recruitment, it’s important we look for individuals who would help us achieve superior customer service. The ability to listen, organize their thoughts, be empathetic, caring and objective in how they interact with people is very important.”

More engaged employees, she said, directly translate to happier customers, and the data backs it up.

“We like to say it takes longer to train our claims people than (NASA) astronauts,” Colvin said, only half-joking.

It’s not just call center employees who need to think customer-centric.

Collaboration among peers, especially at the executive level, is necessary to achieve meaningful action across the organization, according to Brenda Wensil, chief customer experience officer at the Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid.

Wensil, widely credited as the first chief customer office in government, helped put customer experience “shoulder to shoulder” with other important priorities, like IT and finance. Her counterparts in those departments are now, in many ways, her partners in helping improve the customer experience for students and families as they use student loans, she said.

That has allowed FAFSA to experiment with using social media to answer students’ questions as well as predictive modeling, which looks for “students headed for (loan default) trouble.”

“If you are the only one talking about this, and if you are the only one pushing the customer focus, there is a systemic organizational leadership issue,” Wensil said. “And it doesn’t mean you can’t make progress with it, but I do believe you have to create a lot of collaboration with the colleagues sitting at the table.”

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