When politicians are campaigning, voters get close attention as prospective buyers and customers. After they take office, however, and are charged with actually running a government, how often do the elected officials maintain a real customer orientation to the voters?
In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Purdue concentrated on improving the operations of the state government when he took office in 2002. Purdue expanded on that effort in his second term and created the Governor’s Office of Customer Service in January 2006. Under the direction of Joseph B. Doyle, a former retail executive and entrepreneur, the office has fostered improved customer orientation through all state agencies. Doyle has used a variety of methods to meet customer service objectives and is now moving aggressively to enhance the use of electronic channels to serve Georgia residents.
“We are just beginning to adopt online tools because we know we have to,” Doyle told attendees at the “2010 Government Web and New Media Conference” held in Washington, D.C., late last month. The conference was sponsored by the federal General Services Administration and largely focused on federal agency issues, although state and local governments were invited to participate.
The Governor’s Office of Customer Service is currently preparing a proposal geared toward implementing a statewide strategy for improving the use of electronic channels.
The value of website access from a purely business perspective is overwhelming, according to Doyle.
“We found that while 20 percent of our residents were actually using online contact with the government, 49 percent preferred using online services,” he said.
Online Productivity Gains
In a 2009 survey, Georgia State University found that 87 percent of state customers had regular access to email and the Internet. With such widespread access, increasing the state’s ability to handle more online traffic has become a major goal for enhancing customer satisfaction while improving agency efficiency. The cost of a single face-to-face transaction with a customer is about $50, said Doyle, while a telephone contact costs about $20. An online transaction, on the other hand, costs less than $1. In an era of tight state budgets, utilizing online accessibility is a natural and cost-effective approach.
“We are actively trying to move more activities to the online experience — and to improve that experience. We found that if the online experience doesn’t work effectively, the customer will just quit the process,” Doyle said.
Then citizens will resume their agency business using the more expensive telephone or walk-in channels.
While the tools of consumer contact receive considerable attention — whether they are call centers, email, websites or social media — Doyle reminded conference attendees that all customer relationship management (CRM) activities start with changing the culture of an organization to focus on consumers. Two of the most critical components in changing the culture are the creation of a vision or a goal, reinforced with top management support. In Georgia, the governor’s initiative for improving service provided both. The initiative led to an implementation plan focusing on faster, friendlier and easier service.
Utilizing his background as the owner of a retail chain of 240 After Hours Formal Wear stores in 20 states, Doyle first set about getting input from Georgians on their government. He physically visited state agencies, such as motor vehicle offices, and sought input through surveys.
In the Customer’s Shoes
“The general feeling from the public was that government was slow — that it was confusing with all the agency acronyms, and that government employees really didn’t care,” Doyle told the attendees.
With driver license services, for example, he found that long lines and bottlenecks formed around the state offices in the early morning before the office opened at 9 a.m. because applicants wanted to take care of paperwork as early as possible to avoid taking time off from their jobs. By simply using flexible hours and opening earlier, the bottlenecks were reduced dramatically. In the actual processing of applications, the state used improved procedures to cut the issuance time from six weeks to five days.
In another case, studies showed that there were five steps involved in resolving child support cases, with each step taking between 15 minutes and 45 minutes. However, the processing time between steps took anywhere from 10 days to 25 days. “There was only three hours of actual work involved spread over 15 weeks,” Doyle noted. By studying actual performance — called a “value stream map” — agencies were able to vastly improve response time.
One of the hallmarks of the Georgia initiative is constant observation of consumer requirements and almost literally putting state personnel in the shoes of the consumer. Suggestions for improvement not only come from customer complaints or surveys, but to a substantial degree from state employees. Early on, Doyle took care to improve employee morale and foster the involvement of front-line civil servants. Recognition and reward programs, ranging from small office events to a special Governor’s award, have stimulated team building and generated ideas.
As Georgia moves forward with its customer service focus, online channels will be getting more attention. However, even though online vehicles may be the least expensive way to engage customers, Doyle acknowledged that putting actual transactional capabilities online is fairly costly. Currently, most website contacts initiated by the public are motivated by a desire to get information.
As a result, “our focus for online will first be on content, information organization, and navigation,” he told attendees.
The Governor’s Office of Customer Service liberally borrows ideas from the Web.Gov site federal agencies are using to swap advice on website management, Doyle told the federal Web managers in an aside at the conference.
One of Georgia’s goals was similar to a federal initiative to keep Web content in plain language, he noted, and state agencies will be encouraged to keep their website content simple and accessible.
State Recognized for Customer Care
Georgia is also using a website resource to continuously encourage its own employees to provide services within a customer relationship management culture. The site offers tips on how to relate better to customers, and it presents short profiles of state employees who have successfully implemented customer-oriented services.
The state has achieved a satisfaction grade of 76 percent in customer surveys — versus a cable industry rating of 50 percent, and high-end retailer Nordstrom’s 80 percent. The initiative to improve employee morale at state agencies appears to be working. Employee job satisfaction has increased from 68 percent to 75 percent in two years.
The state’s performance has been recognized by government assessment organizations. Although the state is just at the beginning of leveraging online tools, according to Doyle, the Brookings Institution ranked its online presence as second in the nation for 2008, up from 38th in 2006.
The Pew Center on the States 2008 report on state management awarded Georgia a B-plus ranking.
Among the state’s accomplishments “is an intense focus on customer service and managing for results,” the report said. Doyle himself was recognized last year as one of 40 emerging state leaders by the Council of State Governments.