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Awesome Power of Customer Service (And Yes, Residents Are Customers)

Posted on October 10, 2019


Stock photo of chalkboard with sad face and smiley face drawn in chalk

Today’s Buzz is by Jenny Kosek, Communications Strategist at City of West Allis. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

What I’m Watching: The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell (again)

What I’m Reading: The Institute, Stephen King

What I’m Listening To: Sawbones podcast, Dr. Sydnee McElroy & Justin McElroy


First, I’m here to blow up a myth: Public Sector and private sector are completely different entities and one cannot operate based on the practices of the other.

This. Is. Bunk.

I continually hear public sector folks espousing this as a justification (re: excuse) for why public sector can’t do something.

“We have a hard time recruiting candidates to job openings because we can’t offer salaries as high as private sector.” Coming from the world of small-to-midsize business, do you think we had a Scrooge McDuck-style pool of money in our closets that we could throw at candidates? In reality, budgets are budgets, and most organizations, regardless of sector, don’t have the ability to throw money at anything.  At least in municipalities, we can count on tax dollars to provide a predictable income stream. People have to pay taxes, after all. In the private sector, not a dime was guaranteed, as fickle customers, major market shifts, and even the weather could swing our budgets into the red at any time. In 2019, few organizations can offer the high-end of market payscales or shower employees in lavish perks. The vast majority are focusing on building strong cultures and offering abundant but low-cost perks to attract and retain employees. Private sector can, too.

“It’s easier for private sector to innovate or try things. We can’t because we’re under so much scrutiny.” In private sector, if we tried anything – a new product, a new process, a new sign at the front counter – we’d hear about it from someone. Either staff, customers, or our board would have something to say about it. It was not unusual for top-down requests coming from our board to highjack days, weeks, or entire quarters on things we hadn’t planned to do at the department level (sound familiar?). None of this stopped us from trying new things, and it shouldn’t stop government, either. Changing for the sake of change is a mistake in any industry. Thoughtfully and regularly reviewing a current state, gathering data, and intentionally trying something new is necessary to grow and improve.

“We can’t do all that customer service stuff that private sector does. Citizens have to use our services.” This myth brings us to the point of this post. A customer is someone who needs the help of a service provider. Period. Whether or not they “have” to use the service provider is irrelevant to how well the customer deserves to be treated, and using the “they have to use us” card to justify anything less than stellar service is a shameful practice government needs to stop.

I worked in music retail for many years and it was not uncommon for a harried parent to come to the store at 8:59 p.m. seeking a clarinet reed or obscure piece of sheet music their child had to have for marching band or a recital the next day. In that state, that parent needed us as much as the resident who contacts their municipality to report a water main break. Music retail is a niche market and there simply aren’t many stores to choose from. At that hour and in that situation, the parent needed us and had nowhere else to go. We treated them as well as we treated the customer who chose to shop with us after visiting our competitors and choosing our services instead. Service wasn’t dictated by the circumstances that brought the customer to us, but by their need and our ability to meet it.

Likewise in government, how we treat our residents shouldn’t be based on their dependency on us. Yes, they have to pay taxes and yes, they have to use our water utility, permitting services, licensing programs, etc. But just because they have to use them is not an excuse to treat our people with anything less than respect, dignity, and even better, enthusiasm and joy.

Service providers, whether they be public or private, hold an incredible power to make – or ruin – their customers’ days.  When we show annoyance or irritation at the public, we’re not only damaging our organizations and the perception of our industry at large, we might actually be turning a good day into a bad one for that customer. On the other hand, if we smile and try to genuinely solve the customer’s problem, we might be making a terrible day better. Simply put, service providers have the ability to make people happy. And in a time when social media and public discourse seem determined to make people feel awful, having the ability to genuinely make another human being happy is a great power indeed.

It takes almost no effort for us to do a little extra leg work to provide the memorable service that can make or break a citizen’s day. If a customer calls to ask a question and the answer is “We have an online form for that,” why not open up your browser, navigate to the form, and fill it out for the citizen while you have them on the line? Suppose a resident comes in looking to talk with a staff member who “owns” a certain process or program, and that staff member isn’t in. Don’t just tell them, “Sorry, can’t help you” or worse, dump them into the black hole of a voicemail box. If no one else is available that can actually assist the person, take their name, email, and phone number and personally follow up with the staff member they need to connect with when that person returns. Go the extra mile and contact the resident to let them know you followed through. Take ownership of that person’s experience, and you’ll positively impact not only their day, but their perception of your organization and government in general.

In our municipality, customer service is a hot topic, and we’re getting better all the time. We once had a resident call to ask why she hadn’t received the latest issue of our print City newsletter. My director took this call, and he could have told her to go to our library or City Hall to pick one up. Instead, he took down her address and personally drove to her home to place the issue in her mailbox. Now that’s service! It took just a few minutes out of his day and absolutely made hers.

The moral is that good customer service is about gladly satisfying another person’s need, regardless of who they are and what they need from you. It doesn’t take extra money or resources, it just takes empathy and understanding. As an industry, we can destroy the myth that governments provide lousy service by approaching interactions with residents not as a chore, but as an opportunity to surprise and delight. How will you delight someone today?

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