A new view of customer service in government

Does government really want to become more focused on the people it serves?

Ask that question and you’re likely to receive consistent answers from every level of government – federal, provincial and municipal – worldwide. The response is a resounding yes. And most leaders would back up their claims of sincere desire to deliver quality customer service by pointing to executive mandates and legislation.

But how much progress have government agencies made? That’s a different matter. Mandates and legislation provide impetus, but in themselves do little to change organizational behaviour. And they don’t typically offer any guidelines for improving performance. The result is that government leaders find themselves in a bind, with clear orders to change and no blueprint to follow.

Which leads us to a third question: Where are government leaders likely to find these guidelines for change? The answer is the private sector. After all, that’s the origin of the customer-focused, 24/7 services that most people have come to expect and that have become a competitive differentiator for many companies. Consequently, the public’s expectations have been redefined.

For several years now, the concept of customer relationship management (CRM) – improving the relationship with each individual customer by reorganizing services around the customer’s intentions – has been a hot topic in business circles. In government, however, it has gone largely unexplored.

Although the primary drivers for CRM in the private sector are absent from government, the public servants who are sometimes derided as government bureaucrats express a strong desire to provide excellent customer service. And so they should. Government is the world’s largest service provider, and that is precisely why government should seek out best practices in customer service, regardless of their origin. CRM offers an opportunity for government to tailor the services it provides on the basis of the citizens’ expressed interests, profession or business, age, financial situation and family composition.

For the average citizen who is the outsider looking in, such government behaviour or desire may be counter-intuitive. Governments have no high-value customers to retain, no profit motives to shape their views of the people they serve.

Still, a new report produced by Accenture, Customer Relationship Management: A Blueprint for Government, revealed, on the basis of government executive survey responses from 11 countries across the world (including Canada), that government leaders are quite willing to embrace CRM principles. Once they move beyond some of the business terminology associated with CRM, these public servants want to tailor services based on customer intentions. They want to provide convenient service that relies on multiple channels to provide customer service. And the leaders of these government agencies are focused on maintaining and creating a workforce culture that fosters a customer-service mindset.

They’re hindered, however, by the usual barriers – bureaucracy and the complex technology that can make all these customer service improvements possible. Government agencies’ attempts to innovate often are hindered by old ways of doing things – culturally and technologically. Getting around these barriers requires strong leadership from the top down.

As a case in point, consider that 80 per cent of the Accenture study’s respondents rated “gaining insight into customer needs” as the most important capability they needed to improve customer service. Then consider that only 20 per cent of the respondents plan on developing this capability over the next two years. Whatever the specifics, the challenges of making a business case for investment, securing top-level support or dealing with the reality of legacy systems leave data residing in government agency silos and those leaders who want to make improvements willing but unable.

There are answers to these problems. However, there must first be a fundamental shift in mindset, beginning with agency heads and filtering down through the entire government workforce. Establishing a single view of each customer served by government will mean breaking down the information silos between departments, ministries and agencies.

We are entering an age of unprecedented collaboration across government agencies that can serve not only the primary purpose of greater security, but customer service goals as well. Partnerships across agencies and with the private sector will facilitate information sharing and relieve the human capital and cost pressures associated with improving service. Shedding these burdens will leave government agencies free to fully embrace CRM’s possibilities and ultimately move government to modes of operation that are driven by the citizen, adjusted to each individual intention and interaction.

Dublin-based Sean Shine is a partner in Accenture’s government global market unit and directs the unit’s global customer relationship management (CRM) business. Chris Brennan is an Ottawa-based partner in Accenture’s government market unit in Canada.