21 March 2017

Examining Customer Service in Government: Citizen Expectations and the Path Forward

What does the local DMV have in common with, let’s say, Apple? Well, they both probably have a lot of the same customers. But how alike (or different) is the customer experience when engaging with each of these organizations?

From a company like Apple, you might expect that you can use your trusty iPhone to access your account information, set the preferences for how you prefer to be communicated with, even connect with customer service reps over chat, voice or email. Can you do the same with the DMV? That might depend on where you live.

The reality is, as consumers, we are all also citizens. We’re growing to expect a certain level of personalized service (or self-service options) from the companies we do business with. And consequently, we’re starting to expect that same experience from our government. But a lot of government agencies are still trying to catch up.

Bottom line: Government agencies and departments need to do more to engage with their citizens. Why? Because customer experience and an agency’s success (or revenue) are inextricably linked.



Why Should the Government Care?

Some may think, “A government entity really doesn’t gain anything from creating a better experience. It’s not like a retail company where you lose customers to competition or you need revenue.” But there is something very important: Trust.

Now, more than ever, citizens are growing distrustful of our government. What does this result in? Without citizen support, agencies:

  • Spend more valuable resources and employee hours working with frustrated citizens;
  • Lose the investment citizens would normally make to help push forward an agency’s particular agenda;
  • Lose their monetary resources, or other funding due to a lack of support from the agency’s constituency;
  • Gain a negative perception, one that hinders the ability to push forward that agenda, those activities, and ultimately help retain the elected roles that are held in that jurisdiction; and
  • Spend more time trying to resolve citizen needs, issues, and other transactional tasks that those same citizens could easily do on their own with some self service options.

How do you gain this trust? It’s back to the inextricable link: Provide the type of engagement that people (citizens) are expecting. Give them access to information, their accounts. Give them the ability to self-serve, to communicate the way they prefer, and to get help when they need it.

Trust in local government decliningThe Landscape of Change

This may sound like a rebuke of what agencies and departments are trying to do. It’s not. It’s understandable that there are many constraints: tightening budgets, oversight, regulations, and outdated systems. But many agencies are finding a way, and the results are apparent.

Here are some examples of innovation that many agencies are implementing in an effort to improve engagement and meet their goals:


Consumers are increasingly adapting to using text/instant messaging to communicate with the companies they do business with. Facebook alone now has 30,000 chatbots from various companies that assist their customers in paying for meals, shopping, conducting customer service, and accessing account information.

mesaAnd according to the 2016 Aspect Consumer Index research report, over 71% of consumers indicated they want to be able to solve most issues themselves and 49% said if a company can do it right they would prefer all customer service be conducted via text messaging (SMS).

The City of Mesa, Arizona, is now employing an automated, text-based consumer engagement solution (chatbot) that allows citizens to conduct their own account management, make mobile bill payments, and get answers to basic questions through text messaging.  

Language Simplification

minnAs rudimentary as it may sound, simply adjusting the language you use in your voice greetings, website content, and other materials, makes a huge difference.

The Minnesota Department of Revenue recognized this with their “Plain Language Project”.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton wrote in an executive order:

Plain Language is a communication, which an audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Plain Language will provide Minnesotans better state services by reducing confusion, saving time, and improving customer satisfaction. I order the Governor’s Office and Executive Branch Agencies to take the following steps: Use language commonly understood by the public; Write in short and complete sentences; Present information in a format that is easy-to-find and easy-to-understand; and Clearly state directions and deadlines to the audience.

He was right.

The department used a tried and true marketing tactic and conducted usability testing on their materials to see how easy if was for their citizens to conduct simple transactions and tasks. They found that there was far too much complexity, confusing people and making it more challenging to finish simple tasks.

The departmental project worked to simplify the language in their automated call center prompts, on audit letters, and on their website to help citizens find clear payment information.  

The results were impressive:

  • For the call center, 94% of the 740,000 people who call in have their needs met on the first call
  • For audit letters, they reduced five complicated and confusing letters into one clear, understable one, which proved successful in usability testing
  • For the website, they conducted a redesign that consolidated five pages to one, with results showing users spending less time on the web page, and accessing the page using fewer clicks

In fact, the department won the Minnesota Department of Revenue a State Innovation Award and the national ClearMark awards for the Plain Language Project.

Automated Agents

utahYet another innovation is automating much of what a human agent would normally do when communicating with a citizen. Studies have shown that automating many of the routine transactional tasks actually improves employee efficiency and overall value to the department. This is played out as employees have more time to focus on the higher-value transactions. Transactions that further benefit the department.

The State of Utah is one of the first to adopt newer technology as a means to serve its citizens. They were one of the first to develop an iPhone app, and now they’re adopting something even newer: Amazon Echo’s Voice Service.

Amazon Echo – also known as “Alexa” the digital assistant – is the technology that responds to user voice commands. It started as a music speaker but has evolved to so much more, including turning lights on and off, turning thermostats down, providing weather information, etc., all by voice command.

State of Utah developers worked with Amazon to help expand Echo’s “Skills” (its set of directions and questions and answers); and they continue to develop more. In one area, Alexa will help new drivers study for the driver exam by reviewing practice questions. For example, Alexa might ask, “When approached by an emergency vehicle, the driver must immediately…” and the correct response would be, “Pull to the right and stop.” Test takers respond by voice directly to Alexa.

Utah’s CTO, David Fletcher said it best, “It is better to watch where the trend is headed, rather than wait for the majority of users to be there”.

So Where is the Biggest Struggle?

It’s the strategy. Or often the lack thereof.

Everyone’s trying to do the best they can, but when budgets tighten, it only allows for the revenue-generating projects to be approved, and starting with a broader, holistic strategy is often thrown aside for the quick band-aid, one-off fixes that are only temporary and never reach the true objectives.

Customer satisfaction gets pushed aside in this process, but, ultimately, the objectives cannot be reaching unless satisfaction is a focus. The two are inextricably linked.

So, according to many analysts, the key is Strategy.

Overhead peopleBefore even looking at technology, or new talent, or the next bright, shiny object, conduct a full assessment. This is oftentimes better done with outside sources: a team of consultants or professionals who can bring the objectivity, knowledge, and recommendations you won’t get from an internal team so entrenched within the department, that they can only provide a subjective viewpoint.

Government departments should choose an outside group of professionals who can help:

  • Clearly define objectives;
  • Review all business processes;
  • Create a customer journey map that clearly lays out who all of your customers are, their needs, their interactions;
  • Identify the right metrics to put in place;
  • Assemble the right internal teams; and
  • Recommend the right solution to meet those objectives.

Getting that holistic view of the customer (or many customer types) is the key. Who are they? What is their journey? What are they trying to accomplish? Answering all of these questions helps define the pieces that need to be in place.

Once organizations are able to get all of their internal systems aligned to  the customer journey, they can start collecting the data on their customer and build personas  that are fed back into the system. The enterprise data, or “Big Data” that starts to tell the story of what’s working, what’s not, what they need, what are their preferences. When you have this data, you can be more accurate on the implementing the right tools and processes, move more flexibly, and provide the right reporting to the right teams.

The Path Ahead

young-woman-hiking-the-mountain-trail-in-foggy-weather-picjumbo-comThe path ahead will continue to change, evolve, morph in ways we may not anticipate. But the key for government really is to focus on customer/citizen satisfaction and engagement. And that means, as all of the top analysts say, government needs to move toward digital platforms as a way to truly get a full view of their citizens.

Remember, start with customer journey: Determine who the citizens are, look at internal processes, and create that holistic strategy to take advantage of all opportunities and channels.

Then look at the technology: Build a platform that allows you to optimize your current data and systems, consider both the front and back ends, and be technology agnostic, there are many options to meet the needs.

Finally, all of these pieces come together to reach objectives, give citizens what they are expecting, and earn back trust.


Authored bY

Mark Pendolino

Mark Pendolino is the Director of Marketing at PTP, overseeing the creation of customer experience content focused on helping organizations discover best practices for evolving the customer journey. Prior to PTP, Mark managed teams for companies such as Microsoft, Smartsheet, Fujitsu, and Parsons Brinckerhoff. Mark holds a master’s in Communication in Digital Media from the University of Washington, and a bachelor’s in Technical Communications from Metropolitan State University of Denver. In his downtime, Mark likes to thrash a bit on the drumkit and pretend he’s a rock star.


Subscribe today to have our stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Invalid Email