Improving Customer Service

Issue # 20 of 70 

John T. Self, Ph.D.
By: Dr. John T. Self

Government Customer Service: Oxymoron or bad rap?

What do the following have in common: city, state and federal personnel, and the ubiquitous driver's license department?

Yep, you guessed it. Their commonality is a public perception of being the black holes of customer service. The image they conjure up is not one that makes most people warm and fuzzy. Consequently, hardly anyone thinks of them as the epitome of customer service.

Is this just an inherent problem that cannot be "fixed"? Or is it one that is just perception and not reality?

Unfortunately, from my perspective, it is reality. Case-in-point: my recent trip to City Hall. I could literally feel the life force being sucked out of me as I made the rounds. No one appeared to be enjoying their jobs. There was no excitement. It was as if a dark cloak wrapped around everyone as they entered the building.

Although everyone answered my questions, it was done as an automaton would do. Lifeless, passionless, without eye contact, seemingly trying to avoid any personal contact. It was almost painful.

As I dragged myself around from office to office, I started to ask myself questions, looking for an explanation for this mutual misery. . .

Q - WHY is it like this? Is it because most governmental agencies handle such a huge number of people?

A - No, many retail stores and restaurants are able to handle even more people with grace and hospitality.

Q - Is it the repetitiveness of the job?

A- No. See above.

Q - Is it because they know they have a captive clientele?

A - Ahhh, now I think we're getting somewhere. Yes, but not entirely. It is not just the lack of competition, it is mainly because they have not had customer service as a priority. This comes from the top. The someone to blame is the leadership for they are not only tolerating, but condoning poor customer service.

Q - Are the employees hired that way or is it a learned blandness?

A - Learned definitely. All new employees start by wanting to please their boss and peers. It is management that drives the employees to rudeness because of the climate that they either tolerated or encouraged this type of anti-service.

Q - Is it because our expectations drop to sub-level whenever we stop in a governmental agency?

A - I think this a major problem area. When was the last time you complained about poor service to "Guv-mint OH-fish-al"? Probably never because you were so glad to leave that you zoomed out of there the instant you were finished. Then the out-of-sight, out-of-mind principle kicked into effect.

Does it really have to be this way? The answer of course, is an emphatic "No!" Just as everyone deplores drive-by shootings, drive-by customer service is NOT customer service at all.

10 Ways to infuse a sense of service into governmental jobs:

  1. Have fun, damnit.
  2. Make sure customer service is a requirement, not an option. I am convinced that people don't start to work with a bad attitude. Everyone wants to please their coworkers and their boss (at least, initially). When employees exhibit poor attitudes, leadership has failed, not the employee. It is the responsibility of management to either solve or eliminate problems. Don't blame the symptoms.
  3. Make customer service an integral part of job performance evaluation.
  4. Emphasize the personal part of customer service. It must be personal because it is a relationship, even in non-profit or non-competitive markets. Anonymity breeds rudeness.
  5. The leadership has to buy into the personal, caring part of their job.
  6. Customer service is measured by the level of personal caring that the provider gives to the customer.
  7. The job cannot just be a job. The job must give the employee something more than a paycheck. Look for it, it's there.
  8. Believe it or not, your customers are people. They deserve to be treated as individuals. The first person in line is a person, not just an anonymous part of an anonymous group.
  9. Have leadership who will lead.
  10. Emphasize customer service. Again.

John T. Self is a lecturer at The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Prior to entering academia, Dr. Self spent fifteen years in the restaurant industry. While in the corporate world, he worked for several chains including Chili's and Steak and Ale, and as vice president of a regional restaurant chain overseeing six restaurants with sales of over twenty million dollars. He has also owned three independent restaurants, including a comedy club.
Dr. Self has also been involved in the development of international hospitality programs. While at Golden Gate University, he started the partnership with Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China and is continuing in that involvement at Cal Poly.

Improving Customer Service #20 of 70: View all in the Table of Contents

For more customer service articles, visit the Customer Service series on the new Sideroad: Practical Advice Straight from The Experts.

Text © Dr. John T. Self, 1997,1998. Part of the original Sideroad.