Federal customer experience — it’s no jar of olives

When the email came informing me I had a free jar of queen-sized olives coming, I let out a woo-wee in the newsroom. Someone on our web team said, “I have a feeling this is going to be in a column.” Sorry guys. I’m on a customer experience journey.

In the various citizen service drives since the 1980s, the federal government has always cited the private sector, and the service experience people get there, as...

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When the email came informing me I had a free jar of queen-sized olives coming, I let out a woo-wee in the newsroom. Someone on our web team said, “I have a feeling this is going to be in a column.” Sorry guys. I’m on a customer experience journey.

In the various citizen service drives since the 1980s, the federal government has always cited the private sector, and the service experience people get there, as the gold standard. It is and it isn’t. No one who’s been on an airliner in recent years would characterize that as a nice experience, unless you’re 4-foot-6, weigh 79 pounds and travel light. The booking process is a duel between customers and exquisitely developed algorithms designed to maximize yield. They keep all your money if you have a flat tire on the way to the airport. In my jar of queen olives, a third were missing the pimiento slices. They didn’t fall out into the brine because there were no orphan pimientos at the bottom of the jar. If you like martinis just so, the pimiento is part of the ritual. A polite message in the Contact Us section of the supplier’s website yielded an email from an actual person who is sending me a coupon for a replacement jar — something I didn’t ask for specifically.

Now the government — and the professional services companies working with it — are talking in terms of customer experience. The customer experience model looks at the entire interaction lifecycle and tries to determine how people feel about it, not merely successful transactions. And not just online, but the totality of online, phone, even walking into the office. Deloitte calls this the omni-channel experience.

IRS is trying something the Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs Department have been doing for a while, with partial success. The “MyAgency” model tries to personalize federal offerings that are in reality offered on a mass scale. I guess having an account gives people some sense of control over their interactions with the agency.

This is fine, but what happens when something goes wrong that needs a non-standard response? These situations test how good a customer experience really is. Here again, the private sector had a decidedly mixed record. If you buy a computer from, say, Apple, you’re wise to also buy their (pricey) extended service package. Then for two or three years you get superb and highly personalized phone and physical exchange service for the duration of the plan. After that you are on your own. Fair enough. Last week I purchased an expensive bike rack for the car and it came with a dent and a gouge through the paint into the bare metal. One email with an attached photo and a replacement is on the way with a tag to ship the dented one back in the same box.

Sometimes in the private sector the customer is not right. What’s your batting average with your health care insurance provider?

Government comes with a lifetime warranty, or at least as long as you’re eligible for the service. For instance Medicare, once you’re on it, it’s for life — unless you go to prison.

In trying to improve the customer experience with the latest techniques like journey mapping, there’s another dynamic agencies must keep in mind. Often the association between a person and a federal agency isn’t voluntary. The “MyIRS” experiment might be great when a taxpayer is tracking a refund, but what happens when someone sees something fishy on your return? And even when someone chooses Veterans Affairs over another health care provider, the VA ultimately isn’t oriented toward worrying about veterans’ repeat business. That’s not a comment on the people at VA, many of whom care a great deal, it’s just the way things are set up. For some veterans, government is the provider of last resort. It has a captive clientele. Citizens can’t take their business to another VA, IRS, Medicaid, Metro, or Social Security.

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