Hey feds, customer service is no mystery

During the 2015 movie about him, Steve Jobs rinses off his feet in a toilet. Ick. Apparently he did that in real life. This scene came to mind this week because I’ve stepped in up to my neck in a project to rebuild a shower-and-tub valve in our master bath. Mercifully, the toilet is OK, in part because no one ever steps inside it.

Now there’s a big round hole in the shower wall. I can see what fine jobs the plumber and tile man did 20 years ago.

Equally impressive is the customer service I’ve received from Kohler. I think we paid $700 for the fixture during the remodeling. A new one costs twice as much. Because the innards came with a lifetime warranty, Kohler has sent me two free assemblies that go inside the fixture.

The Trump administration’s President’s Management Agenda stresses the need to improve customer service. It should be as good as “leading” private sector organizations. Kudos to the person who thought to insert the word “leading.” Because many private sector organizations stink at customer service.

When I pulled the old pieces out of the fixture, an extra part with a spring popped out. Uh oh! That doodad doesn’t appear on any of the diagrams. On my third call to Kohler, the patient Keisha told me to throw it out because the new parts don’t need it. And she’s sending me two gaskets to replace deteriorated ones, also free.

About Apple. Toilet feet or not, the company is a mixed bag on customer service. If you buy extended service plans, it’s got the best customer service there is. But like millions of owners, I have an “old” iPhone that turned to molasses after a recent OS update. I’m always asking it: “How long are you going to take to load this app?” The iPhone seems to answer: “How long ya got?” Apple said it was because of the battery. After bungling the initial offer of $29 batteries, the company devised a plan in which you could order a battery by phone.

I had a lovely chat with a chirpy young woman who predicted I’d get notified of a battery within two weeks. That was two months ago. Clearly, Apple missed when designing this particular customer experience.

Government is not uniformly terrible. For the first time, my wife and I filed our tax returns online. Never mind why it took us until 2018. It was an astonishingly easy breeze using TurboTax. Both the IRS and Maryland acknowledged the returns within hours and gave refund dates. I can’t say how either agency would do if I had a question or there was something wrong. Exception handling can show how good at service an organizations really is.

Luxury brands often set the standard for customer service. I just bought a new motorcycle from  a manufacturer that commands premium pricing. Talk about delighting the customer. See my personal blog for the customer experience I received. Yes, I was parting with a lot of money. But it was obvious the dealer experience, starting with the test drive, through the negotiations, to when I was handed the keyless start fobs, was carefully thought out. And, no doubt, regulated by the manufacturer. I visited four dealers. In each one, someone came over to help within 30 seconds of my walking though the door. Yet it didn’t seem rehearsed or phony. All the people you encounter are owners and riders themselves.

Twenty years ago, I test-drove a Ford. It seemed workable. I told the salesman I was going to check out a Volkswagen across the street. He sighed, “If you do, you won’t be back here.” He was correct. Don’t hire a VW enthusiast to sell Ford.

Many, many federal employees  have a sense of mission. They believe in what they’re doing. They have no sales quotas to motivate them, but they try hard anyhow. The purpose of federal IT and service design work is to back up such people with tools to match their enthusiasm. For example, VA has two challenges. First, how to get around the wait times and backlogs. Second, now to ensure a consistent customer experience regardless of which facility a veteran happens to visit. You can toss in a third element, really two elements. Hire the right people and educate them. (As Stanley Marcus wrote, you train seals but educate people.)

If a plumbing manufacturer and motorcycle dealer can do it, so can a federal agency.

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