Many companies are uncomfortable giving up their hierarchical, command-and-control management structures, which means they'll have a tough time achieving any real benefits from using social technologies. If it's a problem for private companies, imagine how much bigger of a hurdle it will be for government agencies, which have rigid policies (and corresponding paperwork) in place for nearly every process.
Yet private companies and government agencies face many of the same challenges in using social technologies. That comes through clearly in a SmartBlog on Social Media post that discusses a presentation made by Elizabeth Losh of the University of California-Irvine at an event called the Gov 2.0 Expo.
Losh discussed some of the biggest mistakes agencies make when they try to employ Web 2.0 strategies, but pretty much everything mentioned in the post applies to private companies as well. Not only that, but as reader Dan Bevarly points out in a comment following the post, Losh's cautionary comments are just as valid for offline encounters between agency employees and constituents.
I'm taking the liberty of rephrasing the five customer-service mistakes into pieces of advice:
- Don't make promises you can't keep. Losh mentioned the example of a State Department worker who, prodded by a Twitter user, offered to investigate a situation involving a Chinese blogger. Guess what? The worker didn't have the authority to follow through. This sounds like a case where an employee may have been overstepping boundaries of authority that are there for national security and/or diplomatic relations reasons, but in many cases, employees are more inexplicably not empowered to actually help customers. When I interviewed Strativity Group founder Lior Arussy last summer, he told me just 39 percent of respondents to a Strativity Group survey said their employees had the tools and authority to solve customer problems.
- Make sure you know what your customers really want. What most users want from government websites (or offline encounters with government) is information. So agencies should keep it well organized and easy to find. This is true for private companies as well, many of whom have figured out they can save money and engender goodwill by giving customers the ability and information to better serve themselves. Think package tracking applications by UPS, FedEx and scores of retail companies.
- Don't ask customers for content and then not use it. As Losh rightly pointed out, this just encourages folks to feel cynical. I wonder if agencies could encourage constituents to feel the government cares about their opinions instead by adopting the kind of social voting used by community sites like Dell's IdeaStorm or even by sponsoring contests that would reward constituents for innovative ideas.
- Be ready for hostility. Lots of people act like jerks online. Agencies and private companies alike must be prepared to deal with incivility. The U.S. Air Force provides some great guidance on how to handle rude behavior.
- Don't focus so much on creating a "brand experience" that you neglect your agency's mission. Some readers disagreed with this point, apparently feeling Losh implied government shouldn't devote the same kind of time and energy to building a brand as a private company would. I think perhaps she meant the brand should be consistent with the actual experience. Don't promote your customer-service excellence if it isn't up to snuff, for instance.