Executive Order for Feds to Improve Customer Service? It's About Time

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11 Best Practices for Online Chat Sales and Customer Service

Online chat is gaining attention as an effective customer service delivery method.

In an Executive Order issued earlier this week, President Obama ordered government agencies to "redouble" their efforts to utilize technology to make customer service better and more cost effective. As InformationWeek reports, money saved would be redirected toward public-facing websites and productivity tools for government employees.


Within 180 days, agencies are expected to develop customer service plans that adopt best practices from the private sector, develop service standards and track performance against them, benchmark themselves against the private sector, and establish a "signature" initiative for using technology to transform customer service.


Boy, it's about time. Just yesterday I went to the local circuit clerk's office to clear up a citation I had received. I was pulled over for speeding, at which time I discovered the registration for my car had expired. (I never saw the notice to renew it. My husband, in an effort to "save me some trouble" had put the notice in his own vehicle intending to take care of it.) To make it even worse, I didn't have a current insurance card.


No problem, the policeman who pulled me over said, all I had to do was provide registration and proof of insurance before my scheduled court date. My husband, guilty feelings and all, got the car registered. The citation said an insurance card wouldn't do; I needed a letter from my insurer. No faxes, no copies, no cards, no premium notices. I called my agent who mailed me a letter. Nope, the clerk said when I handed her the paperwork, the letter had to have a handwritten signature. I asked her if we could call my agent. Sorry, no, she said.


Huh. Does that handwritten signature guarantee the letter isn't fraudulent? I think not. If I could have been certain another clerk would have waited on me if I left and returned, God help me I would have signed the letter myself.


My court date is Wednesday. The clerk, trying to be helpful, wrapped by telling me the office would need three business days to process the transaction. I didn't get to the payment part of the transaction, but it turns out I'd have to pay a "transfer fee" of roughly 10 percent to use a card. I used to cover the payments industry. Yes, merchants (including I assume this agency) have to pay a transaction fee to MasterCard or Visa. But it's not even close to 10 percent.


I do have another alternative, thank goodness. The clerk's office at the Hall of Justice is open 24 hours, seven days a week. If I can't line up child care (a good possibility), it will certainly make for an interesting excursion for me and my 10-year-old son. I envision a kind of "Scared Straight" experience.


As a result of all this, I am really feeling this statement from federal Chief Performance Officer Jeff Zients:

Just like large corporations, the government processes countless transactions, but too few agencies have modernized their customer interactions. As a result, too often costs are too high and customer service lags behind.

Imagine if a company like Amazon was handling my citation. It'd all be done online, at my convenience and at a low cost. Much of it would be automated on Amazon's end, making it efficient and inexpensive for Amazon, too. (I probably never would have gotten a citation in the first place, because I could have registered to have reminder alerts sent to my phone when my registration was due to be renewed. I was speeding when I was pulled over. But other folks were going much faster than I was. I'm convinced the lapsed registration was the kicker that got me stopped.)


The federal government has been trying to attract younger people to its work force. In theory, government service jobs should appeal to millennials' desire to serve the common good. But that won't happen until government workers are given the resources and authority to provide good service.


My experience shows government agencies have a long way to go. But it can be done. The InformationWeek article mentions the Internal Revenue Service's ability to electronically process tax returns, an improvement that appeals to many taxpayers and also saves big bucks. According to the article, the IRS in 2001 processed 70 percent of its tax returns on paper at a cost of $3.66 per return. This year, 70 percent of returns are electronic. Those cost just 17 cents per return, an obviously huge savings for the fed.