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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Anna Marie Schuh
September 29, 2015
The phrase “Thank you for your service” seems to roll off everyone’s tongue these days.
It has become as ubiquitous as “gesundheit” when someone sneezes. The casualness with which we use the phrase has even engendered a backlash from many veterans.
As a recent widow, I have experienced the ritual “I am sorry for your loss” every time I contact a financial or government institution. I now understand the frustration the phrase “Thank you for your service” has for veterans. The frustration relates to five customer service areas: an insincere script, untimely service, promises not kept, poor listening and inadequate feedback.
When I first heard, “I am sorry for your loss,” it sounded heartfelt. However, after talking to six people at the same financial institution and each person beginning the conversation with that phrase, I realized it was a script rather than an authentic sentiment. At first, the script annoyed me. However, when this same institution was untimely in handling a concern and required documentation that was unnecessary, I became angry.
My experience is similar to the veteran who is thanked for his or her service, yet receives slow or poor assistance from government agencies. The “thank you” is hollow in the face of poor service. Rather than opening with an insincere sentiment, the service representative should say something authentic. For example, “I will try to help you through this process” or “I will try to make the process easier” are authentic comments because the service provider has the ability to accomplish these statements.
The insincere script is only part of the customer service problem. A second concern involves timeliness of service and customer perception of timeliness, which the organization can control. Returning to the previous example, all of the institution’s literature indicated that it would make the necessary changes within 60 days after receipt of the required documents. At day 65, I called to ask about the status of the claim. Without explanation, I was told, nothing had been done. After a second phone call and 30 days later, the institution processed the claim.
If the institution had either started out with a 90-day processing time or informed me at the 60-day point that there was a problem, I would not have been happy but I would have understood. However, missing the deadline without explanation was poor service. This situation is similar to the veterans experience with unexplained long waits for the scheduling of doctor’s visits.
When it comes to promises, either keep them or avoid making them. Fortunately, I have a positive example that involves a federal agency. In this case, the service provider gave me an answer that I thought was incorrect. She assured me it was accurate but said she would check with her supervisor and call me back. When she did not call back the same day, I assumed she had not bothered to follow up on my question. However, the next morning she called to tell me that I was correct about my understanding of the situation. Her ability to follow up made me a fan of her agency. Unfortunately, Benjamin Krause highlights a negative government example in his discussion about the Veterans Affairs website information and the difference in their medical records provision and the records actually provided.
A fourth concern involves listening. Most of the people that I talked to did not listen to my situation. The customer service representative immediately started a script. I spent a lot of time bringing the person back to the concern that I wanted addressed. Again, this is similar to the listening problems many veterans experience. Chris Marvin highlights this problem when he discussed the disconnect between resources provided to veterans and the actual needs of veterans.
My final concern involves getting customer feedback. Generally, government service does not fare well in customer service surveys. One reason may be that government service providers typically do not encourage survey completion. Another reason may be that only the angry respond to customer surveys without encouragement. In my private sector experiences, I noticed that service providers told me I would receive a survey and asked me to complete it positively. Conversely, in my experience with government service providers, they rarely mentioned the survey.
Good customer survey practices include enticing the customer to complete the survey. Having the government service provider ask the customer to complete the survey is a two pronged enticement: the customer who receives good service wants to thank the provider through a good rating and the provider who wants a good survey result provides better service.
I know the government provides good service because I have experienced it. However, I believe government customer service can be improved with a few simple actions. Develop helpful rather than insincere scripts. Meet published time standards or explain any delays. Keep promises or avoid making them. Listen. Connect with the customer and ask for a good review.
Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an associate professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program.