Setting Standards

Once customers have said what they want, it is good business to tell them what to expect, the way FedEx promises they will deliver a package by 10:30 the next morning, or Disney World has signs posted along the line for Space Mountain saying how much longer visitors have to wait. Setting customer standards is powerful. They focus on the things that are most important to customers. They also -- and this is critical -- tell federal employees where to focus. Federal employees need to know what their goal is too. For so long the goal has been not to make mistakes, mistakes as defined by rulebooks too thick to lift. Now the goal is built on the golden rule of customer service, treating people the way you want to be treated.


  • Internal Revenue Service: tax refunds on complete and accurate
    paper returns are due in 40 days; 21 days for electronic returns.
  • Social Security Administration: new and replacement cards
    mailed within five days; they'll tell customers the Social Security
    number in one day if it's urgent.
  • Coast Guard: search and rescue on demand, 24 hours a day,
    seven days a week.
  • Environmental Protection Agency: in voluntary programs,
    publicly recognize the achievements of business partners.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration: inspectors will
    be respectful and helpful, and focus on the most serious hazards.
  • U.S. Mint: orders taken 24 hours a day, seven days per week.
  • National Park Service: Great Smoky Mountains visitor center
    open every day but Christmas.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics: data any way customers want it:
    from a live person, or by recorded message, fax, microfiche,
    diskette, tape, Internet, or TDD.

Making firm promises was new territory for government agencies that were used to hedging. At first, only three agencies -- the U.S. Postal Service, the IRS, and the Social Security Administration -- were willing to stick their necks out and say how fast or courteous they would be. The next year, after the President's order and more workshops, 150 agencies took the plunge. Now, 214 agencies have published more than 3,000 specific customer service promises. President Clinton and Vice President Gore compiled a book of them, organized it according to type of customer -- not agency -- and put it on the World Wide Web for all to see. (9)

Making promises is risky, but it does force improvement. The U.S. Postal Service promised that local first-class mail would be delivered overnight.(10) They did not make it in key cities. Only 50 percent of the mail was being delivered overnight in New York and Washington; in Chicago, mail burned under bridges. The news media covered it all. But since 1993, on-time delivery in Washington, New York, and Chicago has improved steadily to better than 85 percent by last spring. The national average was up to 90 percent last spring for the first time. (11)

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