Improving Customer Service

Recommendations and Actions

ICS01: Create Customer-Driven Programs in All Departments and Agencies that Provide Services Directly to the Public


The National Performance Review seeks a government where services are customer-driven. If government services are to be customer-driven they must be judged based on the public's expectations. These expectations are being set, in large part, by the quality of services delivered each day by America's corporations. Federal Express says, "when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." Government can learn from the kind of commitments that America's best corporations make and how they view service.

These corporations view service as creating an experience.[Endnote 1] Generating a check or providing a missing piece of information is not all that matters; courtesy, surroundings, complaint procedures, redress, choices, and accessibility all add up to define a quality service experience. And these corporations seek constant feedback from their customers on how they are doing. Can the government live up to this corporate standard? If it does any less the idea will persist that government just doesn't work right.

The government of the United Kingdom believes it can meet this higher standard. Its Citizen's Charter, launched in July 1992, sets the standard for public services to be "up to and beyond the best at present available.'' The Charter goes on to define key principles of service, including accessibility, choice, courtesy, putting things right, setting standards for performance, and others. To carry out these policies, British Rail sets on-time standards, publishes actual results, and discounts next month's rail pass if it doesn't meet the standards.

The idea of setting the standard for federal services to be the equal of those in the private sector may have a huge payoff. It is probably the simplest way to tell the federal work force what kind of service to deliver. Each government employee can immediately draw on his or her own experience to define quality. That is why the Air Force Tactical Air Command adopted its written standard for visiting-airmen's quarters to be "a moderately priced hotel, like Ramada.'' This works much better at no more cost than the thick manual it replaced.


A program to improve government customer service would not start from scratch. Several federal agencies have already begun to empower their employees to focus on their real customers with immediate results.

The Ogden, Utah, Service Center of the Internal Revenue Service processes tax returns. It instituted a total quality program, put its focus on the customer, generated big savings, increased productivity, and won the 1992 Presidential Award for Quality.[Endnote 2]

The employees in Ogden really believe in customer service. A taxpayer, recently down on his luck, hitchhiked from out of state to Ogden hoping to pick up his refund check. The Ogden center doesn't issue refund checks, but the IRS employees pulled up the computer records and found that the check had been sent from the disbursing center to his old address, and returned. They ordered a new check sent to Ogden, but the process would take 10 days, and the hitchhiker had no money. So the employees found him shelter and, from among themselves, collected enough food money to get him through. No wonder they won the quality award.

The customer focus of the IRS center in Ogden is not unique. The Postal Service now routinely surveys customer satisfaction and uses the results to judge performance around the country.[Endnote 3] The Social Security Administration built its new strategic plan on service delivery goals and objectives that focus on its customers.[Endnote 4] There is a Service to the Citizen alliance of information technology leaders from 12 federal agencies collaborating on projects and funding work to sort out how technology can improve service to the government's customers.[Endnote 5] The Commerce Department's International Trade Administration set up a 24-hour-a-day phone system that lets callers select topics from a menu and fax themselves information on the changing trade situation in Eastern Europe.[Endnote 6]

These and other initiatives already under way provide the first building blocks for a customer-driven government, but the government lacks an overall policy statement setting out what it is trying to achieve. Also needed is an initial call to action in order to stimulate broad federal participation. In addition, we need more direct customer input--most current planning is based on what managers or other stakeholders think the public wants.

Similarly, front-line employees need to be heard. They need to be placed at the center of programs to improve quality. Everything written about successful reinvention efforts, public and private, says that front-line employees are the best source of good ideas on how to improve efficiency, quality, and service. Front-line employees need access to training that will help them serve the public better. For example, anyone who handles inquiries from the public should have the opportunity to learn active listening skills. Front-line employees also need the authority to deal with customer issues that they face. Corporate America translates this belief into action. A 1990 Harris Poll of service companies found 92 percent gave employees explicit authority to handle customer problems.[Endnote 7]

Customer and employee inputs will provide a solid basis for setting performance standards for customer services. And what gets measured gets done, so these standards must be published, posted, and tracked. Continuing measurement of customer satisfaction will fit neatly with the performance measurement requirements of the recently passed Government Performance Results Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-62).


Establish an overall policy for the quality of federal services delivered to the public, and initiate customer service programs in all agencies that provide services directly to the public. (2)

The President should issue an Executive Order that would establish this overall standard for quality in services to the public: Customer services equal to the best in business.

The Executive Order would state that the following principles govern the provision of customer services:

--Survey customers frequently to find out what kind and quality of services they want.

--Post service standards and results measured against them.

--Benchmark performance against the best in business.

--Provide choices in both source of service and delivery means.

--Make information, services, and complaint systems easily accessible.

--Provide redress for poor services.

--Handle inquiries and deliver services with courtesy.

--Provide pleasant surroundings for customers.

The Executive Order would recommend that all federal agencies that deliver services directly to the public undertake the following actions:

--Immediately identify who their customers are.

--Survey their customers on services and results desired and on satisfaction with existing services.

--Survey front-line employees on barriers to, and ideas for, matching the best in business.

--Within six months, report results on these three steps to the President.

--Within one year, publish a customer service plan that can be readily understood by their customers.

The required customer service plans would include at least initial customer service standards. Under these plans, customer satisfaction would be sampled often during the year and used as a primary criterion in judging the performance of agency management and in making resource allocations. To support the plan, agencies would provide training needed by employees. For example, front-line employees handling inquires would learn customer service skills, and managers would learn to use results-oriented, customer satisfaction information.

These policies and supporting actions represent a major initiative to put government's focus on people, both the public and front-line employees. Moreover, several of the recommended principles of customer service seek to make government agencies accountable to the public for the quality of the service provided.

To begin with, publishing standards and actual performance results creates a sense of accountability among employees. These results, along with surveys of customer satisfaction, provide a direct basis for judging management and employee performance. In addition, redress by way of an apology and an explanation can be given when individuals are treated poorly, and in some cases the government will be able to put things right by, for example, forgiving penalties or paying interest.

On a broader scale, customer satisfaction can be used as a basis for changing resource allocations. Note that customer satisfaction must measure many aspects of the service experience, but especially results. For instance, when the government runs employee service centers, we need to ask "Did a customer get a job, and at what pay level?" Based on this type of satisfaction measurement, for example, funding might be shifted among service centers in order to deal with problems, or workloads shifted to the best performing locations to improve service within an area. And when the public can actually exercise a choice to obtain a service elsewhere, competition will enter as a powerful stimulus to productivity.

Cross References to Other NPR Accompanying Reports

Creating Quality Leadership and Management, QUAL01: Provide Improved Leadership and Management of the Executive Branch.

Mission-Driven, Results-Oriented Budgeting, BGT02: Effectively Implement the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993.


1. Schneider, Benjamin, "The Perception of Organizational Climate: The Customer's View,'' Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 57, no. 3 (1973), pp. 248-256, and Heskett, James L., W. Earl Sasser, Jr., and Christopher W.L. Hart, Service Breakthroughs: Changing the Rules of the Game (New York: Free Press, 1990).

2. Federal Quality Institute, "Presidential Award for Quality,'' Washington, D.C., 1992.

3. See U.S. General Accounting Office, Tracking Customer Satisfaction in a Competitive Environment, GAO/GGD-93-4 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office, November 1992).

4. See Social Security Administration, "The Social Security Strategic Plan,'' Baltimore, MD, September 1991.

5. See John F. Kennedy School of Government, Customer Service Excellence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, July 1992).

6. Interview with Gloria Gutierrez, Acting Chief Financial Officer and Assistant Secretary for Administration, Department of Commerce memorandum, August 11, 1993.

7. See Harris Poll/Consumer Affairs Council, "The State of Quality Customer Service in America,'' 1990.

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