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Customer service in government

Insights to action

Understanding the importance of customer service in federal government is key to realizing the full potential of the government customer. With the sector's customer satisfaction ratings at an all-time low, we must consider making radical improvements in the government customer experience. So why can't you get there from here? The answer may be simpler than you think.

Performance vs. expectations

In 2007 only 57 percent of tax returns were filed electronically. Now it’s over 90 percent. No more hunting down forms in government offices or trips to the Post Office.1 For most Americans, e-file is quick, efficient, and free. This is just one example of improvement in government customer service.

But that’s not how customer experience in government is seen according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). ASCI’s most recent report shows citizen satisfaction with government customer services at its lowest level since 2007.

In customer service in government agencies, satisfaction is not the same as performance. In practice: Satisfaction = Perceived Performance – Expectations

Or as researcher David Maister put it: “if the client perceives service at a certain level but expected something more (or different), then he or she will be dissatisfied.”2 Even if citizens perceive government customer service performance accurately, there’s still a gap between performance and expectations. Citizen expectations are set by customer experience in the larger marketplace. Customer-focused business models like Uber, Amazon Prime, and Facebook, coupled with the integration of digital and mobile technologies have drastically altered customer expectations. Consumers expect to access products and services when they want them.


Why you can't get there from here

So, if steady improvement is not going to cut it, what agencies need is a transformative breakthrough that delivers radical government customer service improvement. Agencies need to rethink their approach to customers, or even who their customers are. Agencies may need to reorganize to better deliver a leading customer experience and respond to customer needs and think beyond their walls to consider the range of stakeholders that can help reimagine the customer experience. This type of breakthrough change is possible., won the Innovations in American Government Award with prize competitions—helping consumers block annoying robocalls and astronauts benefit from less cumbersome gloves.

How can your agency deliver a breakthrough in government customer service satisfaction? Here are four areas that an organization can look to get started:

  • Think from the customer’s perspective: Understand the customer’s perception of your organization’s performance. What experiences shape their expectations and perceptions?
  • Move from transactions to experiences: Think beyond the interaction with the customer to the full experience of accessing and using your product or service. Think of your own experience with a physician: The cost, speed, and accuracy of the treatment matter; but so do the wait, parking difficulties, and insurance hassles.
  • Think about touchpoints across silos of the organization: Ownership of the end-to-end customer experience is often unclear. Leadership must put in place people and systems to enable the organization to see and think across silos to support a seamless customer experience.
  • Take a new approach to information: Agencies must begin to capture information on customer perceptions, experiences, and desires to deliver the experience customers want.

Outside customers are not the only individuals whose expectations are being continually recalibrated by marketplace experiences. These recommendations are as relevant for employees as customers. The need for a transformative breakthrough applies to internal support too. More satisfied employees tend to create more satisfied customers.

If you are focused on incremental improvements in government customer service, the old maxim from Maine, “You can’t get there from here,” is likely to hold true. If, however, you undertake a journey focused on transformative change, you may be able to get wherever you want to go.


Learn more about 'Insights to action'

Insights to action is a community for sharing proven ideas during a time when government agencies are almost universally experiencing disruptive change. It shares insights from trusted leaders with extensive experience and diverse perspectives on leadership, strategy, business operations, innovation, and emerging capabilities.

Insights to action helps leaders and managers look again at the challenges and opportunities that come along with the evolution in government.

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1 tax statistics
2 David Maister, Managing the Professional Service Firm (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1993), p. 71.

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