Five Tips for Customer Service in the Public Sector

Providing customer service in the public sector differs from customer service in the private sector. Businesses in the private sector are not burdened with regulations, policies, procedures and laws that impact every decision. Because decision-making in the public sector has even more structure or constraints than in the private sector, the delivery of customer service can be negatively impacted. One might ask, is it even possible to provide excellent service when facing all these constraints? Absolutely! Here are five tips to help you provide world-class customer service.

But before we get to the tips, let's take a step back and consider the implications of poor customer service in the public sector. When working in the public sector, it may seem that providing great service is unimportant — a waste of time and energy. After all, it's not like your customers can go to your competition. In the private sector, if a customer doesn't like the service at Burger King, they can just go down the street to McDonald's. In the private sector, any customer can voice their displeasure by spending their money at your competitors — and even worse, bad mouth you on social media. 

Is it all that different in the public sector? I don't think so. Though your "customers" may not up and run to your "competitor," as in the private sector, an unhappy "customer" in the public sector can still inflict a great deal of damage to the way others perceive your office or department. If, for example, you are a city government, bad press can influence potential businesses and homeowners to leave or not move to your city. Sometimes funding is taken away if politicians hear a lot of negative comments.

If you provide services on the federal, state, and local government level, you may not lose customers to the "competition," but you may find them more difficult to deal with. They may have read bad reviews or spoken to others about a negative interaction with your employees. With these negative impressions, customers may bring a bad attitude to their interactions with your employees. As hard as it may be to provide good customer service, it is even harder when you are dealing with a person who is already upset before they step through the door.

Another big issue is that even though you are in the public sector, your customers compare you to businesses like Amazon or Disney, who are well known for their great customer service.  Are you easy to do business with? Are you nice? Do you personalize their experience?

In addition to these customer relationship issues, you may face funding issues when constituents complain to their representatives.

Improving customer service in government. 

Hopefully, we agree that it is essential to improve customer service. There are two ways to go about improving customer experience. You can implement the tips we share below, or you can hire us to help train your people. Learn more about our public sector training courses here:

https://lauriebrown.com/workshops/customer-experience-workshops/public-sector-customer-service/

Here are the five tips for better Government Customer Service

Tip One: Make it Easy

Making customer service easy is the first step

Government service policies and procedures can make everything more difficult for your customers — the opposite of easy. What can you do to work within the rules and policies to achieve the goal of excellent customer service? 

  • Look at ways of simplifying the complex procedures needed to work with you.
  • Explain why there is complexity. 
  • Consider FAQ sheets that break down the steps and timeframes in a clear way.
  • Provide clear instructions on your website.
  • Help them do it. Walk them through the process.
  • Provide updates on progress.
  • Manage expectations upfront.

Tip Two: Make it Personal

Making government service feel personal

Following government rules and regulations can make customers feel like they are simply numbers, not living, breathing human beings.

We need to remember that customer service is NOT one size fits all. Instead, it needs to be personalized. Some customers need time to process what you tell them, others may need you to get right to the point, while others need a little chit-chat before getting to business, and some will need proof through documentation.

I understand completely if this sounds difficult to you. By using simple tools like a DiSC assessment, it will make the process much easier. Reach out to us to learn more about DiSC and how it can help you.

In short, DiSC uses a simple and easy survey to determine one's communication style.

There are four styles, though you can easily be a combination of them:

DOMINANT

This style tends to be direct, results oriented, firm, strong willed, forceful. They are focused on tasks and they process information quickly.

INFLUENCE

This style tends to be outgoing, enthusiastic,optimistic, high spirited, lively. They are focused on relationships and they process information quickly.

STEADINESS

This style tends to be even-tempered, accommodating, patient, humble and tactful. They are focused on relationships and like time to process information.

CONSCIENTIOUSNESS

This style tends to be analytical, reserved, precise, private, systematic. They are focused on tasks and like time to process information.

The trick to making service personal is quickly determining your customer's communication style and meeting them where they are. Once you know your style it is easier to do this.

Tip Three: Make it  Nice

Government Customer Service needs to be nice

When you think about it, we always prefer to do business with someone nice. Sometimes we think we are being nice but are not perceived that way. 

In our customer interactions we are always perceived through three lenses: Visual, Vocal and Verbal. 

Each of these can impact how we are being perceived, in other words — if we're "nice". Let's examine all three of these lenses:

Visual:

The visual part of communication is expressed through body language, facial expressions and eye contact.

When our arms are crossed, or we avoid eye contact or have furrowed brows we might lead our customers to think we are not nice. 

What can we do to be perceived as nice? Keep your body language open — it helps the customer believe you are there to help them. Make eye contact so the customer knows that you are paying attention to them, and then smile. A smile relaxes your facial muscles ,can make customers feel more comfortable and is pleasant to look at.

Vocal:

The vocal part of your communication is expressed through your vocal tone. Vocal tone provides context and emotion to your words.  We often don't know how we sound to others. We can sound frustrated or angry without meaning to. If you sound harsh or emphasize certain words in an angry tone, it would be off-putting to your customer. To help you sound "nice" you may want to ask a co-worker or your boss for their impression. 

What can you do to sound "Nice"? Softer tones spoken with a smile will help. You can also do something called "Uptalk." Uptalk is when the last syllable of your sentence rises in inflection. It has a pleasant, approachable sound. 

Verbal:

The words we say can also impact how our customers view us. Phrases such as "We can't do that", "That's not my job", "Your options are limited", "As I said…", or "I don't know", could sound very frustrating and off-putting to your customer. What can you do to improve your service by what you say?

For example, change these off-putting phrases to more positive ones::

  • Change "We can't do that." to "Here is what we CAN do."
  • "That's not my job." to "Let me find the person who can help you with that."
  • "Your options are limited" to "Here are your options."
  • "As I said…" to "I am not sure I was clear."
  • "I don't know." to "Let me find out."

Nobody likes to hear no, NOBODY.  But it comes out of our mouths all the time. So what can we do when we need to say no?

Whenever you say no to a customer, they naturally think, "Why?" 

To answer this question first run their request through a simple filter and ask yourself if it is:

  • Illegal
  • Immoral
  • Unethical
  • Impossible 
  • Unsafe

If the answer is yes to any of the above, then you can answer them by explaining why you cannot do it. But if it isn't any of the above you should move on to what you CAN do. Generally, there are options to "no", even if the option is "Let me ask my manager." Going beyond "no" will help the customer feel valued.

Tip Four: Use Customer Service Recovery Techniques

Customer service recovery is important

All of us mess up sometimes so when your customer has an issue it is important to manage it quickly. Here are the steps to manage service recovery:

Listen

This first step is essential. Really listen to their issues. It may be tempting to try and fix the issue before they have finished speaking. DON'T! The customer needs to be heard completely. If need be you can ask questions for clarification..

Trust

I know that sometimes your customer may lie to you. Though it may be tempting, it never goes well to say call them out on it.

Apologize with empathy

Most apologies are empty recitations of a meaningless phrase. "I'm sorry" — without empathy or an action attached can infuriate the customer. If you do apologize, make sure the customer knows you see how it impacted them and what you are going to do differently in the future.

Take ownership

Even if you're not the person who created the problem or the one who can fix it, you should own the issue until you get them to the right person.

Fix it immediately

If you can't fix things immediately, you can act with a sense of urgency. "This is a top priority. We are going to start working on this immediately."

Successful handling of issues can create customers who really value you.

Tip Five: Show empathy

Show empathy to your customers

Today customers are more and more difficult and demanding. I can't imagine a more difficult time to provide customer service in government agencies. Between being "spoiled" by private sector businesses like Amazon and Disney, the pandemic has everyone on edge.

Managing difficult customers means that sometimes you need to put yourself in their shoes —not always easy. Remember that everyone you speak to has a personal story. They may have a great life or they may also have tragedy. It may help to be empathetic if you can remember that sometimes customers are difficult because they are facing hardships unrelated to the situation, and that you are not at all aware of.

When we start with compassion, it helps us manage our own emotions so that we can provide excellent customer service.

When you practice these five tips you will notice that your customers are easier to deal with and they will spread the word about how great you are!

Learn more about our customer service programs.

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