by Rene A. Henry

SEATTLE, Wash., June 10 – Customer service is an oxymoron in government at all levels: federal, state, county and city. It is getting so bad that soon it will be non-existent.

I applauded Rep. Henry Cuellar (R-Texas) when he recognized this and introduced the Government Customer Service Improvement Act which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on September 11, 2012. His bill is a sad commentary on society today that legislation is needed to remind public servants to practice good old fashioned common courtesy and to combat their rudeness, inefficiency and incompetency.

Regrettably, members of the Congressman’s own staff and those serving on his Congressional staff committees most likely have not read or understand the legislation and certainly do not practice its intent. Last November I contacted his press secretary, Miranda Margowsky, and Congressional staff for an update so I could write this article. For more than six months we exchanged emails until I pushed for answers and then no one responded..

A month ago when I called Rep. Cuellar’s office I learned he had a new press secretary, Kristen Hartman, so I left word for her to call me. Two weeks later with no response I wrote Rep. Cuellar asking for help. Receiving no timely response, I next talked with Lindsey Teel who told me she handled correspondence related to legislative matters and said all letters sent by mail took three weeks to be cleared by security.

 

This could be yet another ridiculous reason why Congress gets nothing accomplished. Perhaps because of TSA’s 95 percent failure rate the Congressional post office believes it needs to double, triple and quadruple check all mail. Congress should be more concerned about computers and email being hacked like so many other areas of our government. Today a letter mailed through the U.S. Postal Service might be the safest way to communicate.

 

I emailed Teel the letter in question and asked her to respond upon receipt and she did not. On another call lst week to his office I asked the woman who answered the phone if she was familiar with the bill and she responded: “I’m not authorized to discuss that.” And that’s customer service?

 

When H.R. 538 passed the House, the Social Security Administration sent a notice to its offices but from my personal experience either no one in the Seattle region read it or they chose to ignore the intent of the bill. The same is true for the Medicare administrator in Department of Health and Human Services in Washington and the Seattle regional office.

 

For several weeks I’ve been working on a story about the failure of the Department of Education to enforce compliance of Title IX in athletics but Sandra Battle, the deputy assistant secretary for enforcement, will not respond. When you call her office you get a recording that tells you that you cannot leave a message but to email ocr@ed.gov where repeated emails have been ignored.

 

When you notify the FTC on its “Do Not Call” registry about a robodialed or unsolicited phone call don’t bother taking time to write anything in the “comments” section. No one at the FTC reads them.

 

There is nothing magic about customer service. It is just basic common sense. But there is so little of that in any government anywhere. I spent 10 years in federal service at three departments and agencies serving administrations of both parties and this is why I included a separate chapter just on government customer service in my latest book, “Customer Service: the cornerstone of success.”

 

When I headed communications and government relations for the Mid-Atlantic States region of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Philadelphia, thanks to Lawrence Teller, my senior communications advisor, we established a policy for all government agencies to copy.

 

“Our surveys of Congressional offices, state agencies and the public we served consistently showed that prompt replies were much preferred to more ‘perfect’ replies that took days or longer. Why? The survey results and my 35 years of government experience tell me that people value a caring attitude at least as much as the specific information provided in response to their inquires,” says Teller.

 

We were the first EPA region that established a sizeable cash award to recognize the outstanding customer service performer each year. Here are a few of our practices:

 

* Respond to all phone calls the same day and no later than the end of the next business day.

* Respond to all letters, faxes and e-mails within 72 hours. Respond to emails preferably within 24 hours. Give an interim reply when a complete answer is going to be delayed.

* Update the voice mailbox weekly and always when on travel. Many of our employees updated their voice mailbox daily.

* When on travel or vacation, an “out of office” response should be left for emails or the voice mailbox and preferably with someone as an emergency contact.

 

Teller, also spearheaded customer service as the lead for all EPA regions, says the following additional principles were adopted as EPA’s Six Principles of Customer Service:

 

* Be helpful! Listen to your customers.

* Respond to all phone calls by the end of the next business day.

* Respond to all correspondence within 10 business days. (Headquarters and the other regions did not adopt our 72-hour policy of the Philadelphia region).

* Make clear, timely, accurate information accessible.

* Work collaboratively with partners to improve all products and services.

* Involve customers and use their ideas.

 

The U.S. Department of Transportation keeps track of all airline complaints and annually releases the results. This is what is needed in government today. Shine a spotlight on those who are doing a good job and those who are failing.

 

I question why anyone in government or for that matter, any senior position in any company or organization, cannot communicate. Is it because of rude and insulting behavior? Malfeasance? Incompetence? Illiterate regarding common courtesy? Or all of the above? Maybe the libertarians are right – if the government employees can’t do their jobs simply eliminate them and cut the budget.

 

Rene A. Henry is the author of nine books and writes on a variety of subjects. His latest book, “Customer Service: the cornerstone of success” is a must read for all senior managers. Many of his articles are posted on www.renehenry.com.