Government’s role in creating customer service orientation in public sector

Wednesday, 12 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

With the dawn of the year 2011, our country is looking forward to grand development to establish the economic and social stability and a positive ‘way forward’. Currently, the most important factor in shaping Sri Lanka’s economy is the embracing of post-war development.

Since the money that was drained from the budget for military expenses is now accumulating for infrastructure build-up, these savings can be mobilised into the country’s various development programmes.

According to the statistics and reports presented by the Government during the end of 2010, the poverty level, productivity level and income level gaps are varying from region to region. To bring all these in to a common platform, there are certain gaps that have to be filled. It is time for the authorities to realise the importance of using human talent purposefully and gainfully in order to create a culture of customer service orientation in public sector institutes and industries.

Though most of the ministries have come up with master plans for development in their ministries, they have hardly paid any attention towards this aspect. Being proactive in fostering customer service orientation in public services will lead the country towards the expected economic development. Unfortunately today people pause to think whether if there is a possibility to expect ‘real’ customer service from Government services.

Sri Lanka has seen, in recent time, vast improvements in cleanliness, infrastructure developments by way of road constructions, flyovers, city beautifications, trapping traffic offenders and reckless drivers through closed circuit cameras, investment attractions for FDIs, etc. What we now need to support all the economic spearheading is ‘public sector customer service’ as a way of life.

Importance of public sector customer service

In the current context, it is through outstanding customer service that a business can establish a ‘distinct sustainable differentiation’. Most businesses today maintain a reputation for their intense focus and high standards of quality in their deliverables.

In any organisation the commitment to customer service begins at the top. The organisations’ leaders must buy into the fact that they not only need to meet their customer’s expectations, but actually strive to exceed them. They must develop a company culture that understands this concept.

Compared to the private sector organisations, the public sector is somewhat lacking in this area. In fact, this concept itself has been misinterpreted or misunderstood by most of public servants. One needs to fine-tune the right ‘mindset’ amongst at least the customer interface staff of the institution, so that they could maintain an outstanding personal relationship in dealing with the clients/customers and slowly encourage the culture of customer service within the organisation.

It is said that several Government servants do not accept the point that the people they deal with are the same as those who go to supermarkets and/or who are served as ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ by private sector suppliers of goods and services. Thus, they may be rather reluctant to refer to them as their customers. The difficulty with this resistance is that if we don’t consider the public as our “customers,” we face the risk of acting in bureaucratic, non-responsive ways. Resistance to the use of the word “customer” is generally based on an inaccurate notion of what the word customer means, in retail, service or public sectors.

Presently, members of the public who have to get things done or seek approval from Government institutions run the possibility of being kept waiting, being addressed casually or in a rude manner or getting half-baked information. The fact that these persons survive and grow on the taxpayer’s money is a notion that does not cross their minds at times.

Thus, the Government should make the public services efficient, effective and excellent in service, which will give everyone confidence about the services that are being provided. Once this concept is accepted and implemented in the public sector, it will be a practical tool for driving customer-focused change within their organisations/ministries or departments.

Why should only the private sector be polite and the public sector scowling and rude? The public sector can reap benefits by shifting their stereotype thinking to a more customer focus mind set. This does not mean that the public servants should follow the norm that the customer is the king and therefore the customer is correct all the time.

Well, they should appreciate that the customer is not always ‘right’… but the customer has the right to think that he is ‘right’. This is where the customer service orientation kicks-in to help educate the customer and help him change his/her minds through the realisation of what is ‘right’. They should understand the whole concept as helping the public in their requirements.

This concept will see the patriotic thoughts amongst Government servants when they start walking the thoughts instead of limiting the development of the country to the proposals.

Few of the issues in public service is the absence of a realistic approved cadre, imbalance in the recruitment and the disparity between expected job performance and actual performance. When we talk about the imbalance of recruitment, our system is known for creating job opportunities for influence. The result is that you get square pins in round pegs.

Few steps to build a customer service oriented organisation

  • Be a role model of the customer service you expect from others in the organisation. Your employees are looking to you as the leader and the example they follow. Know exactly how you want customers treated and then role model those very behaviours in every interaction.
  • Teach customer service basics to every employee in the organisation. No matter how strong an employee might be when it comes to customer service, it is important not to make assumptions about the training they have received previously.
  • Establish and communicate expectations associated with providing outstanding customer service. It’s impossible for employees to meet your expectations just by guessing what they might be. Write them down and then communicate them to every employee. It’s important to also offer an opportunity for employees to ask questions and to gain clarity about what you expect.
  • Continually monitor employee customer service performance levels. You’ll soon discover you are being pulled in a 100 different directions.
  • Recognise and reward those employees who perform well in the customer service arena. Seeing performance is one thing; recognising good performance is another. Make it your practice to note specifics about good customer service being provided by employees. Then give them positive feedback – including the specifics of what you observed – as soon as possible after seeing it.
  • Teach the importance of phone etiquette. In some cases the telephone is the first point of contact between your business and customers. A poor impression over the phone can turn off potential or even current customers. Train your employees to answer the telephone in a way that greets the customer in a friendly manner. Teach your employees how to speak slowly and clearly and to not display impatience or irritation when talking with a customer.
  • Let the public servant know well that he/she stands to serve the members of the community to the best of his/her capability and, above all, with a smile and friendliness.

Common complaints made by the customers about the public sector

  • Negligence
  • Irresponsibility
  • Inefficiency
  • Long waiting hours and queues.
  • Officers taking long lunch and tea breaks, thus hard to meet them
  • Most of the time officers do not attend to the telephone calls, leave alone returning calls
  • Delay in replying to emails or telephone messages within the same working day, or within 24 hours if received after office hours
  • Poor interdepartmental coordination
  • Bureaucracy and red tape
  • Not technologically advanced
  • Lack of innovation
  • Bribery and corruption
  • Poor quality in deliverables

(The writer is the Managing Director and CEO, McQuire Rens Group of Companies. He has held regional responsibilities of two multinational companies of which one was a Fortune 500 company. He carries out consultancy assignments and management training in Dubai, India, Maldives, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He is a much sought-after business consultant and corporate management trainer in Sri Lanka.)

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