Customer service in public sector organisations

Thursday, 30 November 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Healthy customer service is important for any public or private sector organisation. However, there is a subtle difference here. 

The private sector organisations’ fate is decided on how they treat the customers as their customers have alternative avenues to fulfil their needs. On the contrary, the public sector customers have a limited or no alternatives. Hence, the public sector organisations pay less attention to the aspect of the customer satisfaction.

A few years back, this writer went to a public sector organisation in Colombo to get a travel-related document. The way he was treated and the vulgar language the staff member in the customer counter used as a response to a polite query made in very simple English cannot even be described or published on this column. It was a sheer shock to the writer as well as to his Sri Lankan colleagues in Australia who listened how the incident was unfolded. 

This columnist had previously dealt with the corresponding Australian public sector organisation which issues travel documents and it had been a matter of just filling a simple form, handing it over to the nearest local post office with the supporting documents and making the correct payment. The travel document would arrive home by post within the specified period. Handing over the form was just a five minutes job to the courteous officer. 

By the way, the writer did not expect miracles in Sri Lanka and spent his time for the crime. He was not even bothered to lodge a complaint to any senior staff member at the time of the incident. In Sri Lanka, arguing with a public official is a suicidal mission. If one follows that path, suddenly he or she would find more documentary needs and face more hurdles. As a former senior public sector employee, the writer knew this hard truth. Hence, he got the document and left the office as quickly as possible. 

However, after reaching Australia, a written complaint was made to the head of the organisation, but, as expected, there was hardly even an acknowledgement of the compliant, let alone getting it investigated. Again, the writer was mature enough not to waste his time on chasing personal justice for an issue that the innocent people in Sri Lanka, encounter, daily basis.

The more pertinent need is to understand why the officer behaved that way. He might have been under stress due to a personal or an organisation situation and he might not have been working there willingly. Also, his behaviour might have been a reflection of his upbringing from his childhood. 

The other explanation might be that he did not have the basic knowledge in English language so that he reacted angrily. However, the lack of English knowledge can be ruled out as all the official documentations were finally issued in English language and the staff should have had the rudimentary English proficiency to do so. 

As the last possible reason, maybe that this staff member was prejudicial by judging the customers by the colour, race, outward appearance or the attire. He might have been encouraged to behave that way by the toxic organisational work culture. 

By the way, none of the aforementioned reasons are acceptable to justify his behaviour in a civilised society. This incident may be a collateral damage due to the ‘feeding all with same spoon” control mechanism in place to manage the ubiquitous, undisciplined customers. The above thought-provoking scenarios prompted the writer to look at this issue holistically.

Social norms and values

In the civilised world, there are social norms, law and order and values that should be upheld, no matter who you are or what you are. In a small island country which is yet to be developed economically (who knows when?) with an immature, blindfolded political patronage and with a society having their own priorities and worries over the social obligations, disciplined behaviour is not valued highly in society in the grand scheme of things. 

The public are not mentally and physically calm enough even to stay in a line without pushing each other. The encroachment of other’s personal space is tolerated openly. The stronger and the powerful fellows uproot the weaker from the societal positions unashamedly. However, Sri Lankans, in general, are easy going and peace-loving people. When a Sri Lankan person is treated well, the reciprocal response is also in the same vein, but, if treated badly, the reaction is equally bad as well, irrespective of the education and the intelligence level of the quarrelling parties. This is where Sri Lankans are different. 

In developed countries, when an ignorant or undisciplined person behaves badly, an intelligent and educated person keeps the natural aggressive reaction on hold and walks away from the situation, as one’s own safety and personal reputation is more valuable than the gain from the aggressive reaction. However, in Sri Lanka, even the educated Government officials and powerful politicians in office often behave and react aggressively and treat public or the customers like dirt, literally. 

Popular myth

In the private sector, there is a popular adage “the customer is always right”. However, it is only a half truth. The actual fact is that the customer thinks he/she is right. Hence, the client must start the dealings with the customer positively, giving the customer the benefit of this assumption, but at the end of the dealing both parties would realise whether the initial assumption was right or wrong. 

The responsibility of running a smooth and delicate customer-client interaction primarily rests with the client. The client must educate the customer along the way and manage the customer demand to ensure the both parties realise the benefit. It is called the ‘benefit realisation of providing a service’. Just reacting to the customer demands blindly is no longer an option. Transforming of the customer’s mind is an essential part of this process.

Government organisations are at the other end of this scale. Government officials think “We are always right because we are the specifiers and we are the State-appointed monopolists”. It is true that the Government organisations provide unique services complying with strict rules and regulations (2Rs). However, without violating 2Rs and also without just negatively responding to the non-compliant customer with answers like “can’t” and “no”, the Government officials can educate customers and help them to find answers to their needs, through well-planned communication and consultation processes and standard operating procedures. 

Government regulators are only correct on justifying the need of rules and regulations, but often they fail to do the right thing, the right way. That is the failure of the effectiveness and the efficiency of the application of 2Rs.

Getting ready to serve

The public sector is there to remain, no matter how many service provisions are delegated to the private sector through the privatisation. Public servants generally pretend that it is the Government that pays their salaries. The reality is that public servants have jobs because of people. Public servants’ salaries and benefits are paid by taxes, rates and other revenue collected from the people. So officials have to serve the pay masters, the public, by providing public services and spend public money responsibly for the benefit of society. The public must be served fairly, efficiently and equitably. 

Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, Government officials behave implying that the public has to put up with whatever the quality they deliver, on their terms. In front of the Government officials, the Sri Lankan public are forced to act like beggars with a bowl, pleading for help. People’s right to be served fairly and equitably is denied blatantly. It is interesting to know which Sri Lankan Government organisation will dare conduct an independent survey on “customer satisfaction” and publish the results. 

This writer serves in the Australian Local Government. His employer publishes an annual report outlining how rate payer funds are spent. In that report, there is a pictogram depicting how a hundred dollars is spent on specific service areas. That simple picture leaves a very important imprint in rate payers’ mind to which areas the council puts its attention. Also, the results of an annual public survey is published, showing the perceptions of the public which performance areas are important for them and how the city council performs in each of these significant area as perceived by the public. 

The council, at the same time, runs programs on educating public about the rationale behind council decision making process and how the council manages unlimited public demands through limited resources for the benefit of wider cross section of the public, instead of paying attention to narrow areas or influential individuals. It is a well-oiled public demand management and consultation process.

Organisation culture

Good customer service cannot be generated in isolation. It is an integral part of an overall organisation culture. Organisation culture is about behaviours. It is about the shared values, norms and expectations. It is about how people approach their work and interact with each other within the organisation. There is no magician who could offer this to an organisation. It has to be developed within the organisation by the people who serve the organisation, big and small. 

There is an interesting alternative definition for the organisation culture. It says that the culture is how people believe they should behave to fit and survive in the organisation. This means a wrong culture would be continued and enriched by the employees knowingly and intentionally for personal gains. 


Time to time organisation leaders call for instilling different sub-cultures. This is simply to react to an issue within a particular service area. As an example, some call for developing risk culture, customer service culture or innovative culture etc. This is a reaction rather than a response. 

All these elements are a part of organisation culture which needs equal attention and it could be called the culture of excellence. It is the promotion of doing the best the activities you are supposed to do. Good risk management, good customer service, excellent innovations are the end products rather than activities.

Sick organisations

It is easy to identify a chronically sick organisation. When you step into the premises, you could see the alarming signs. Usually, the building is dilapidated and the surrounds are poorly maintained. The premises is cluttered with rubbish and is overgrown. The entrance is uninviting, literally warning people “enter with own risk”. 

The outward impressions of staff suggest that they have either over-worked or are tired or are indifferent to the job demands. Office desks are unorganised and heaps of files and other items are piled up on and behind desks, indicating how primitive the systems and processes and also how unstable the state of minds of the staff. Usually, it is hard to find a smile on the faces of the staff and the body language suggests that they are there just to mark the time and leave the office at the end of the day.

While listening to the customer, the staff usually talk among themselves on another subject, implying that the customer’s need is a secondary priority job. Within a sick organisation, the employee morale is so low and usually the attention is confined to their own unit or division, not the entire organisation. Innovative thinking is not encouraged by the management and the staff repeatedly say “I am doing just my job”. Usually, reoccurring conflicts are swept under the carpet and the team work only erupts at a crisis situation that affects staff’s livelihood. 

How many Sri Lankan public sector organisations have the aforementioned terminal tumorous symptoms? 

The need

Public sector leaders should pay their attention to the ways in which the organisation holistically performs to achieve its mission, vision and overarching strategy. It needs an organisation structure which has been formed according to sound organisational design principles, a mechanism to appoint right people for right positions, a methodology to develop and implement organisational systems which would operate synchronised manner, a strategy to manage people by encouraging them to perform to their full potential, and a performance plan to enrich and uphold organisational norms and values. 

To develop this great organisational culture, the leaders should behave as true leaders and also role models. If this could be done, both the public and the organisation would be equally benefitted. The writer knows that dreaming costs nothing.

(Eng. Janaka Seneviratne is a Chartered Professional Engineer and a Fellow of both the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka and Engineers Australia. His mission is to share his 30 years of local and overseas experience to make, at the very least, a minute improvement to the Sri Lankan public sector. He is contactable via [email protected])

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