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What Government Can Learn From Apple Customer Service

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To hear the horror stories circulating on Facebook, on some days it seems that everybody hates calling customer service. 

CustomerThink's Brian Smith rattles off the laundry list of annoyances:

  • Waiting too long.
  • Repeating the same information over and over again.
  • Representatives who don't know what they're talking about.

Of course, let's not forget the representative who sounds "robotic," like they are reading off a script. It turns out 40 percent of respondents to a recent survey hate that too, reports Michele McGovern at CustomerExperienceInsight.com -- even though 60 percent of us still prefer to pick up the phone when it's time to ask for help.

We Get This in Government All the Time

As a government employee, I've been on the receiving end of those frantic calls. The customer is always frustrated, sometimes beyond belief. They've called and emailed and Googled for the information 20 ways to Sunday, but somehow they just cannot get through to the right person.

I've even seen companies offer, for a fee, to help customers get the government customer service that is actually perfectly free.  This has nothing to do with any required payments and everything to do with the fact that the government's way of providing the customer with information can be very dense and even impossible to understand.

Branding: The Missing Link

Part of the problem with customer service is that many organizations, government agencies included, do not understand what customer service is or means or how it relates to the brand at all. 

To the average person, which is to say the average executive unschooled in the vagaries of customer service, you can reduce the entire equation briefly to the Staples "easy" button, and they love to say, over and over again, "That was easy! Just make it like that!"

But dealing with customers effectively is not just about making it "easy" and "quick." It's actually about emotional labor as well, a concept first proposed by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, in her classic book The Managed Heart.

That ‘Special Friend’

The bottom line is that today, for a variety of reasons -- and you may think them silly, but the customer is the customer is the customer -- people expect an interaction with customer service to be as rewarding as a conversation with a friend.

Lest you say that brand has nothing to do with this because "all good customer service experiences are alike," the reality is that people also expect every customer experience to be deeply reflective of the brand. Almost as if the brand were a certain friend as distinct from somebody else.

When you go to the Four Seasons hotel, they wait on you well beyond what normal waiting on hand and foot is. It is recognizable as "The Four Seasons Way." If I had the money to do it, I would never stay anywhere else.

When you shop for food at Trader Joe's, every employee is called a "crew member" and part of their job is to give you that "yo ho ho," "all aboard" "ahoy" type of experience at the cash register. They play '80s music on the sound system constantly. Their attitude is "let's get it done," "we're all excited to be chipping in and helping you find and enjoy your food." Again, if I have a choice, I do not shop for food anywhere else.

But rarely do I have a good and branded experience with telephone (or chat) customer service. So when that happened today, with Apple, I made note of every single thing that worked. Because the entire interaction not only corrects the typical deficiencies of customer service, it would not have been possible without it being shaped by the values of the brand: passion, user delight, simplicity and more.

Valuing Brand Values

Steve Jobs knew the importance of brand values many years before it was "hot" to integrate them with marketing. Here is a speech in which he talked about it, noting that values are not only important but a key differentiator for the company in the eyes of the customer. 

"Our customers want to know who is Apple and what is it we stand for.  Where do we fit in this world? . . . Apple at the core, its core value, is that we believe that people with passion CAN change the world for the better.  That’s what we believe." -- Steve Jobs

Values are so much a part of the Apple culture that they rise to the level of implicit knowledge -- embedded everywhere, without needing to be spoken aloud.

Korhan Buyukdemirci, service design lead at Motley Agency, attempted to articulate its set of core values clearly, noting that they are very similar to those of Google. (Which is OK -- the same values can be shared by two different companies and expressed in customer service in very different ways.)

What Apple has done is take the key elements of customer service excellence and wrap them in the brand, in an efficient and automated way, without anyone acting like a robot in the process.

Today's Interaction: A Case In Point

The first thing you notice is the people. The same nice, helpful, Apple-dressed individuals you see on the "Contact Us" page stay with you through the whole process. (And, of course, they are dressed the very same way in the stores.)

After clicking a few simple screens, within less than 2 minutes I had a chat going. Sure I would have preferred to make a phone call to a human being, but I could also understand that Apple has a high-volume business, and that a chat fits in with simplicity, automation, being efficient.

Nevertheless, I steeled myself for a frustrating, miserable, irritating and prolonged experience. I've had them with other brands.

To my absolute surprise, the entire encounter was just the opposite. It was perfection. Quickly I was connected to a rep who took responsibility for the contact, identifying himself by name and getting my information for me. 

Also immediately, I was provided a phone number to call and a URL to click just in case we got disconnected. And then the customer service representative called me by my first name and asked how I am doing.

Obviously, of course, this is all from a script. But the way Apple did it, none of it felt scripted. 

I vented my frustration to the rep.

Right there was the empathy -- which is just as important as solving the problem.

A little bit more interchange, and I got a full answer to my question. In addition to that, the rep solved another problem which would otherwise have required a separate call.

None of This Is Rocket Science

Of course, all this is basic common sense. But it is complicated common sense. Apple, for example, has a certain kind of "voice" that was evident in the call and remained consistent throughout. The rep somehow followed a set of rules but also made the dialogue seem spontaneous -- and inserted mention of the brand repeatedly along the way. 

The contact closed out with the usual "if there are no further questions," but again with a branded twist. Instead of just "hanging up," there was that little green checkmark. It told me that things were officially resolved, good and positive -- and now I could go about the rest of my day.

‘Small Things’ Matter Big Time

That icon might seem minor, but it functions like a "visual hammer," as brand strategist Laura Ries puts it. To put it simply, this tool creates an association in my mind between a brand and a feeling, and every time I see it that connection is reinforced.

The Lesson for Government

Of course, the government isn't actually selling anything.

But it is -- most importantly, it is marketing itself to the public as a repository of trust.

And so the government can and should do many things to up its customer service game to Apple-like standards. Both survey results and anecdotal evidence from family and friends confirms to me that although people deeply distrust the government, they have very strong positive feelings toward government employees

So it is a very short step for federal agencies to combine three things to achieve branded customer service excellence:

  • Automated systems with deep reservoirs of data that can intelligently analyze customers' problems quickly and get them the personalized answers they need.
  • Scripts for customer service that emphasize the unique mission of the agency and the appropriate tone of voice and attitude given that mission. (For example, a representative from the FBI should sound different than one from Social Security.)
  • Visual icons beyond the standard logo that reinforce the persona of the agency in the customer's mind -- both with uniformed employees and with icons.

How Can You Lose?

Branded customer service, done well, offers an endless upside. With a single investment, the government can:

  • Promote the general "good government" goal of a happy populace -- or at least, a less frustrated one.
  • Reverse the perception that "the government doesn't know what it's doing."
  • Eliminate hucksters from the equation, who profit off the weak and vulnerable, by helping the public know where to go for authentic and free information.
  • Deposit "money" in the bank account of future trust, which is needed when a crisis hits.
  • Mitigate the risk of a future crisis if and when the public needs to turn to the government for help in great numbers, such as in a time of disaster.

The principles of branding customer service are important for the private sector. Most organizations haven't mastered them. They should, as a critical company differentiator.

The government should take a leap in this direction as well. As uncomfortable as it may be to speak in "private sector language," getting on the level of the customer is critical. For no matter how much we like to poke fun and complain, all of us need it to function, and function well.

Copyright 2015 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.

(Image via CandyBox Images/Shutterstock.com)

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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