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How Branding Can Transform Government Customer Service

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On Sept. 2, NextGov ran a story about the 2016 edition of Forrester Research's Customer Experience Index. The report will cost you $499 to purchase but the article highlights what for me is the main point: 

The federal government finished dead last among 21 major industries, and had five of the eight worst scores of the 319 brands, leading Forrester to note that government has a “near monopoly on the worst experiences.”

Before commenting on this study, it should be noted that we don't have a clear sense of what the methodology was. Superficially, we know that there were 122,500 adult respondents polled within the past year, asked for input on 319 brands covering 21 major industries. But when you drill down a little deeper, it's important to ask: What exactly were the questions? How were they asked? Was there an opportunity for respondents to expand on their answer? Why this odd number of brands? What constitutes a "major industry?"

Not just that: What is the definition of "customer service" when you're talking about the federal government versus a private, for-profit company? They’re not at all the same things, although the features may be similar in some ways. The principal difference, of course, is that the government is charged with both enforcing the law and serving the public, and so customer service in a government context means helping people to navigate a complicated system. The customer is bound to the government; it isn't a voluntary relationship. That person also may be responsible for paying money to the government or otherwise giving something up; it's not a situation where the consumer enters into a voluntary agreement to exchange funds for services.

One more caveat. There are many perspectives you can bring to any situation when you're looking at ways to improve it. A CIO, for example, will argue for better technology. A human resources professional will argue for better staffing and training. We can go down the list and name a range of professional support services that can offer best-practice expertise (public or private-sector) to improve customer service: All of them can be right.

But complexity messes up headlines. Obviously government and private industry are not directly comparable; obviously there are lots of ways to make things better. I want to offer just a few ideas about what branding can do, because I think this discipline is for some strange reason both deeply misunderstood and utterly neglected in the government, no matter how much money has been thrown at it.

First, a definition: Branding is the professional practice of managing others' perceptions of you. It is not reducible to the specific things one does to try and create those perceptions—a name, a brand, a tagline.

Second, a key point of confusion—a paradox: You produce a thing and call it your "brand." That’s valid. But the customer also has a perception and that perception is your "brand," too. 

Third, the point of branding: You want to align whatever it is that you've created, to the customers' perception of you.

In my mind branding is not really rocket science. It simply requires you to think objectively about how to improve your customers' perceptions of you. It shouldn't cost a lot of money, either: any agency "tiger team" can reorient itself for improvement by asking these types of questions:

How does customer service fit into our identity? Are we a Walmart type agency that everybody recognizes, and so we would do well by copying private-sector mass-market customer service practices? Are we mostly government-to-government and deal with other agencies? Business people? Lawyers? How will we communicate our identity in every interaction such that they understand who we are and what we can do for them in that capacity?

Who are our customer segments? There will inevitably be at least the following: Internal leaders, employees at large, Congress, the media, and the public. But if we drill down further, who do we really need to satisfy? What is the spoken (legal) or unspoken (implicit) "brand promise" we make by virtue of existence?

What does "delivery" of the customer service promise mean? Is it that we've answered a question? Clarified a rule? Does the customer know what they can expect from us?

What is our customers’ preferred method of communicating with us? Do they want a formal letter, a quick email, or might they even be happy to interact via Twitter and Facebook? Do they expect us to be active on social media?

What entity does the customer perceive us to be a part of? Do we need to emphasize our own unique identity, or should we fold into something larger and simpler for them to recognize?

Of course this is not an exhaustive list. 

The point is that branding forces you to think from an "outside-in" perspective, rather than solely "inside-out." This is helpful as government agencies tend to suffer from an extreme form of myopia, with not only the agency but also its individual parts and subparts thinking of things very much from a narrow perspective. 

Branding, with its emphasis on cognizance of the perceptions of others, is a powerful way to reverse that dynamic.

Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity. 

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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