Keep the Customer Satisfied

Government does it at least as well as your average big retailer.

The notion that government could learn a thing or two from private businesses about efficiency and customer service has become a shopworn cliché that bears less and less resemblance to reality. In fact, it's increasingly clear that 21st century government at all levels is, on the whole, at least as good as the private sector when it comes to serving customers.

Maybe the Federal Emergency Management Agency has something to learn from Wal-Mart about supply chain management. But I sincerely hope the folks at FEMA don't look to large retailers for advice about customer interactions. Because in my recent experience, the profit motive is grossly overrated as an incentive to provide friendly, efficient service. In an economy that's growing reasonably well, many large retail operations seem to have developed the following opinion of the people who enter their stores, credit cards at the ready: There are more where you came from.

Every grocery store I have entered in the past decade has managed to scientifically organize its operations such that no matter how few people are shopping, there will be just enough cashiers to guarantee that customers have to wait in lengthy lines. Restaurants are typically overbooked and understaffed.

Other customer experiences are routinely bizarre and Kafkaesque. Take that most irritating of all contemporary interactions-the effort to acquire and maintain mobile phone service. Recently, I had to venture out with my daughter to deal with the fact that her cell phone's screen had bloomed into a beautiful but dysfunctional kaleidoscope of colors, and then went completely dark.

We started at the kiosk our wireless provider maintains at the local mall. There, a salesperson said that since the phone wasn't repairable and our contract for service wasn't up yet, we had only one option: replace it with a new one at full price-$250 and up for a bare-bones model. But then another employee called up our records, and said actually, the phone was covered under warranty. Unfortunately, that warranty had expired the previous day. Don't worry, he told us, we'll honor it anyway-just go to one of our full-service retail stores, located several miles away.

I had my doubts, but off we went. We arrived at the store and were directed to the technical service desk, whereupon we were immediately told that since the warranty had expired, we were out of luck. After a little grousing on my part, the technician went to the manager's office, and emerged after a few minutes to say the manager had decided to honor the warranty. But he, added, they had determined that the phone must have been dropped, so the warranty was voided.

We were directed back to the sales floor to begin anew the hunt for a new phone. When I asked a sales representative where we should wait in line to conduct this transaction, he asked why we were seeking a new model. I told him, and he immediately responded that we could get the old phone replaced. I related our experience with technical service, and he said, "Oh no, you need to go to customer service."

Customer service wasn't hard to find, because it was located at the same desk as technical service-in fact, just one chair away. The customer service representative listened to our story (not that she hadn't already overheard it just minutes earlier), went to visit the Wizard-of-Oz-like manager (yes, the same manager as before), and returned to tell us they'd be willing to replace the phone. Which they did.

Of course, generalizations about customer service across the private sector are impossible to make. But so are generalizations about the quality of government service. I've had my share of frustrations dealing with agencies from the local to the federal level. But I also get my tax refund quickly every year, and the last time I went to renew my driver's license and car registration, it was a breeze. (Far easier than the painful process of finding a private sector service station that could conduct a vehicle emissions inspection in a timely fashion.)

Government agencies have much to learn from private businesses (and vice versa) about best practices in various areas. But customer service? Keep your own counsel, please.

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