Survey Provides Map to Better Service

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o one looking for a job in customer service would say to a prospective employer, "I could do the job as well as a federal employee," unless he wanted to be the butt of a joke. But now it seems federal employees are having the last laugh.

In fact, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), the gold standard of statistical measurement for the quality of goods and services in the private sector, reported in December that customer satisfaction was almost equal to the evaluation of nonfederal services. In a survey that measured 30 customer segments in 29 federal agencies, the overall federal sector index was 68.6 on a 100-point scale and the overall private-sector index was 72.1.

The ACSI has measured customer satisfaction with private-sector products and services since 1994. The index is based on a quarterly survey conducted by the National Research Center at the University of Michigan Business School in partnership with Arthur Andersen and the American Society for Quality. The private-sector survey applies to 170 companies representing about 35 percent of the gross national product. The results are widely reported, and companies use them for competitive advantage. Now ACSI's yardstick applies to the federal sector.

The news is good for many government agencies. Six of the 30 agencies scored 80 points or more. Parents on Head Start policy advisory committees gave the Health and Human Services Department's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) the highest score-87. Purchasers of coins rated the U.S. Mint at 86. Participants in the Women, Infants and Children program scored the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service at 86. Recipients of Social Security benefits rated SSA at 82. Sixty percent of those surveyed said they were more satisfied with government agencies than they were two years ago.

For federal workers, the news is even better because agency efforts to improve customer satisfaction are bound to buoy employee satisfaction.

But the news is mixed for Congress. The index allows lawmakers to compare performance among agencies and with the private sector, but it also could put pressure on them to provide funding to improve agency services.

A New Standard

The heart of Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review initiative was to improve the public trust in government by improving agency service to the public. To achieve this, President Clinton urged agencies to set customer service standards, survey customers and develop customer service improvement plans. The goal has been to provide best-in-class service to taxpayers. The ACSI data show some agencies are in that category and give us a standard by which to compare the 29 agencies that touch 90 percent of the public with similar private companies.

The scores are remarkable considering the agencies' regulatory functions-and even policing functions at organizations such as the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Internal Revenue Service-which can drag down customer satisfaction ratings. No private company-hotels, for example-consciously denies service to save itself for future use. Yet the National Park Service is required to turn away customers when parks are overcrowded to save the parks for future generations. Serving the public interest, rather than an individual interest, is not required or even expected of a private firm. In spite of that additional burden, government agencies are competitive with the private sector in their ability to deliver quality service.

Surprisingly, the overall private-sector score has fallen 3.4 percent to 72.1 since the first ACSI survey in 1994. In contrast, government customers were more satisfied compared with two years ago.

Survey respondents seemed surprised by the good service they receive from government agencies. In 27 of the 30 customer segments, service exceeded the low expectations created by prolonged media- and political-bashing of federal employees. In fact, those who have had actual experiences with government services rated them significantly higher than what they expected.

The survey first asked people what level of service they expected to get and then asked what they perceived they actually got. While customers rated their expectations of Head Start at 71, their actual experience with the program was much better than expected, netting the agency a 91 for perceived quality. Respondents' expected service rating for INS was a low 61, but the agency scored 75 on perceived quality, a rating that included questions about waiting time, understanding the agency's mission, and courtesy and professionalism. International travelers expected little from INS, but rated the quality of service above the private-sector average.

Statistics that agencies collect internally on quality of service often are dismissed as self-serving and insufficient to compare with other agencies or the private sector. Through the ACSI data, government agencies now have an independent verification of the quality of public service they provide.

Motivating Employees

On a 10-point scale, customers rated federal employees 8.3 on professionalism, 8.5 on courtesy, 8 on accessibility, 7.9 on helpfulness and 7 on usefulness, exploding the myth that they are unwilling and unable to deliver quality service.

Customer satisfaction and higher productivity are mirrored in employee satisfaction. Employees who are ill-trained, badly motivated or incompetently led cannot provide good service. Therefore, to raise customer satisfaction ratings, agencies must create a work environment that boosts employee satisfaction.

Until now, it has been hard to prove that employee satisfaction increases productivity and customer satisfaction. Whipsawed by their inability to prove results and the pressure to cut costs, many agencies have simply thrown up their hands and done little or nothing to improve employee satisfaction.

Employees know the quality of service they are providing to the public, according to Benjamin Schneider, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Maryland. Schneider was the first person to prove a statistical linkage between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction in his seminal work in 1980. He surveyed bank customers and employees from several branch banks, and in branches where employees said they provided good customer service, customers agreed with that assessment. Customers similarly confirmed they were receiving bad customer service in branches where employees indicated they knew they were failing to do a good job. This statistical linkage shows that employees know the level of service they provide and are a valuable resource for suggestions on improving customer service.

In 1992, the IRS proved the connection between employee satisfaction and increased productivity. Five organizational development specialists studied 11 IRS customer call sites in a two-year program to improve job satisfaction, productivity and quality of work. The intervention emphasized employee surveys, a response to the survey data, team building, improved group dynamics, and prompt problem solving. Employees and managers at these sites received training and assistance in process facilitation. Other customer call sites received no assistance and served as the control group.

After two years, statistics showed significant increases in job satisfaction, including employee support, management support, technical training, and consistency of policies and procedures. The participating sites increased their productivity by 7.7 percent compared to 1.5 percent at the sites receiving no assistance. At the end of the two-year period the four sites that had been in the program for the full 24 months improved productivity by 14.4 percent. The longer call sites were in the program, the larger the productivity increase.

Sears Model

In 1992, Sears asked the developers of the ACSI survey to link their customer satisfaction model to job satisfaction. ACSI created a model that allows Sears managers to go beyond intuition and untested assumptions to identify the specific actions that influence financial performance with a statistical certainty.

No longer did Sears have to guess how to influence employee satisfaction. The company tested a variety of potential factors that might influence employee satisfaction. Of the 70 potential elements, 10 had the greatest effect:

  • Type of work assigned
  • Amount of work assigned
  • Sense of accomplishment
  • Pride in the job
  • Physical working conditions
  • Supervisory treatment
  • Hope for the future of Sears
  • Sears making the changes necessary to
    compete
  • An understandable business strategy
  • An understandable connection between the employee's work and business success

An article in the January 1998 Harvard Business Review on the Sears model reported that a 5-point improvement in employee attitudes will drive a 1.3-point improvement in customer satisfaction, which will drive a 0.5 percent improvement in revenue growth. The Sears model could be developed at every federal agency. Every federal manager could know with a statistical certainty what actions must be taken to increase job satisfaction and therefore customer satisfaction. If agencies plan to do more than collect data and give lip service to improved service, they must improve employee satisfaction.

Finding Fixes

Congress members complain that agencies provide poor customer service, but now they can figure out how to fix it. Congressional authorizing, appropriating and oversight committees now have a measurement tool they never had before. The ACSI data show that government agencies have work to do, but not as much as the myth of non-service predicted.

The ACSI data allow agencies to separate dissatisfaction with the policy created by Congress from dissatisfaction with the way policy is delivered. Agencies often take the blame for congressionally created policy. IRS, Customs, INS, SSA and others are often criticized for doing the wrong thing, but those agencies say their hands are tied by statute.

Now, for the first time, a viable measure based on independent data allows Congress to hold agency chiefs' feet to the fire. The ACSI numbers tell Congress whether agencies have made the right judgments and taken the correct actions to improve customer service. Combined with the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, which mandates the creation of annual goals, the ACSI data will allow Congress to evaluate whether goals have been achieved and, if not, why.

Similarly, agencies that take the time and energy to implement a Sears model can hold Congress' feet to the fire. They, too, have data to show Congress how acquiring problem-solving skills, training managers and changing laws can improve service. For the first time we have the map to improving customer satisfaction.

Robert M. Tobias is a distinguished practitioner in residence and director of the Institute for the Study of Policy Implementation at American University. He was president of the National Treasury Employees Union from 1983 to 1999.

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