What Will Customer Service Look Like in a Clinton or Trump Administration?

The key is knowing what drives satisfaction.

Amid the reality-TV-style coverage of this year’s presidential election, it’s easy to forget that, at the end of these campaigns, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will have a government to run. That includes making sure citizens get the service they deserve from federal agencies. In 2011, President Obama issued an executive order aimed at improving the customer experience, but there is still important work to do.

Despite concerted efforts since the mid-1990s to measure and improve citizen satisfaction with federal agencies, they continue to lag behind most private sector companies in customer service. Unfortunately, the government’s current effort to evaluate the customer experience is a patchwork of programs—some are thoughtful, comprehensive and include data-driven takeaways on how to improve, while others fall short.

Although dealing with the government is different than dealing with commercial companies, consumers of government products and services compare their experiences with the public sector to the private sector. Measuring and comparing key factors—such as wait time, problem resolution, courtesy of staff, and online servicing—across both sectors offer critical benchmarks that can guide improvement efforts.

Whoever takes the oath of office as the 45th president on Jan. 20, 2017, will face the critical challenge of restoring faith in government, one citizen interaction at a time. So, what would the government customer experience be like under the leadership of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

Clinton’s campaign has issued a statement broadly outlining her plans for the 25 agencies with the most citizen-facing services:

“Hillary will charge the [U.S. Digital Service] with transforming and digitizing the top 25 federal government services that directly serve citizens. For each one, the USDS would redesign them to meet the needs of citizens in the 21st century; publish detailed performance and customer service metrics, including creating a ‘Yelp for government’ that allows for easy citizen rating; and embrace the industry best practice of continuous site improvement. Hillary will make sure that government delivers on results for citizens.”

Trump’s campaign staff has not issued a similar statement, but assuming he applies the principles of customer service from his hotel operations to the federal government, we would expect to see an emphasis on providing a superior constituent experience. Although the data for the Trump Hotel Collection in the J.D. Power 2016 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study is limited, there is enough to show that guests in these hotels enjoy an excellent experience—among the top in the industry, with an index score of 891 out of 1,000, versus an average of 869 in the luxury hotel segment. Trump hotels are particularly strong in delivering an outstanding hotel services experience, with a score of 901, versus an average of 874 in the luxury segment.

Of course, maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction at a luxury hotel is different than doing so in the federal government. Similarly, while a government version of Yelp is a good idea, much more is needed to help ensure citizens’ customer journeys are positive ones.

Here’s some advice on where to begin:

  • Add context and texture to survey data. Amtrak has done a great job mapping the customer journey to help frame future customer experience work, and the Defense Department’s Federal Voting Assistance Program has done some innovative ethnographic work to better understand the challenges voters overseas have with the election process.
  • Focus on the customer point of view, not agency needs. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Five-Star Quality Ratings, for example, are helpful in obtaining insights into population health, but they are of little use when it comes to helping payers or providers make meaningful improvements in the patient experience.
  • Don’t just measure satisfaction; focus on what can be done to increase satisfaction. At the Veterans Affairs Department, customer satisfaction with Board of Veterans Appeals call centers has improved during the past five years because the tracking studies for those programs are designed with continuous improvement in mind—i.e., when a program enhancement is enacted, its effectiveness is measured and tracked. The Veterans Affairs Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy scores among the highest levels of customer service, in part because it leverages an index model to better understand the drivers of satisfaction. An index provides a means of identifying the weighting characteristics of an agency’s products and services in terms of their impact on overall satisfaction. Because the index is based on a larger, multi-attribute sample of ratings, greater precision is attained for discriminating satisfaction levels.
  • Leverage the best practices industry has to offer.  Benchmarks that rely on small sample sizes or a few questions do a disservice when it comes to accurately reflecting the customer experience. But it’s fine to have a few core questions across all agencies—something is better than nothing. Align scales and questions to allow for benchmarking across agencies, but also allow companies to incorporate such data into their studies so results can be compared with the private sector as well.

While many pundits focus on the perceived deficiencies of each candidate, we should recognize that both will almost assuredly work to improve constituents’ satisfaction with government services—though they likely will have distinctly different approaches. But improving satisfaction through a thoughtful mix of qualitative and quantitative methods, governmental and nongovernmental benchmarks, and the expectation of better outcomes will be key to ensuring that constituents get the services they deserve.

Rick Johnson is director of the Government and Healthcare Practices at J.D. Power and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. He can be reached at Rick.Johnson@jdpa.com.