A Culture of Service in Child Support Services

By Wendi Pomerance Brick, President & CEO, Customer Service Advantage, Inc.

How would you feel at the end of the day, working in Child Support Services, if you saw abandoned calls in the call center? How about delays and backlogs in processing cases? What do those numbers really mean?

I’ve seen people literally in tears when they see these statistics because they understand that each delay, each lost opportunity means someone who needs our help isn’t getting it.

Families working with Child Support Services come at a time that can be stressful for them; a time of deep personal transitions and fear. Even when it is a voluntary interaction, just like with any other government agency interaction, they likely would rather be doing something else. We understand how important every interaction is for the families involved. And we, as public servants, take that very seriously.

After 25 years as a public servant myself, I’ve learned a few things. First, there is never enough staff. Second, there is never enough time. These two things are in fact related and can be mitigated through the same effort – a robust customer service culture, focusing on systems that drive needed behaviors. If we are able to improve the quality of the service we provide, we can actually do more with less staff in the same amount of time.

How? Providing great service is a lot deeper than simply smiling and “being nice.” That’s part of it, but great service is driven by the organization by establishing service systems. If we want to be successful, our organization can’t simply rely on whether “Pat” comes to work in a good mood that day. Our success is in our control, and it’s our organization’s responsibility to set up systems in which “Pat” is guided and supported to provide good experiences.

If, as public servants, we truly believe that the noblest motive is the public good, then a great customer experience is fundamental to meeting that objective.

There are six essential elements for creating a culture of service in any organization. These elements are critical in the public sector where the old adage “the customer is always right” simply does not apply. Agencies like DCSS are enforcement or rules-driven, much like any other public agency.

In fact, before we discuss how to provide great service experiences when sometimes our customers do hear “no” for an answer, we should first define what great service in government actually is. It’s important to focus on the quality of the service provided. We are not in the “satisfaction” game. If we are following laws and regulations, we are not necessarily going to “satisfy” everyone or, in effect, give everyone want they want.

So great service in government is really about the way we do what we do. Think about high-quality customer interactions visually as a three-legged bar stool. Your customer is sitting on top. If any of the legs are wobbly or broken, our customer falls off, and that results in a poor experience.

The first leg is “Nice.” This is all about how courteous you are – your ability to make a professional impression. The second leg is “Smart.” I don’t mean your SAT scores smart. I mean can you answer the question, and we make sure if a customer asks three different people the same question they are all giving the same answer. This speaks to accuracy of information and inspires trust in the provider-customer relationship. The third leg is “Fast.” This is all about turnaround times – from things as complex as process times for approvals and as simple as how fast you return your phone calls. Good service is fast service. We live in an age of instant gratification. Our customers expect the same from us.

All three of these fundamentals seem straight-forward, but they are incredibly difficult to achieve across an enterprise of tens or hundreds (or thousands) of people. How do we make sure everyone is “nice”, provides the same answers, and turns things around quickly?

Here is the answer: The way we ensure we are providing this outstanding service is by setting up systems that drive the culture, systems that we build into our day-to-day routines. Exceptional organizations have systems to establish an infrastructure that continuously improves this sense of culture. Great service is not an accident. Organizations achieve great service through intention.

This is where the six essential system-focused elements come into play. All six must be addressed in depth and become part of the way we do business in order to drive the culture we want to achieve, and they should more or less happen in this order:

  1. Set expectations
  2. Train your teams
  3. Empower your staff
  4. Measure success and gather feedback
  5. Rewards and recognition
  6. Improve processes

Each of these elements includes a multitude of possible activities that should be customized to the individuality of the agency implementing these programs. But when we do focus on all six, they act as the gears that run the experience machine. Your team members are your customers too, and they should be engaged in setting up these systems from the beginning so they are the biggest champions of keeping this culture alive and well.

There is effort required to set up these systems. And this effort should always build on, and honor, all the efforts that have gone before. Remember that focusing on building a culture of service does not mean you don’t have one now; it simply means that we are educated people that realize life is about continuous improvement. No matter how good we are at something, the likelihood is we can always get better. And the better we get at incorporating these systems, the better we can serve our customers, both internally and externally. An organization does not generally succeed by crossing their collective fingers and hoping for the best. We will continue to succeed by seeing opportunities and continuing to innovate and move forward.

About the Author

Wendi Pomerance Brick, President & CEO, Customer Service Advantage, Inc.

Wendi Brick has over 20 years of customer service experience working in public sector organizations. In 1998, she was named Customer Service Manager for the County of San Diego, where her customer service enhancement programs were used as models around the United States. In 2006, she joined the City of San Diego as Director of the Department of Customer Services.

Ms. Brick has been developing and implementing a wide range of action-oriented, measurable customer service excellence programs for public sector agencies and educational institutions throughout the country. In 2009, she turned her passion — and expertise — into a business by founding Customer Service Advantage (CSA), Inc. Ms. Brick is author of the book, The Science of Service: Six Essential Elements for Creating a Culture of Service In the Public Sector.