Tips for Improving Citizen Experience Through Customer Service

Historically, customer service has existed primarily to react, respond to, and resolve things that have gone wrong. It's been pigeonholed to the end of the customer lifecycle—often an afterthought, a cost of doing business rather than an engine for growing it. But such a short-sighted and long-standing approach to service prevents organizations from tapping into their full potential, leaving considerable opportunity on the table This is clearly an area where government agencies can learn from the private sector.

A recent Accenture study uncovered just how few companies have expanded their thinking around the role of customer service, showing that only a very small proportion (one in five) are fully committed to customer service as a value center. The compelling case for the active role such services can play as a value-creation function should encourage every organization to rethink how they are viewing, managing, and investing in customer service, including in the public sector.

Unlike commercial enterprises, with their emphasis on increasing top-line growth and capturing greater market share, public-sector organizations strive for different metrics to deliver value to citizens and residents. Still, customer service is a core value in government, and Accenture's research findings support a compelling view of how to evolve customer service to improve government operations and delivery of citizen services, and ultimately, achieve better experience and outcomes for the people served.

It starts with shifting perceptions toward customer service as a function that plays as active a role on the front-end as it does fix problems on the back-end.

1. Take a proactive approach to mitigate friction.

We see that both B2B and B2C customers value proactive service. They appreciate when providers anticipate and solve problems before they negatively interfere with their experiences. In fact, some customers are even willing to pay a premium for proactive support. But most are not getting this level of service as much as they would like.

Public-sector agencies can use this data point to rethink workflows to offer more proactive support, something that requires a deep understanding of customer needs to anticipate and meet those needs.

Look no further than the height of the COVID-19 pandemic for examples. As most U.S. states navigated waves of unemployment claims, unemployment agencies turned to virtual agents to provide more responsive, transparent support. Some states found the proactive chat function helpful in providing greater personalization and privacy during what proved to be a stressful time for many. Rather than having to pick up the phone and call a contact center, claimants could check their status and provide personal information via online chat.

Offering features such as these increased the convenience, privacy, and effectiveness of engagement between agency and user. It was good for individuals and good for the agencies that reinforced their role as a trusted entity whose primary function was to serve the public.

2. Operate through the lens of a trusted source vs. a trusted advisor to maximize value.

In the B2B world, it's common for companies to assign dedicated resources to their customers. These resources take on the role of trusted advisor, getting to know customers and organizational priorities and goals, and helping the customer get more value from their purchases.

On the other hand, citizens aren't usually turning to government for advice. Nor are they hoping to be sold on all the bells and whistles a product offers or wowed by an amazing experience. Their interaction with government is typically rooted in the desire to accomplish something or complete a transaction, whether that's accessing a benefit, renewing a license, or updating personal information. They want confidence that they can complete their tasks with efficiency, reliability, and ease.

While the wording is similar, the implications are vastly different. Rather than working to become a trusted advisor, government should assume the position of a trusted source. Use service channels to deliver accurate, timely, and useful information and support to individuals and businesses. Be a resource on which people know they can rely, regardless of whether their interaction takes place on the phone, through a web portal, or in person.

3. Listen first, and let service insights guide improvements to user experiences.

For companies, no function is closer to the customer than the service team. Every day, customer service captures feedback and input from customers about their experiences and uses this data to identify what's working, what's not, and where there are gaps in unmet product needs.

As for government organizations that aren't necessarily looking to drive growth and, unlike commercial providers, don't necessarily target certain customer segments, listening is a powerful vehicle for delivering better service to all customers. Investing resources to collect service-related data and insights can help identify opportunities to reduce friction and enable more equitable access.

Government services are meant to serve all citizens and residents and should be designed with that in mind, but that requires embracing customer service's full potential and transforming the function from reactive to regenerative.

For public-service organizations, becoming more proactive, trusted, and attuned to the needs of those being served will greatly raise the bar on citizen experience, reaffirm mission effectiveness and, ultimately, improve the lives of the people being served.

Eyal Darmon is a managing director and global lead for customer experience and conversational AI at Accenture.