What Angry Citizens and Customers Cost Government
Summary: In this interview, Robert talks about the hidden costs to government that result from angry citizens and public sector customers. While the impact isn't the same as in the private sector, it's significant, and has a bottom line outcome.
Q: Robert, you've said that customer service works differently in government. Clearly, it's NOT the case that customers can go to competitors for the same services, so there isn't a loss of revenue. Since that's the case, why worry about it?
Robert: Actually, you are a bit incorrect here. Government is involved in a number of endeavors that both serve their constituencies (i.e. taxpayers), AND provide revenue (i.e. customers or users pay). For example, in Aspen, Colorado, when I was training staff to deal with difficult members of the public, we had a number of attendees that worked in city sponsored event at their theatre. That's because Aspen sponsors various festivals and events and actually staffs them, and that means that there are situations where customer service issues are similar. Another example, National, State and Provincial Parks.
That said, many, perhaps most interactions between government staff and the public come in situations where the government enforces rules, laws and bylaws, provides permits, that kind of regulatory environment where the "service" isn't revenue based per se.
Q: So, is there a cost for non-revenue contexts?
Robert: There is. In fact the not so obvious costs of angry customer citizens are probably quite large, Some may actually be reflected in bottom line costs of serving customers.
For example, let's take a situation where a jurisdiction is responsible for inspecting something, let's say a building, or a restaurant, elevator, whatever.
When the results are not to the liking of the business owner, what happens? What happens in terms of the "bottom line", or the cost of the inspection process?
First, the inspector receives a lot of hassle, but more than that, he or she may have to return more times than would otherwise be required if the owner simply cooperated and did what was asked. Unnecessary repeated visits resulting from the owner being stubborn and angry involve measurable costs.
Worse though is what happens when the owner is sufficiently irate to "escalate his or her concern" to:
- the immediate manager
- the city manager
- his or her civic representative in the political process
- city council
- the media
Each escalation step the individual takes involves the time and energy of more and more government employees or political staff. It isn't uncommon for a problematic citizen to require TEN to TWENTY times the resources compared to someone who is not quite so resistant.
If you get enough of these unresolved difficult customers, it affects other customers, wait time, and can even result in having to have additional staff. But all this is "hidden from view". You could measure it if you wanted, though.
Q: So there's a "hard cost" for dealing with difficult citizens?
Robert: Yes, but it's often the case that government managers don't notice. After all, they don't always see their staff dealing with the tough customers, and neither do they realize that a customer who is angry can once again, require ten to twenty times the time to deal with, even without the escalation to management.
Q: Are there other costs that need to be considered?
Robert: Certainly staff time is the big one, and theoretically you could measure it by looking at how long it takes problem situations to get handled, and factoring the salaries of the people involved. But yes, there are other costs which we probably can't quantify, but are probably there nonetheless.
For example, there's the "soft cost" of the impact of angry customers on the stress levels and health of staff. While I don't know of any research studies on the topic, there is research that suggests that government employees tend to take more sick days than workers in the private sector, and one possibility is that the reason is that interacting with angry, upset and abusive citizens and customers is emotionally taxing, and exhausting.
Q: Some have suggested isn't because government employees are lazy. Could that be?
Robert: Personally, I don't believe that,, having worked with thousands of public sector employees. In fact, they are as frustrated with the challenges of meeting customer needs as many customers are. The stress levels for customer facing staff are a huge issues, particularly when you factor in the possibility of physical violence.
Q: So given that citizens get angry about things like bylaws, regulations, permits, etc, and that you can't ever get rid of that, because it's a role government takes on to protect the community's interest, what's the solution?
Robert: Obviously angry citizens aren't going to disappear. So, apart from streamlining various processes and simplifying rules, which governments have been doing a bit over the last two decades, the obvious course of action is to equip as many people as possible with the essential defusing skills that can be used in public and public sector interactions. That serves several purposes:
- cuts time employees spend on angry interactions
- reduces frequency of escalation up the chain of command
- reduces stress levels by increasing confidence, reducing the intensity of customer anger
Q: Which is what you do?
Robert: Yes. I think it's important. There's another reason, a cost that is exceedingly severe that we should talk about, and that's the nature of physical violence, something we can talk about in the next portion of our discussion.