Why Customer Service For Government Is Different Than For Public Sector - The Root Cause Difference

Q: You've outlined some differences between the private sector and government when it comes to customer service. Is there a single "most important" difference?

Robert: I think there is. It comes down to the differing purposes of the two types of organizations. The purposes are so different that they color everything that is done in private and public sector work.

Q: So, what are the different purposes?

Robert: For profit companies exist to bring value to shareholders, and that means continually increasing both revenue and profit. That means, by implication, that private sector companies need to attend to the INDIVIDUAL needs and concerns of customers. Each customer has value, so retaining them is critical.

Government is completely different. It's role is to maximize the welfare of ALL citizens as a collective group. At least in theory. To do that, government regulates, and provides services for ALL, and has extensive policies and procedures in place -- checks and balances, that are in place to ensure that people are treated equally and beneficially under the law. Because government safeguards the interests of everyone, not each one, the interactions between government and customers are quite different.

So, in effect, while private customers benefit from convincing each customer to come back, governments work on a more collective basis. ONE government customer isn't important, but ensuring value for all IS important.

Q: That seems awfully theoretical. Can you give an example?

Robert: It IS theoretical in one sense and that's that governments don't do a very good job at the "equality" part. But that's a side issue.

Anyway, let's take the example of the safety of all. Governments enact laws to increase the safety of the public, and protect them from, let's say, drunk driving. The goal is to protect ALL citizens. That said, the person who's hauled over for drunk driving isn't going to be happy about being charged, and honestly that person's happiness is irrelevant to the work of government. Laws exist to maximize the "common good", in this case, safety on our roads.

Generally speaking, private sector companies don't have the same obligation. They can be less concerned about ALL their customers as a group, and maximize the profit from each and every customer. That's much more flexible.

Q: But what about companies that have to manage their resources to serve everyone? Like telecom/wireless companies? Or utilities?

Robert: It's not completely black and white. For example, your Internet provider has a finite infrastructure, and while its goal is profit, to make profit it tries to manage its infrastructure so that ONE mega user of the Internet doesn't interfere with the use of the other users in that area. Same with utility companies that will use intentional brown outs to make sure there won't be massive complete black-outs.

It's useful to note that those sectors that have to manage infrastructure for the good of all are almost always last when customers are surveyed on their perceptions of customer service. Cell phone companies, Internet providers, and utilities are seen as unresponsive, arbitrary and hard to deal with.

Q: That's true. Nobody seems to be happy with them.

Robert: Indeed. And it's because they are closer to government in terms of what's important. These sectors need to protect all customers more than, let's say, a Walmart. If you look at the sectors, you'll find that wherever the goal shifts to regulating and looking at ALL customers, customer perceptions are worse.

Q: So can you summarize this?

Robert: Yes. Let me quote someone who attended one of my government "Dealing WIth Difficult Government Customers" seminars:

Nobody likes to be told what to do, or to be regulated, but it's amazing how quickly they shift when they want their neighbour to be told what to do or be regulated.

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Bacal & Associates is a small training, consulting and publishing company specializing in government. Founded in 1992, we have been serving government training and consulting needs for 22 years. We focus on customer service, communication, performance management, and other management challenges within hte public sector.

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