Toughest Customer Service Jobs? Government. Here's Why
Where do you find the most taxing jobs in customer service? While call center work in any sector is challenging and often frustrating, jobs in government that involve working with the public are, by far, the most difficult customer service jobs on the planet.
Having worked with thousands of government staff to help them deal effectively with citizens, there's no question in my mind that the demands made upon government in general, and employees who "serve" are often unreasonable, and impossible to meet. That's not the fault of anyone, but a product of how government works, and basic human psychology.
Why? Why is it that we in the West, particularly in the USA, pride ourselves on a democratic government system, yet revile and look down upon the "overpaid, arrogant, lazy, stupid and slow" employees who work in that very government system? The answers are complex, but understanding this phenomenon is helpful to both government staff,and citizens who harbor enmity towards government.
Let's look at some of the reasons.
Imperfect Government Contributes To Negative Perceptions
First, but not the most important reason, is that no government is perfect and that citizens with complaints against government take a kernel of truth and interpret this kernel inaccurately. Many criticisms have some validity.
It is true that governments are not particularly good at letting go poor employees. It is true that governments work slowly and require lots of "red tape". It's an imperfect, flawed system, but often, the negativity towards government come from sources that have nothing to do with these flaws.
However, enmity towards government comes from other sources, too, stemming from a misunderstanding of WHY government is the way it is.
Poor Understanding of Government Functions
It's sad that while we teach children how many states or provinces there are, the distinction between branches of government, and some basic concepts, we don't teach children WHY government is the way it is.
Very few people grasp the idea that government exists to create an environment for ALL citizens. To do so involves balancing the needs of one person against another. In cultures, such as the USA, based on individualistic values, there's limited understanding or acceptance of government's role in meeting the needs of the country overall.
The result is that people look at government as satisfying THEIR desires and needs rather than trying to balance and serve the needs of everyone.
The common criticisms of too much "Red Tape" and "Slowness" also come from a lack of understanding, because the WHY is lost. The bureaucratic system exists in government for a very important reason, yet few citizens could explain those reasons. The system evolved from a strong desire to ensure that no small group, or individual would have sufficient power and influence to corrupt government processes. For example, the red tape involved in getting government contracts, particularly at Federal government levels, is horrid. Yet, it exists for a reason -- to attempt some degree of fairness in the process, and to ensure that one government employee's power is "checked" by other government entities. The result is huge amounts of red tape, and a glacially slow process.
Often these problems are attributed to "power-tripping" or laziness, but that's not usually the case.
The very characteristics of government that citizens dislike are the characteristics in place to protect citizens from misuse of power. It's true that these mechanism are not perfect -- there is corruption and inappropriate use of influence and power in the system, but if you go back to a time when these checks were not in place, corruption and influence peddling was the NORM.
Few citizens understand this, because they aren't taught it.
And Some Human Reasons Why Citizens Dislike Government
Me, Them, and Regulation
We are all, to differing degrees, concerned about ourselves before being concerned about others. This varies from culture to culture, country to country, but it generally holds true. That's not necessarily a bad thing, except that citizens expect government to deal with THEIR unique situations without regard to the other millions of unique situations out there.
So, the owner of a pit bull is angry because government enacts strict rules regarding his beloved pet. He doesn't want government to regulate HIM. However that same owner looks to government to regulate other dog owners who allow their pets to poop on his lawn.
The driver who speeds and gets caught will often wonder why his tax money is spent on such trivial things (shouldn't the police be tracking down murderers?), but is the first to suggest that the old lady who ran into his vehicle due to poor eyesight should never have been granted a licence. Government's fault when it fails to protect "me".
It's a basic truth that the taxpayer wants government to regulate "the other guy" while leaving him to do as he pleases even this interferes with the well being of his neighbors.
This works on the taxation level also. While people want better roads, more police, increased safety and convenience, they want someone else to pay for these things. The rich claim they are penalized for success. The poor look at the rich, and ask "Why do they not pay more in taxes since they have so much?", while the middle class feels it gets the worst of the deal. Objective reality aside, these perceptions drive opinions about government.
Visibility and Taking For Granted
Citizens often take for granted many of the things governments provide using taxpayers money. We tend to look at services only when they fail. For example, you rarely hear citizens comment about how well government maintains the roads and bridges they use everyday. You WILL hear citizens complain about how poor government is at fixing the potholes outside their houses.
When disaster strikes, let's say in an earthquake or flood, you will always hear about how government is doing things wrong, but you don't see the accolades for every success that occurs to protect citizens during emergencies. In fact, most of the success stories are NEVER even told.
We focus and remember the bad, and we ignore or forget the good.
The Challenges of Being A Customer-Facing Government Employee
The weight of poor perceptions of government, whether justified or not, is on the shoulders of the average employee who deals daily with the public and who is no different from the average employee in any other sector.
That's what makes customer service jobs in government so difficult.
Customer service employees in government are the closest targets to which citizens can vent their anger and fears. Often the actual reasons for the anger have to do with policy and procedures decided by people way higher in the government food chain, so in essence the average government employee is being criticized for the actions and decisions make by people making three times their salary and out of view of the public.
Customer service staff in government are usually as frustrated about the red tape and delays as the citizens. I've met very few government employees who don't care. It drives them nuts that they have to do things in ways that don't seem to make sense, or have to conform to procedures that "get in the way" of helping.
Customer service staff in government are more restricted and less empowered to solve problems than are those in private sector. While staff at retail establishments can compensate customers when problems occur via giving discounts, or doing something special for the customer, the checks and balances in government preclude that. The policies in place to ensure employees treat everyone equally and fairly are the same policies that restrict what government employees can do to compensate customers for inconvenience.
My neighborhood grocery store can give me a bag of free apples to compensate me for the bad fruit I got from them, but the Motor Vehicle Branch cannot waive its driver's license fee if it screw up and wants to compensate me. Why? Because that discretion opens the door for misuse and it's not permitted.
So, For Customers of Government
Before you "go off" on that government employee, remember that he is most likely just like you, but has to work in a system over which he has little control. He probably isn't lazy or stupid but is bound by rules designed to protect you AND your neighbors.
- Remember that all government systems are flawed and we all have to live with flawed systems.
- Take into account the difficult task of meeting everyone's needs and balancing your needs against your neighbors. It's a hard task.
- Remember that to have the protection and benefits that come from government restricting what others can do, the government also places the same limitations on you for the benefit of your neighbors. You can't have one without the other.
And, For Government Staff
- Remember that average citizens don't have the information they need about WHY you have to do what you do. Make it a priority to explain, in simple language, the reasons for the polices and procedures you must enforce.
- Remember that many citizens are fearful of dealing with government. It's a reality, and requires you to be a personal and effective helper, even in situations where you are applying regulations. You may not be able to change the regulations, but you can help citizens navigate a system that is overwhelming to many.
- Keep in mind that while it's not "fair" for citizens to take out their anger on you, it's still a reality you cannot change. Often angry people are crying out to be helped. Doing so will make your job more satisfying.
- Don't engage in direct argument with citizens about the "ills of government". Listen and empathize instead. You will never change their opinions through argument.
- Take the time to learn defusing skills so you can deal with frustrated citizens professionally. Our book, Defusing Hostile Customers Workbook For Public Sector is an ideal way to build the skills you need to reduce your stress levels, understand angry people, and learn the specific responses to calm, help and make your job more satisfying. There are over 120 specific techniques presented that are easily learned. Bacal & Associates also offers seminars custom-designed for government staff and departments. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information.