What We've Learned About Customer Service and Angry Government Customers


You can learn a lot if you do something for almost twenty-five years, and you pay attention. So here are a few things I've learned over the years of working with government to help staff deal with even the most difficult citizens and clients. These "learnings" reflected in our seminar and books is one reason we are invited to work with public sector employees, because frankly, we ARE different. Specialization does that.

Public Sector IS NOT Close To Similar TO Private Sector

You'd think there'd be a lot of overlap when it comes to customer service in public and private sectors, but in fact, the whole landscapes are different. In fact, one of the first things prospective clients talk about when they contact us is this:

We've had customer training, and defusing difficult customer training in the past, but we keep being told by those attending that they are tired of hearing about things in for profit companies that have no applicability to the government world. In fact, that's often why our clients come to us, and search us out.

There's more detail on the differences in our customer service for government blog (click to open a new window).

Customer Service Training For The Public Sector Must Go Beyond Smile Training

One of the comments I often receive from attendees to my government sessions goes like this:

I've been working in government for x years, and taken I don't know how many customer service courses, and this is the first one that actually allowed me to bring specific techniques back to my workplace, AND pushed me to think about what I can do and say to do my job more effectively when things get difficult.

Why do people say these things? First most customer service training is so basic, it's actually insulting to customer service representatives with any experience. There's only so many times employees want to hear: "You should smile when you answer the phone". Worse, perhaps, is that a lot of the wisdom about customer service, not wise at all, is so bland, general and vapid that it's useless. It's not uncommon to find phrases like: "Respect your customers", or "Treat customers how you would like to be treated" (wrong by the way), and it gets old, very fast. That's not actionable information. It's also so simplistic that it's likely to encourage people to do and say the wrong things.

The above applies for many customer service courses regardless of sector.

What I've learned since my earlier attempts to run a course on dealing with difficult members of the public is that you can't fool attendees. They know when they are being fed junk, dressed up in mom and apple pie clothes. They want more. They (politely) demand more tools they can bring to their work IMMEDIATELY, and they expect to learn something new, not the same old, same old stuff.

Government Staff Aren't Just On The Front Lines of Customer Service. They Are On The Firing Line.

We've spoken to thousands of government employees before and during our seminars, and one thing we've learned is that these folks are on the firing line for people who not only have a complaint, but already dislike government before any initial contact. Angry customer behavior towards government ranges from the garden variety insults right through to violent behavior. Government employees deserve to learn the tools, verbal tools, to prevent escalation.

For Example

A citizen goes to a government agency that owes him about five dollars as a result of the customer returning his licence plates. The citizen behaves politely, and asks that everyone save time by simply giving him the five bucks in cash. No go. The employee not schooled in defusing skills messes up the process, and the customer gets angrier and angrier, while the employee keeps saying: "I'm only doing my job", and "It's not our policy..."

Upshot: The client becomes so over-wrought and behaves so badly that security is called, then police. FIVE law enforcement personnel are required to subdue him. He's arrested. That's a firing line. And over five darned dollars.

A person takes his driving test for the second time, his first resulting in failure when he drove through the wire fence at the driver testing location, at the tail end of the examination. His second try goes well. Until the point when he returns to the testing station, and drives right through that same fence. Then he's mad because they put the fence there. Seriously. You'd think the driver examiner would feel stressed, and I suppose that's true, but after all, anyone in that profession must have some sense of humor.

A woman works in an insurance adjustor section of a provincially run insurance company. Every single day she dealt with comments from customers about wanting someone who knew about cars, or even outright asking for a male examiner. Never mind the issues and disagreements about the estimates. And you know, she developed a number of great techniques for stopping these kinds of verbal attacks.

In Canada liquor sales have traditionally been controlled and the booze actually vended from government run stores. When I was preparing to train one province's staff in dealing with the difficult and often intoxicated and addicted customers, I volunteered to work in a store for a bit. Firing line? Is there anything worse than having to refuse sales to a drunken person who is also alcohol addicted.

Improving Staff Ability to Defuse Angry Interactions Isn't the "Right" Thing. It's The Cost Effective Thing

Finally, it's the right thing, both legally and morally, to make sure that government staff are properly trained in handling difficult customers. If that's not enough reason to provide the training, here's another.

Angry, demanding, difficult and manipulative customers take up huge amounts of time, not only monopolizing front line staff, but also their supervisors, the managers above them, and in some cases going up to the highest reaches of government including recourse to influencing politicians.

It's simply the time eaten up --, for everyone, when conflicts with customers are not handled properly. It's good, practical sense to train staff the way we do, which is to teach them how to shorten and reduce the intensity of angry customer interactions.

About Company

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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