Better Service From the US Government? You're Kidding!

Last Updated May 2, 2011 6:53 AM EDT

OK, so the federal government doesn't exactly have an enviable reputation for customer service.

The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index gave our civil servants an aggregated score of 65 points out of a possible 100 â€" in other words, they failed.

While many agencies did just fine (the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation earned an impressive 87 points, for example, and the Bureau of Consular Affairs scored a respectable 82 points) many well-known agencies underperformed. Among them: the Internal Revenue Services' large business division (53 points), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (55 points) and one division of the Federal Aviation Administration rounded out the bottom with a score of 58.

No surprise, then, that President Obama issued an executive order last week telling federal agencies they had to do better.

"The public deserves competent, efficient, and responsive service from the federal government," Obama said, adding that agencies should be required to "provide significant services directly to the public to identify and survey their customers, establish service standards and track performance against those standards, and benchmark customer service performance against the best in business."

You know, like any good company.

Among the directives are creating a customer service plan to address how an agency will provide services in a manner that "seeks to streamline service delivery and improve the experience of its customers." It also mandates that customer-service standards be set, develop ways to improve the customer experience and reduce the need for customer service inquiries.

Great, but what does that have to do with your own business? A few things come to mind.

• If you're a government contractor, these new standards will almost certainly affect you. It's a good time to hold your own customer service practices up to a mirror. Are you scoring an 87 â€" or a 55?

• In the past, the benchmark for bad service was the federal government, and especially the IRS. This directive could (I stress could) raise scores across the board, leaving us with a new loser. The airline industry must be getting nervous.

• Have you gotten your "executive order" but not done anything? Customers give businesses their directions. When service is sub-standard, they respond by moving to the competition. Have they given you notice? What, if anything, have you done in response?

It's too early to tell if this executive order will amount to anything, or if it will just be shrugged off by bureaucrats. There's a message in this for all businesses, though: Don't wait until your president tells you there's a problem with customer service.

Do something now.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.