NO MORE BS: Government Customer Service

Duty 3As a subject matter expert on customer service, as a professional customer service provider, and as a concerned American, I have to state for the record, the government’s abuse of the taxpaying customer is beyond atrocious, ridiculous, and craven!  I am sick to death of being treated like cat vomit; when I seek customer support from the government, I pay such incredible sums to fund.  Worse, I am fed up with the bureaucratic mindset that places the customer in the wrong, the customer as a pain, and the customer as a nuisance to be endured instead of assisted professionally.

ProblemsMy local Post Office here in Phoenix was visited yesterday (03 March 2021).  The Post Office does not deliver packages to the apartment complex we live in, so the standard procedure is for the USPS delivery person (mailman) to place a card notifying the customer of a package on a 10-day hold in the customer’s mailbox.  Since we moved in, we have not gotten these indicators, and Monday, my wife was notified a package she needs was returned by USPS.  It was delivered Monday to the Post Office and returned to sender as “customer refused delivery” the same day.

I went to the Post Office seeking answers.  The counter-working postal representative was the epitome of rude, obnoxious, and downright unfriendly.  It took more than an hour for a supervisor to arrive, and upon discussing the problem, I was told, “Lots of your neighbors have been complaining about this issue.”  Are you kidding me?!?!?!  You have two 500+ Apartment complexes across the street from each other, multiple people from both complexes are complaining about package delivery failures, and with a smile, you can tell me this is a known issue.

Theres moreAsk yourself the following question, if you had upwards of 100 customers complaining about your work, how long would you remain employed?  Frankly, I am still stunned 24+ hours after the interaction with this supervisor.  My visit was the sixth time I had been to the Post Office complaining about not getting package notifications and having trouble with packages sitting around the post office taking up space.  One of these visits included speaking to the Post Office’s head, general, whatever, the top person in charge of a local post office is titled.  Still, the employee has maintained their job, kept the same route, and the customers continue to be abused.

After I wrote a formal complaint, I was assured that action would be taken, and the employee talked to about this oversight in their duties.  Seriously, that was exactly what the supervisor said, “the employee will be talked to.”  I understand the human resources processes, understand and have designed human resource processes, and possess a Doctor of Psychology title specializing in industrial and organizational psychology.  But, I do not know how 100+ complaints can arrive at the post office weekly, and the same mailman is only on their verbal reprimand for failure to perform their duties.  We have been complaining about this issue for a year now, and in speaking with several neighbors, they have been complaining for longer than a year about this failure.  I have some doubts that this issue will be resolved, ever!

Detective 4But hey, the Post Office is only one of the government agencies exhibiting a race to the bottom where customer abuse and customer disservice are concerned.  The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), a state-run agency, is always in this race, and they take hostile customer service to new heights, or depths, depending upon how you look at their performance.  The last visit to the DMV ended with screaming for several minutes in my car before possessing the proper mindset to drive away safely.  The DMV is comparable to a dentist drilling before anesthesia starts and doing a poor job on an infected tooth; you just know you will have a bad day when a visit to the DMV is scheduled!

Yet, in discussing the race to the bottom, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is also a constant competitor in asinine customer service practices, customer abuse, and inept inertia.  I do not think the VA could even get bureaucratic inertia correct if someone had not taught them how.  The Department of Veterans Affairs – Office of Inspector General (VA-OIG) investigated a surgical supply program for abuses and found:

VA controls were not sufficient to ensure VA medical facility staff accurately reviewed, verified, or certified distribution fee invoices for the program. VA also did not ensure staff at medical facilities accurately established and applied the on-site representative rates and paid fees based on annual facility purchases. The pricing schedule establishes fee rates for on-site representatives based on annual facility purchase amounts.”

The amount of money involved is staggering ($4.6 Billion). The fact that the VA cannot correctly oversee a supply program, check invoices, monitor stock levels, and pay invoices properly does not bode well for integrity in customer service.

LinkedIn VA ImageThe VA is to be congratulated, the colonoscope, which is used on multiple patients for a colonoscopy, is being cleaned properly and to standard, which means that infections from one patient are less likely to occur in another patient transferred from the colonoscope.  However, the training program, certification program, and training documentation remain under considerable scrutiny for continual failure, as discovered by a VA-OIG investigation of 10 different clinics!  Training, certification of training, and documenting and tracking training are internal customer service actions that the entire VA continues to fail.  Whoever is in charge of adult education and training at the VA is not performing their jobs, and this is witnessed every couple of weeks in the VA-OIG investigation results across the entire VA.  Designed incompetence leading to customer service failures, absolutely ridiculous!

I-CareThe VA-OIG conducted a lengthy investigation at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) Chicago VA Regional Benefits office in Illinois.

The OIG found claims processors did not properly correct administrative errors in 88 percent of cases reviewed. Errors resulted in improper underpayments of about $59,100 to six veterans, improper overpayments of $18,900 to two veterans, and $5,900 in debts VA had inappropriately collected from eight veterans through January 2020.”

Revisiting the Post Office example above, if you had an 88% error rate in your job, how long would you expect to keep your job?  Training and certification of claims processing personnel remains a failure of internal customer service and is mentioned in every VBA investigation by the VA-OIG.  As a point of fact, the failures of training and training certification were recently cited as a significant deficiency, where in 2018, no certification and training occurred due to internal technical problems with the intranet.  Yet, even with all this evidence that training is failing, certification is not occurring, and claims processors continue to abuse veterans through clerical, system, procedural, and process errors on claims, they maintain their positions.  Cited in this latest VBA investigation was the claims processors’ continual failure to communicate with the veteran.

Boris & NatashaConsider the following analogy.  A 100% disabled veteran gets paid once a month and budgets those monies very carefully to last the entire month.  A claims decision is made, and without any communication for why, the amount the veteran is expecting to live is cut in half.  The veteran is then responsible for wading through the various call centers to find why, how the decisions were made, and what to do, which takes time, lots, and lots of time on the phone.  While bills go unpaid, food goes unpurchased, financial difficulties mount, and correcting the situation takes more time.  Sure, the VA will pay back pay, but that is never sufficient to cover all the accruing costs and losses experienced.

Hostile customer service by the government is the most inexcusable example of customer disservice imaginable.  Why; because there is no competitor to move your business.  There are no pathways for holding customer service representatives accountable when even talking to a supervisor is not worth the time and effort.  I spent four hours on the phone chasing a claims processing error; at one point, I finally got so mad I demanded a supervisor.  I waited on hold for just under 120-minutes for the supervisor, who said had I worked better with the agent, I would not have had to wait, and the problem could have been resolved, as their opening statement!

Survived the VABy this time, I had worked with four separate agents who were confused or refused the call by hanging up.  I had been sworn at, I had been told I was a liar, and I was told my office could not handle your request.  Each call required anywhere between 30 and 50 minutes of hold time waiting for an agent.  As the supervisor reviewed the problem, they discovered that their agents could not have handled the situation, and a specialist was required.  But, I never got an apology from the supervisor for the waste of my time, the issues experienced with previous agents, nor the loss of my time and resources it took to handle the problem.

Gadsden FlagGovernment employees beware; how you treat customers is a problem, and you need to be held to task for your insolence, depravity, ineptitude, inertia, and uncaring attitudes!  When discussing the BS of government, the customer service issue is the most egregious.  I will call you out publicly every time you abuse a customer.  I am done being abused!

© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
The images used herein were obtained in the public domain; this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.

Call Center Chaos and Appreciative Inquiry

While this article discusses government call centers generally, and New Mexico (NM) Government call centers specifically, please do not think the problems described are specific only to, or lessons could not be applied to, many other call centers.  New Mexico Government call centers all have a common problem, they are purposefully designed to not help or serve the customer.  Worse, the work processes are convoluted to the point that work takes anywhere from 10 – 15% longer than it should, costing 30 – 50% more than it should.  Worse, if a customer gets connected to an “Escalation Department,” the workers in that department have no authority, no tools, and nothing they can do but repeat marketing materials, and hope the customer goes away.

Cute CalfEssentially, the NM Government call centers, at the city and state levels of government are as emasculated as a spring-born calf!  Let that sink in for a moment.  No tools, no authority, no support, and only their verbal wits to make the customer go away.  If you think this problem is only apparent in government call centers; well, you are wrong.

AT&T has a very similar, though not as endemic issue.  Sprint, the problem is both apparent and not considered a problem.  AIU, COX, Comcast/Xfinity, FEDEX, UPS, UoPX, and more, you all have very similar issues where the work processes and the customer service are disconnected, leaving employees emasculated and stuck spouting marketing lines in the hope of appeasing the customer.  Sure, some of you have better call escalation processes, but these escalation processes only show the emasculation of your people more exactly.

For example, take today’s interactions with a NM Government Call Center.  The representative on the call escalation line could very easily reach out to their supervisor and take the criticisms and ideas from the customer’s call, put them forth as their own ideas, and improve the call center and customer attentiveness of the organization.  Unfortunately, sad experience has shown that new ideas in NM Government Call Centers are anathema to the good order and discipline of the call center.  Thus, proving that the endemic lack of customer attentiveness is systematic in NM Government Call Centers and considered a benefit to the customer/taxpayer using the government service.

Purposeful customer abuse is not appreciated, not acceptable, and eventually leads the call center to ruin.  Which is a monumental waste of the potential in your employees, as well as being ruinously expensive for some future disaster.  In speaking with retail associates at Comcast/Xfinity and COX Communications, one learns from frontline representatives what to expect from calling the call centers.  If the retail associates are frustrated with the inability to be served, this is automatically passed to the customer.  Bank of America has this problem in spades!

Appreciative InquiryAppreciative inquiry is a growth mechanism that states that what a business organization needs, they already have enough of, provided they listen to their employees.  Appreciative inquiry and common sense tells leaders who want to know and change their organization, how, and where to go to begin.  Appreciative inquiry-based leadership is 6-continuous steps that start small, and cycle to larger problems as momentum for excellence permeates through an organization.  But the first step, just like in defeating a disabling addiction, is admitting there is a problem.

Coming back to the NM Government Call Center, the front-line supervisor upon hearing about this representative’s experience, chooses to believe there is a problem.  Knowing that the problems are endemic and systematic in the organization, decides, “For my team, we will be the core of excellence.”  Thus, this supervisor is now motivated to take the second step in the appreciative inquiry cycle, “Define.”

The supervisor defines what they can change, and then from that list of items that they can control will select the first item to change by asking themselves and their team, “Which item on this list can we tackle first?”  Thus, leading to the third step in appreciative inquiry, “Discover.”

Imperative at this step is the focus upon what is already going right on the topic selected.  Not focusing upon what is wrong, or upon what cannot be controlled or influenced by the team.  Focus on the positive, list the best of what is going right!  For example, if the inquiry will be reducing hold times, and the team has been trending down from multiple hours to single hours of hold time, focus on the positive, and get ideas about tips used from those who are successful in reducing hold times.

The idea in discovery is to create the motivation for the next step in appreciative inquiry, “Dream.”  But, do not dream small!  Remember, when you shoot for the sun and miss, you still land among the stars.  Dream BIG!  Dreaming is all about setting your sights on what currently is considered impossible, that your team can make possible.  Going back to reducing hold times, set the dream at 30-minutes.  You can always come back and dream bigger or repeat the appreciative inquiry cycle on this topic again in the future.

Next, “Design,” design the future and it becomes your destiny; which also happens to be the remaining two steps in the appreciative inquiry cycle.  President Thomas Monson is quoted as saying, “Decisions DO Determine Destiny” [emphasis in original].  If you decide the status quo is acceptable, that decision determines the destiny, and ruination will follow.  If you decide to pursue excellence, this decision will determine how successful you and your team can be.  Design the future you desire, state the goal, write it down, post the goal, speak positively about the goal, and build momentum through accomplishing small steps towards the goal.

Thus, the destiny is born into fruition and what today is impossible, is tomorrow’s reality.  Destiny in the appreciative inquiry cycle is defined as creating what the future will be.  Positive growth occurs through incremental steps and changes the destination.

A pilot friend of mine loves the story about a new pilot who is making their first cross-country flight with a more experienced pilot.  The young pilot is close to being able to solo, and the experienced pilot knows the route, the weather, and decides to let the young pilot fly solo for a few hours.  The new pilot gets bored holding a single course and wavers a little to the left, and a little to the right of the base course and does not think anything of the consequences.  Several hours go by and the experienced pilot returns to the flight deck to discover bad weather is moving in fast, the small lane cannot fly in the weather that is coming necessitating an unscheduled landing, and the plane is 400-miles off base course.  The young pilot said, I only moved a few degrees left and right, we cannot be that far off course.  Later the experienced pilot shows a track of the airplane on a map to the young pilot and reality sinks in, by a matter of a few degrees, over time, the plane got in trouble.

A few DegreesAppreciative inquiry is exactly like the plane, by having a destination, defined according to positive desires, through the process of discovery, dreaming of the possible future, while designing the future, the appreciative inquiry leader can make the small changes today that move the destination from ruination to success.

The first step is admitting there is a problem, and desire to fix that problem at all costs.  What are you passionate enough about to fix at all costs?  Whether you are a representative or a company director, the same question applies and the answer will determine your ultimate destiny.  The key is action at all costs.  The efforts, time, resources, etc. will be spent to achieve does not matter, the new destination does matter.

A call center supervisor friend of mine had three stellar and highly experienced employees on their team.  My friend also had some young talent with incredible potential.  Because the three stellar employees did not want to become supervisors, this effectively blocked the new employees from achieving potential.  My friend had to make a choice, lose the new potential, or reorganize the team.  My friend chooses to keep the experienced people, and shortly after this decision was made, two quit for other opportunities, the new potential quit because they longed for professional growth, my friend was promoted, and the new supervisor had no depth of experience left on the team.

Some would blame the new employees for quitting too soon, others would lay the blame on the supervisor for not developing the talent pool, others might express dismay at the senior talent leaving; honestly, they are all right, and all wrong!  My friend decided to hang the costs, and the decision was a tremendous learning experience.  Using appreciative inquiry will provide similar learning experiences, prepare, and commit, now to learn first and stay focused on the positive.

Appreciative inquiry can help; there are six operational steps:

  1. Admit there is a problem and commit to change.
  2. Define the problem.
  3. Discover the variables and stay focused on the positive.
  4. Dream BIG!
  5. Design the future and outline the steps to that future.
  6. Destiny, create the destination you desire.

Follow the instructions on a shampoo bottle, “Wash, Rinse, Repeat.”  The appreciative inquiry model can be scaled, can be repeated, can be implemented into small or large teams, and produce motivated members who then become the force to producing change.  Allow yourself and your team to learn, this takes time, but through a building motivation for excellence, time can be captured to perform.

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/