Revisited: Advice on Customer Service for Public Administrators

The following was published in the August 2008 issue of PA Times, the newsletter of the American Society for Public Administration.  It was used for their monthly “Pay It Forward” career advice/development feature.

Formal education in public administration prepares future government professionals for many situations with respect to formulating and executing policy.  However, the classroom and laboratory settings do not provide appropriate opportunities to practice and develop understanding in citizen relations.

Experience proves the resulting irony, as citizen response is the most important factor in the success or failure of a public policy.  Without effective communication and personal service skills, the knowledge and creativity public administrators put into improving the community are practically useless.

Understanding the public you serve and learning how to interact appropriately turns a normal “bureaucrat” into a professional community leader.  Much of this relies upon appreciating common sense behaviors residing in each of us.

Utilization is key, as it is easy to meet a citizen question or complaint with a cold, impersonal, snobbish response.  Of course, these very responses create distrust that cannot be quickly changed.  The same as in business, one negative event can easily eliminate the benefit established by dozens, if not hundreds, of positive occurrences.

Start your career in public administration by always being approachable and helpful to citizens.  Focus on communication.  Most public misunderstanding of government results from our failure to communicate appropriately with them.

Learn to listen effectively so you know exactly what they are inquiring about or requesting.  Communicate your understanding of their initial comments to ensure verification, then perform the work necessary to meet their needs.  Do not rely upon stock answers or general assumptions.  Match your response with what they want, not what you think they need.

Public misconception often develops from our lack of attention to the little things.  Visitors to government buildings are often intimidated by their grandeur and representation of power, and these feelings can be reinforced by poor interactions with public employees.

Understand that customer service is not limited to the front desk or cashier office.  Every employee, regardless of rank, should respond to visitors in a manner that projects concern and commitment to the highest quality of service.  Ritz-Carlton adopted a pithy and appropriate slogan for customer relations that can be easily applied in the public sector.

We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.

Situations do arise that test our mettle.  Misunderstanding leads to anger, and some citizens feel no shame directing it intently toward government employees.  This is their right, as we must respect the fact that they are endowed with power bequeathed in limited form to us by covenant.

There are times, however, where we must respond firmly without retreat.  Be careful not to develop personal resentment, for it is not our place to disrespect citizens.  We can take solace if we can prove that our actions, though not accepted by some, represent the best interests of the public as a whole.

Finally, when starting a career in public administration, take stock of your ideals.  Make sure you have a positive, appreciative attitude of the public.  Believe in the best in them.  We may not always be able to do as they wish, but we owe them our respect.

Good salesmen know that while happy customers may not always agree with them, unhappy customers never will.  The same is true with citizens, and it is our obligation to always interact with them in a respective, informative, and helpful manner.


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