Why Can’t Governments Treat Us Like Customers?

There is a general understanding in the private sector that treating customers well is good for business. Those businesses facing stiff competition seem to provide the best service while those with a more secure market share are a little less motivated.

A good friend of mine related a recent experience with his bank that illustrates the point. He chooses to do all of his banking electronically with a well known national financial institution whose name I will not mention. Let’s just say it is a bank in America. On those few occasions when he actually visited a brick-and-mortar bank the service he received — or didn’t receive — seemed to be designed to discourage his return. So when recent business compelled him to actually visit a local bank branch he entered the building with trepidation still haunted by the memory of his last visit that included a long line and a surly teller.

Imagine his surprise when the line was short and the teller was courteous. While the bank employee was going over his documents his attention was drawn to a bell on the counter. Next to it was a sign that read "If our service meets your expectations please ring."

Because he received efficient and courteous service he happily slapped the top of the bell as he left. He heard his helper say "thank you" and saw that all the other tellers were looking over to see who had received the approbation.

The formerly hidebound bank was finally getting it. Using a simple concept they have set in motion an informal competition among employees to see who could provide the best service.

Too bad government agencies like the DMV and your local planning department can’t do something similar to improve service. No doubt most of us who have stood in a long line at an unresponsive institution like the Post Office have had similar thoughts before succumbing to the realization that when dealing with a total monopoly you either accept the service you get or you get no service.

Now here is where things get really strange — a real "man-bites-dog" story.

A prominent California office holder is seriously working to improve service to the community he represents by using a feedback mechanism to measure customer satisfaction.

Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle recently announced that he is working with J.D. Power and Associates the nationally known company that measures consumer satisfaction for major purchases like automobiles to measure how well the city’s utility department planning and building department and police department deal with the public.

Pringle says that where residents and business people interact with the city and its employees especially where the city has a monopoly "… we need to rededicate ourselves to raising our customers’ level of satisfaction."

We hope other public sector leaders emulate Anaheim and pursue customer service as a cornerstone goal because in one respect both the private sector and public sector in fact rely on their "customers." While their positions as monopolies may give municipalities a false sense of security if their ultimate employers — the taxpayers — are not satisfied there can indeed be serious repercussions.

Perhaps that is why in addition to Anaheim a number of local governments have at least paid lip service to the notion of improved interactions with their citizens.

A San Diego based organization the Performance Institute periodically conducts seminars to "examine the latest trends and innovation in customer service for local governments" and notes that "providing more open and responsive government is becoming increasingly important for governments as technological advances and private sector improvements raise the bar for satisfactory customer service." We couldn’t agree more.

Back to Anaheim we want to thank Mayor Pringle for referring to his constituents as "customers." We join The Orange County Register in praising your effort to raise the level of service to Anaheim’s residents.

Jon Coupal is President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.