Are You Helping Your Customers? Let's Find Out

July 21, 2016

“Are your services helping your customers?” Serving customers is likely to be THE main reason for the existence of a service. But often service providers have little, or no, information on the quality and helpfulness of the service. This blog applies to those services for which the county or city government works directly with customers, such as the array of human services, employment programs, parks, recreation, libraries, public health, business permitting and inspections, and police services. This blog also applies to internal support services such as IT, human resources, and procurement.

Information can be obtained from one or both of two major data sources: (1) existing department performance data and (2) surveys of individual customers.

Existing Performance Data

Use of existing data is attractive because its cost is low. For example, some recreation and library programs can obtain data on repeat-client usage from their own records. Youth services programs can seek data from police or court records on success in preventing future problems. Local government employment programs can seek data from state unemployment insurance offices (though access may be difficult). Some services calculate waiting times, such as amount of time before the government is able to correct a problem. Crime and health services can sometimes obtain data on recidivism.

Limitations of department records include the difficulty of obtaining the data, especially if they come from another agency/organization. Furthermore, data on outcomes and some service quality indicators are often not available from existing agency records.

Surveys of Individual Customers

So let’s focus on the second data source: individual customers.

Regular feedback from the customers of a service can be a powerful evidence-based performance management tool. Customer feedback is a direct way to obtain perceptions about service quality characteristics that are important to customers, such as those characteristics listed in Step 1 below. Customers should not only be asked about “satisfaction” with the service but also about how helpful the service has been in meeting the customer’s needs and expectations.

Customer surveys also can be used to obtain explanatory information by asking respondents to explain their negative responses. The survey questionnaire can also invite suggestions for improving the service.

“But it’s too expensive to survey customers,” you may say. Not really. This is not about lengthy, expensive, research-oriented surveys. If you have email or mailing addresses, sending out questionnaires can be inexpensive. Tools such as Survey Monkey make electronic surveys economical in both time and cost.

“But response rates will be low, and data will be unreliable.” Not really. Customers will be considerably more likely to respond to survey requests if they have used the service themselves, responding to the questionnaire is easy, and respondents are assured their responses will be confidential.

Most of the time and cost comes in setting up the survey process. Once set up, the process becomes reasonably routine. Here are steps for establishing the process.

Step 1: Ask staff, especially “field” staff, to identify the service characteristics they believe are important to customers. Tip: Have some fun. Invite groups of 8-12 known customers to meet with staff and spend 60-90 minutes discussing what they like and don’t like about the service. You don’t need a high-priced facilitator. Do it yourself. Or ask one of your staff, perhaps training staff, to facilitate. Ask someone else to take notes and make a list of the service qualities that are important to customers. Here is an example of a list that might result:

  • Service Timeliness
  • Service Accessibility
  • Availability of Help When Needed
  • Professionalism of Service Staff
  • Availability of information about the Service
  • Meeting the Customer’s Needs

Step 2: Develop a questionnaire around those characteristics. Keep it short! Keep the questionnaire, say, to one or two pages. Ask respondents to explain unfavorable ratings.

The questionnaire should ask for demographic information that is important to the service. This information can later be used to provide outcome tabulations for each demographic group, letting you identify disparities and inequities among groups. Often local governments will find highly useful tabulations based on age, gender, race/ethnicity, and/or geographic location/neighborhood.

Tip: At the end of the questionnaire, ask: “What suggestions do you have for improving the service?” Ask staff to tabulate those responses by suggestion topic. Managers might also review the individual responses—without names attached to preserve respondent anonymity.

For this step it would be wise to obtain the help of a staff expert or consultant to make sure the questionnaire wording is clear and unbiased. This consultation need not be costly. Tip: Perhaps a faculty member at a local college, or even at a high school, might be available.

Examples: Here is a questionnaire for users of park and recreation services, and here is one asking local government employees to rate an internal support service, facilities management.

Step 3: Determine how and when the questionnaire will be administered. Most people today have internet access. If you have obtained customers’ email addresses, this can be a low-cost way to reach former customers. But some disadvantaged customers may not have email addresses or may not like to use email. Sometime during the service notify customers that they will be asked to provide feedback. Ask customers for their preference of responding by email, mail, or even by phone. For services such as parks, recreation, and libraries, customers can be asked onsite to complete a questionnaire on their perceptions of the quality and helpfulness of their visits.

For some services it will be most useful to follow up with customers at a specified period after they have completed their service, such as three or six months afterwards—to assess the sustainability of the service outcomes.

Should you survey a sample of customers or all of them? Small service programs probably can survey all their customers. If the survey is to be conducted electronically, large numbers of customers can be questioned at little added cost. The choice will depend on individual circumstances. The survey expert suggested above can likely help make this choice.

Use multiple survey completion requests to increase response rates. Multiple requests can usually be easy if you’re using email survey software packages.

Step 4: Tabulate and report the responses. The software used to develop the questionnaire can probably provide most of the needed tabulations. Tabulations should be made for all respondents and also for each of the various customer groups identified in step 2. If questionnaires are mailed, staff time will be needed to help transform the responses into electronic form, even if they are scanned.

Step 5: After each survey, ask staff to summarize the information provided by the tabulations and highlight issues they believe will be of interest to you. Few managers are likely to want to look at all the data generated, even by a short questionnaire. And managers often won’t have time even if they would like to.

Step 6: Repeat the survey on a regular basis. Ask staff to compare the findings to findings in previous periods over time to show trends and progress for specific customer groups. Keep most questions the same from year to year.

These steps should help you collect a wealth of useful information about individual services. The information obtained can, and should, be used to identify needed service improvements. Now it’s up to you to use it.

This post originally appeared on the website for the International City/Council Management Association.