42 – How do you listen to the ‘voice of the customer’ in local government? It can be done.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              740 words

This post follows an earlier post Customer, client, citizen, resident or ratepayer. Who are we dealing with? It takes the concept of value further by proposing some tools that can be used to understand what customers expect and whether those expectations have been met.

I will start with Peter R. Scholtes and his views on the ‘customer-in mentality’, which he says is characterised by ‘thoughtfulness, responsiveness, empathy and altruism’. Customer-in thinking increases the likelihood that customers will get what they need – and need what they get. Listening to the customer is the beginning. Scholtes says we can start to do this by paying attention to what customers say when they contact us to make complaints, ask questions, or request services. Councils typically count the number of resident contacts. Some differentiate between service requests and complaints. Few actively evaluate what customers are asking about or saying to obtain qualitative data to guide service improvement.

Alternatively, or in addition, we can initiate contact with the customer to solicit information through surveys, interview or focus groups. There is not much new in this, and most councils will attempt to monitor community or customer satisfaction using some or all of these tools. Few councils monitor purpose or whether or not the reason the customer contacted the council has been fulfilled. This is quite different to satisfaction. A resident asking for a pothole to be filled might expect it to happen within 24 hours when the service level is 48 hours, and despite the pothole being filled within 48 hours they will be dissatisfied.

Scholtes takes his thinking further with a neat matrix that he calls the ‘needs/gets’ matrix. He provides it as a way to sort out what you are hearing from your customers. I have reproduced it below.

gets needs matrix

The two questions you need to ask when listening to the voice of the customer to understand their expectations and experiences are:

  1. What are you getting that you don’t need?
  2. What do you need that you are not getting?

The next tool is from a ‘Lean Thinking’ course conducted by Chris Butterfield of SAPartners.   It is a useful tool because it asks customers in a focus group to identify ‘value criteria’ (i.e. the aspects of service that they expect) and then to prioritise them and compare the service received with their expectations. It also asks them to compare your performance with other suppliers of a similar service and with the best service experience they have had.

service performance value criteria

The ranking of ‘better than’, ‘same as’ or ‘worse than’ can be helpful to understand your performance relative to other known benchmarks. Sometimes customers cannot express their feelings adequately about their experience, but they can tell you if it was better or worse than other experiences. In local government, I have heard comparisons with 5-star hotels, public transport, motor vehicle repairers, and airlines. It all helps you to understand the customer’s view point.

There can be difficulty in defining customers, some of which was discussed in an earlier post. Scholtes has some guidelines for ‘hard-to-identify’ customers. First, break down the organisation’s work into discrete services or functions. Then, for each separate service ask:

  • What is its purpose? i.e. Why would anyone want this service to be available?
  • What is next in the flow of work?
  • Who ultimately receives the service?
  • Who benefits from this particular service?
  • Who is the user of this service?
  • How do those who benefit from the service use or consume what we supply?
  • What capabilities are acquired and how or when are those capabilities applied?

The last dot point is interesting. By ‘capabilities’, Scholtes is referring to benefits gained by a service recipient that later benefit someone else. He uses the example of a student who acquires capabilities at school that are applied elsewhere and later. He says that if you look at the time and place where capabilities are applied, you might identify, in addition to the student, others who have expectations about the content and effectiveness of the student’s education. Measuring performance in delivering this type of service can be difficult if it is to capture the value to all stakeholders.

If you listen to your customers, understand their purpose or value expectations, and can determine whether or not you are fulfilling them (and how well are you doing compared to others), you have the basis for service measurement and improvement.

Scholtes, Peter R. 1998. The Leaders Handbook – a guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow.