158 – Customer perception. Why is it important in local government services?

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              670 words

customer service gaps

Image adapted from Slack, Chambers, Harland, Harrison, and Johnston 1998, Operations Management, 2nd Edition.

There have been a number of posts on aspects of customer service – who are our customers, customer-introduced variability, how do you listen to the ‘voice of the customer, internal customers , what Gordon Ramsay might think about council customer service, and captive customers. If there has been a thread through these posts, it has been the need to look at services from the customers’ viewpoint and to understand constitutes value for them.

The posts on value have discussed how to understand both private and public value – why do we provide the services that we do, the private-public value continuum, applying the public value scorecar , public value gap analysis, local government and commodity services, value-led management, and a series on a new theory of value creation in local government. The idea that people seek private value and councils set out to create public value is at the heart of a lot of customer service problems.

One aspect of customer service that hasn’t been discussed is the role of perception. Councils regularly monitor perception through their customer and community satisfaction surveys. People are asked what they think about council services and they are usually asked to say what is important and then how well the council has performed (importance/performance analysis). These surveys have become more sophisticated over the years but they are still relying on people’s recollection of the last interaction they had with the council.

The diagram above shows the various steps in the process of a customer deciding they need a service to the delivery of the service and their perception of it. It is noteworthy that there are four critical gaps where things can go wrong. Each of these is worth some thought.

The first potential gap is between what a customer tells us they want and what we offer them. ‘I want my rubbish collected’. ‘Yes, we collect rubbish’. New residents take a bit of training in the way rubbish is collected. Every council in Victoria is similar but there are differences. We can’t always assume that our service is what the customer thinks they will get.

The second gap is related. The organisation, through its management, needs to determine what service will be provided. It is a key part of the operations strategy to develop a value proposition and organise the available resources to provide it.   This is part of the question about what drives operations strategy – the requirements of the market (i.e. the community or customers) or the operational resources and the constraints they impose

The third gap is the organisation’s ability to deliver on its own service specification – first time, every time. This gap is affected by the ability o organise and control operations, and the ability to manage customer-introduced variability. Both sources of variation can mean that the service delivered is not the one intended.

The last gap relates to the customer’s perception of what has been delivered. This gap exists when the service does not meet expectations. A commonly asked question in local government is whether the expectations were reasonable. The image of the service in the ‘mind’s eye’ of the customer is critical. As much effort as possible should be put into shaping the expectations of service by understanding the needs of the customer and explaining the design of the service.

Councils put little effort into managing the ‘customer’s domain’. It is the ‘marketing and promotions’ territory of the private sector and for similar reasons, although done in different ways, councils should be active there as well. The continuous focus on the ‘operations domain’ risks the organisation’s needs driving the service offering rather than the customer.

The challenge is to get everyone thinking about the ‘customer’s domain’ to influence their expectations, understand their requirements and then be organised to deliver services that meet their needs.

Slack, Nigel, Chambers, Stuart, Harland, Christine, Harrison, Alan, and Johnston, Robert 1998. Operations Management, 2nd Edition.