How to Create a Culture of Customer Service in Congress | Commentary

Posted January 13, 2015 at 5:31pm

Many members of Congress profess to want the top priority for their congressional office to be “constituent focus.” But when the Congressional Management Foundation probes, “How does that translate into the priorities, decisions and actions of your staff,” we often get a blank stare. In some respects, members of Congress are just another service provider in our society. Their customers (constituents) want something when they interact with the office. They may want an answer to a question, such as how a legislator might vote on an upcoming bill; or assistance with a problem, such as a casework request on immigration.

While creating a customer service culture in a congressional office is desirable, it is actually quite difficult. Focusing on customer service means the office will sacrifice something else by deprioritizing another activity. The CMF hosted a training program in 2012 for senior managers led by Harvard Professor Frances Frei, co-author of “Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business.” As she pointed out, you can’t be good at everything, so legislators have to ask a difficult question: “What will you be bad at?” Members, being politicians, absolutely hate saying “no” to anyone, but that’s exactly what you have to do if you want to be great at customer service.

If the member and the office are ready to focus on customer service, they should build their policies and practices around the concept known in business as First Call Resolution. FCR recognizes that in today’s Internet age, customers expect to have problems addressed immediately, in one phone call or mouse click. But Congress is still stuck in a previous era when a two-week turnaround to a constituent letter was fine and desktop computers were the size of actual desks. Congress must recognize its customers don’t measure it against “competitors” (it’s not like they can call the Canadian Parliament for help), they measure it against Amazon.com. To provide FCR, the following are some changes offices will have to make.

Improve quality of phone interactions. Most offices unconsciously deliver miserable phone service to constituents and others who contact their Washington office by assigning an intern to the front desk and providing them little to no training. There are ample benefits to training phone staff to better handle constituent calls. For example, if a campaign is underway where 90 percent of the calls are on the same topic, equip the intern with a clear script that will instantly answer the constituent’s request. This may even erase the need to respond by email, which further reduces the administrative burden on the staff.

Enhance the website to anticipate customer interest and manage expectations. A CMF public survey showed the first place constituents go when they have a question about Congress is their own legislator’s website. The survey also showed the second place is an interest group’s website. Which one do you want talking to your customers? This means creating a casework section that clearly explains the process for opening a case; creating robust issue sections; answering constituents legislative questions (and eliminating their need to send an email or make a call) and providing diverse forms of content, such as YouTube videos, making for a higher quality customer interaction.

Connect with the customer via email, don’t just respond. A CMF survey of Americans showed nearly half were dissatisfied with the responses they received from their member of Congress. Legislative correspondents draft long policy tomes, thinking they can win over the cranky constituent with their lofty language. (In reality, the LC is often really trying to impress the LD with their policy writing, so they can get promoted to LA and stop answering mail.) In the writing class we provide through the House Learning Center, the CMF urges writers to look past the basics of the issue and identify ways to demonstrate empathy, connect to the sender by seeking common ground and inject some personality.

Finally, remember that customers contacting Congress mostly want one thing: to be heard. A 2013 survey asked citizens if they agree with this statement: “My representative in Congress cares what I think.” Only 16 percent of respondents agreed. While robust customer service operations in Congress may be difficult to establish, the easy part is that the customer has already told you what they most want to hear from their legislator: “I’m listening.”

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer. His next Guest Observer will address how one congressional office created a benchmark for customer service by surveying constituents.