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Businessweek Archives

Giving New Meaning To Public Service



Fed up. Thats how customers often feel about the service they receive in America. Tired of bored, inattentive sales clerks, angry at ripoffs by car repairmen, and exasperated by voice mail that does everything except answer their questions, consumers are mad as hell. They're taking their dollars to more and more corporations that realize that meeting consumers' needs and solving their problems are what business, in the end, is all about (page 46).

So we have the wonderful example of Home Depot, which, as a way of selling power tools and sinks, is hiring carpenters and plumbers to offer on-the-spot lessons to customers on how to fix their dens and kitchens. And we see Dell Computer holding a weekly Customer Advocate Meeting and declaring that each customer "is a partner" who must be pleased, not just satisfied. By refocusing business activities, the private sector is beginning to respond to consumers deep-seated feelings of neglect and abuse.

If this were only true of the public sector. People are as fed up with the poor quality of government services as they are with the rotten treatment they receive while shopping. The failure to deliver services has generated a deep suspicion of government. It's behind the drive for choice and vouchers in education, as well as the the move to privatize garbage collection and other city services. What lessons can the private sector teach the public sector? First, providing great service requires that the entire organization focus directly on the consumer. So school systems should put their dollars into classrooms and children, not huge bureaucracies. Second, compensation is a powerful tool in rewarding employees for providing good service. So motor vehicles bureaus should make efficient service a part of pay scales otherwise dominated by seniority. Third, training in problem solving is crucial. So a Post Office "I dunno," followed by a blank stare, should be replaced by Wait a minute, Ill find someone who can help you. The private sector is starting to do a much better job of catering to consumers who are angry with lousy service. Improving the delivery of government services is the next challenge.

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