News Article

January 9 2013

Customer service cultures

Last year I had a couple of experiences highlighting why social researchers suggest people are becoming disengaged and cynical about government, and also why people often say rude things about public servants. To me they are very powerful examples of organisational culture.

The Tax Office

Link to ATO website

Examples of organisational culture in action: www.ato.gov.au

I recently received an email purporting to be from the Australian Tax Office (ATO). The email was well presented, with an authentic looking ATO logo and header, but a link in the email looked a bit suspicious, and I thought it was probably a phishing scam of some sort.

So I decided to call the Tax Office to find out if this had come from them.

Some of you will already be rolling your eyes, thinking that was a stupid idea on my part. And that’s sort of my point, we are so used to organisations like the ATO being painful to deal with, most of the time we won’t even bother, unless there’s some sort of threat of a fine or jail time. Even then, most people would rather pay an accountant to avoid having any direct contact with the ATO.

And, sure enough, the person on the phone conformed sadly to the stereotype. I explained my situation, described the email I’d received, and the person on the other end explained that such an email “almost certainly” didn’t come from the ATO, as they “generally don’t send emails like that.”

Notice the qualifications?

The conversation bogged down when I pushed for an improvement on ‘almost certainly’.

Eventually I let out a deep sigh as I asked: “What will it take to get a straight ‘yes-or-no’ answer?”

And this is where the cultural observation kicks in. This person had clearly been trained to rigorously avoid making any definitive statements about anything to a customer. Hedging was his default mode of communication. Should we be surprised at government staff behaving this way, when we see their bosses, politicians, do it every day in the media?

Supreme Court of Western Australia: Probate Division

Link to Probate Division of the Supreme Court of WA

Examples of organisational culture in action: Probate Division of the Supreme Court of WA

How many people do you think die in Australia? According to the ABS, there were 143,500 deaths registered in Australia in 2010. That’s nearly 400 people per day.

So you might think the Probate Division of the Supreme Court of Western Australia would be running like a pretty slickly oiled machine. After all, they are dealing with bereaved people at a time of loss. You might think they would have some well designed, finely tuned processes to minimise the hassles and stresses for people who are burdened with the sad task of managing the estate of a deceased loved one or relative?

You might think they would handle this difficult task with a fair degree of empathy and sensitivity for their customers?

Again, you might also think I’m an idiot for expecting such things from a government legal department?

I won’t bore you with the details of repeated visits the office to lodge documents, asking the staff if I had completed them correctly, to be told “We don’t provide legal advice,” then having the documents rejected and again asking the staff for clarification on what was required, to be told “We don’t provide legal advice.” After a few rounds of this, the whole process takes on the quality of surreal, Kafkaesque parody.

Whenever I encounter this sort of situation, I always wonder what it’s like for the people on the other side of the counter. Surely these people have experienced bad customer service too. Do they ever make the connection with their own work? Would they really like to do a better job, but they feel it’s not possible? If so, how does that make them feel?

Again, the cultural observation: why do we accept or even expect an organisation like the Probate Division of the Supreme Court is likely to combine the worst of State Government bureaucracy and legal red tape to produce a culture with almost no focus on the needs of its customers?

What are the leaders of these organisations doing to allow or encourage these cultural norms to thrive? What would it take to change them? If we, as customers, accept these cultural stereotypes as the norm, are we also tacitly condoning them?

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