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Guest Blogger: Rick Parrish | February 21, 2014

Welcome, Governments, to the Age of the Customer

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For those who--despite the healthcare.gov customer experience debacle--remain unconvinced that the Age of the Customer applies to governments, the Sochi Olympics should do the trick. Both customer experience (CX) disasters have highlighted a hard lesson for governments: The same technologies that empower customers in the private sector also allow the people to control the public narrative. In the Age of the Customer:

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• Customers bypass official government sources. Customers go straight to online reviews and social networks for information about products and political issues. Social media broke and drove the story of healthcare.gov's initial failure. From customers' first Tweeted screenshots of the broken web site, to tales of long waits, overwhelmed contact centers, and rejected applications, individual citizens led traditional news outlets and government spokespeople around by the nose. Sochi customers immediately told the world about their awful experiences, too. For many people, their first images of the Sochi Olympics were cell phone pics of unfinished hotels, brown drinking water, gaping elevator shafts, and the seemingly cardboard door an athlete broke through to escape from his bathroom. (Check out some favorite examples here and here.)

• Governments that try to drive the public agenda just fuel the fire. Obama administration officials first tried the usual maneuvers--minimizing healthcare.gov's problems, focusing on positive health care stories, and changing the subject entirely--but the groundswell of grassroots outcries finally led to Obama's nearly unprecedented blunt personal apology a few weeks later. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak tried a time-honored authoritarian tactic when, fed up with customer complaints, he retorted that the Russian government had surveillance video of people in their hotel bathooms. Kozak actually succeeded in refocusing customers' attention briefly, but probably not in a direction the Russian government preferred.

Government customer experience failures like healthcare.gov and Sochi aren't just cosmetic problems. They have serious consequences for both politics and policy. After all,

• The healthcare.gov CX fiasco hurt Obama and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In the wake of the bungled website rollout, only four in 10 Americans considered Obama an effective manager of the government--his lowest score ever. His overall approval ratings bottomed out at the same time, a trend to which the web site fiasco no doubt contributed. The administration cited healthcare.gov's problems when it delayed registration deadlines for both 2014 and 2015 insurance plans, postponed insurers' deadline to set 2015 rates by a month, and shelved online enrollment of small businesses for an entire year.

• The Sochi CX troubles marred Moscow's grand ambitions. The Sochi Olympics were supposed to be glorious ego extravaganza for Putin and a debutante ball for Russian tourism and business. But with social media and traditional news coverage of Olympic-sized CX problems rivaling the usual event and medal count reporting, attendees and customers at home will come away with a decidedly mixed review of their experience. Who knows how much money these problems will cost Russia in lost revenue?

To adapt to the Age of the Customer, governments need to become customer-obsessed. That means that, just like companies, governments should start thinking from their customers' perspectives. Governments have unique perverse incentives, budget and ecosystem problems, and legal and regulatory issues to hobble their CX efforts, but governments can build customer experiences from the outside-in. A self-assessment is a good place to start. And there is reason for optimism: Over 3 million people have signed up on healthcare.gov, and the halfpipe hasn't totally melted just yet.

For more information about what to from U.S. federal government customer experience in 2014, check out my recent report, Predictions 2014: Government Customer Experience. Follow me on Twitter at @RickParrishGCX!

About the Author:

Rick Parrish is a government customer experience analyst at Forrester Research

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