ANOTHER VIEW: Wallace O. Keene

Use online tools to improve customer service

Wallace O. Keene

Knowledge management is moving to the front office, where it should affect customer service in a big way.

That's according to Sanju Bansal, co-founder and chief operating officer of MicroStrategy Inc. of Vienna, Va. Bansal, who spoke last month at a conference in Alexandria, Va., said the knowledge management concept is drawing interest from organizations that want to improve service to the public, as well as those that want to improve service to their own users.

Until now, knowledge management had been largely focused on data mining and data warehousing for internal use. But moving it to the front office signals a shift in focus from internal to external services. For government, Bansal called it a shift from an agency-centric to a customer-centric view.

If all of this seems arcane, consider this analogy. Think back a few decades to when you frequented your neighborhood bookstore, hardware store or grocer.

In yesteryear's store, you knew the owner, and the owner knew you, your tastes and his own products. He could make you feel comfortable with purchases for yourself and your family members. Personal service of this type has largely disappeared with the advent of mass marketing and big-box stores where price is the only discriminator.

You can still find vestiges of the old mom-and-pop store. In Charles Town, W.Va., the local hardware store is in a 100-year-old building. You'd swear the piles of stuff defy inventory control or even awareness. Yet when I was looking for a hunting knife not long ago, the elderly gentleman in charge went upstairs, down a hall to a dark corner and pulled from a pile of miscellaneous items exactly the knife I was seeking.

The emergence of knowledge management is helping restore that kind of service online. Bansal noted that services via the Web can be dramatically different from brick-and-mortar retail services if the new environment is rich with information.

Amazon.com Inc.'s site, with its reviews and lists of related books that tend to make you feel comfortable about your purchase, is a prime example.

Bansal's second point was subtler. He spoke eloquently of the dignity of Amazon.com, and how the company sends a customer up to four feedback messages within 48 hours of receiving an order.

Dignity? We don't hear the term often in customer service. But providing it can bind customers to service providers, encouraging a continuing and trusting association.

Federal agencies should take note. Bansal's lesson is the importance of customer feedback. For agencies, this could be acknowledging receipt of an application for a service or benefit, advising an applicant about when a response is likely or sending a notice to let a recipient know the process is under way. Technology can handle these transactions almost automatically and at low cost.

I learned related lessons several years ago when I helped the IRS re-engineer some business processes. First off, agencies need to listen to their employees. The IRS' employees thought that the agency should reverse how it spent its resources, from 80 percent on enforcing tax compliance and 20 percent on education to just the opposite.

The employees believed tax compliance overall would improve if citizens knew what was expected. This idea fell largely on deaf ears until the current commissioner's appointment.

In IRS we trust

IRS teams also came up with the idea of providing immediate tax refunds. The IRS would send the taxpayer what he claimed was owed, then check out the return. This change saved the agency $20 million a year by reducing administrative overhead. With the slow refund process, millions of filers had followed up with phone calls and letters to which the agency had to respond.

As agencies try to implement President Clinton's directive to put 500 federal forms on the Web by year's end, they might consider asking for the e-mail address of forms requesters so they can provide feedback.

There's no mystery about what good service is. Now agencies have access to the tools that can make it happen.

Wallace O. Keene, a former government systems manager, is a principal with the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington.

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