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Author's profile photo Paul O'Sullivan

What do deep sea sponges have to do with Government Customer Experience?

Rick Parrish from Forrester published a great blog on the state of customer experience (CX) in US government. What is nice about this blog is that is compares the government CX with over 300 companies in other industries. I like the way Rick points out that government fail to adequately focus on the emotion.

Here are the results for the US Federal agencies:

Unfortunately, you will see most US Federal agencies are near the bottom of the list. The National Park Service is doing great with a ranking of 34th out of 319, just outside the top 10% which is excellent.

First I want to look at how Forrester defines customer experience. Their definition:

“How customers perceive their interactions with your company.”

To me the key word here is “perceive”, this is very subjective. Many people could go thru the exact same process and have a different perception on the service or CX.

Where it gets more interesting in government is that the CX score is often the result of the outcome instead of the actual service provided.  Let’s look at a scenario where two people apply for the same social benefit. One is eligible and receives the benefit, the other is not eligible and does not receive the benefit. What will their perception be?  Both could talk to the same courteous call center agent, fill in the same intuitive online form but would receive different outcomes. I am not a behavioral scientist but I would guess that the person who did not receive the benefit would have a lower CX score.

Besides the outcome of the process the emotion involved in the process also plays a role in the CX score. Looking at the table above again we see National Park Service at the top. To me planning a trip to visit a national park would evoke a positive emotion. It is fun and exciting to travel to these wonderful parks. The agencies at the bottom of the scoring list have more negative emotions associated with them. I think this also impacts the CX score.

Let’s drill into this a bit more comparing Public Sector against other industries to see how the emotion impacts the CX score. For example, if you are shopping for the latest iPhone or another “must have” item then you would be excited. You are so excited you ignore some small issues with the process along the way and still give a positive CX score. Now compare this with paying your taxes, or needing emergency social benefits. The end user would not have the same anticipation or excitement level. The same issue encountered while purchasing the “must have” item would now be perceived differently.  Instead of being a minor inconvenience it could become a major issue and the CX score would go way down.

Even the same CX capabilities could be perceived differently based on the industry. For example, when purchasing the latest “must have” item retailers often recommends matching accessory or items required for installations. (i.e. cables to connect the new speakers). Retailers use cross sell / up sell all the time to drive revenue and improve CX. The same up sell process might be perceived less favorably in government. For example, when paying my property tax I am reminded of an upcoming bill that is renewing soon or perhaps a parking fine that is almost due. Different emotion? What should be good customer service in helping me do multiple things at once and perhaps avoid a late fee might be perceived negatively. Same up sell process but different CX score.

To me the outcome and the “emotion” during the process greatly influence the CX score.  So how can governments address and change this to increase CX scores?

Like other industries governments need to put in place modern omni-channel experience platforms. They need to focus on the customer and their experience and ease of use. They should look at emerging technologies such as machine learning, and AI. By the way SAP can help with all the above. As well as investing in technology governments also need to focus on the human and emotion side of the process.  As Rick points out “emotion has a bigger influence on federal CX than effectiveness or ease”

The Forrester CX Index score is based on a metric that incorporates effectiveness, ease of use, emotion, retention, enrichment, and advocacy.

Governments need to positively influence people’s perception of the process. Don’t focus on just the technology, incorporate the emotional side. This is where deep sea sponges come in. I bet you forgot about them.

Let’s go back to paying taxes. Let’s look at the mission statements for some national tax agencies:


Provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all.


To administer tax, benefits, and related programs, and to ensure compliance on behalf of governments across Canada, therebycontributing to the ongoing economic and social well-being of Canadians.


To contribute to the economic and social wellbeing of Australians by fostering willing participation in our tax and superannuation systems.

(Bold / Emphasis added by me)

I like that Canada and Australia point out what the purposes of taxes are. Their mission statements point out that taxes are to contribute to the economic and social well being of their citizens. For most people taxes have a negative connotation and the lower the better.  Taxes are there to fund the many wonderful things that government do. (There is that perception thing again!)

Now I do not file taxes in Canada or Australia so perhaps they do this already but what if, as part of filing taxes, the government focused on the emotion. Show the benefit it provides to the individual and society in general. Steve Jobs was famous for many things. One was that he wanted to sell dreams and emotions, not products. This principle could work for governments as well. This is why it is important for governments to know their customers. What is the benefit for them? They are not “just” paying taxes or a fee. They are contributing to their own economic and social well-being as well as that of their country.

Imaging the scenario where you could see the benefit to paying taxes. Have this personalized to you. While there is no guarantee where each individuals tax dollars go, government can affect the perception.   An environmentalist might like to see their taxes help fund some NOAA research on deep sea sponges. So, hey, paying taxes is helping to cure cancer.

(Details on NOAA research that suggests that marine invertebrates produce more antibiotic, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory substances than any group of terrestrial organisms)

In many parts of the USA the majority of school funding comes from a property tax at the local level. Depending on where you live and the house value this could be in the tens of thousands of dollars per year.  When paying school taxes it would be good to tell the tax filer the benefit to them from paying this tax. For parents with children this is often understood. What about homeowners with no children in school? What are they getting? Homes in good school districts typically see better than average property value appreciation so their house is now worth more because of the great schools.  They are in safer areas with less crime and so on. Why not point this out?  It could change the emotion from negative to positive. Will it be as exciting as getting a new iPhone or that new “must have” item?  Hell no!  However, it might raise the CX score from the 300’s out of 319 to a score closer to National Park Service.

Please let me know what you think. Do you know of governments doing this already?

Here is the full blog from Rick Parrish of Forrester:

He is a great though leadership piece titled “The digital nudge in social security administration” from Shirley Gregor from the College of Business and Economics, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia and Brian-Lee Archer from the SAP Institute for Digital Government.

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      Author's profile photo Hein Keijzer
      Hein Keijzer

      Thanks Paul for this great blog! It's food for thought. As I'm not aware of other great examples unfortunately I do know that many tax departments are now focusing on their experience/engagement with taxpayers. I expect a lot to be come in the next period of time in this area.