If there’s anything that the Affordable Care Act website glitches have taught us, it’s that “we the people” expect our government not only to be online, but also to offer the type of consumer experience we expect from major brands. In a nutshell, we believe getting government support should be as easy as buying a book on Amazon.

The fact is that we’re a long way from that, particularly at the state and local government level. This is largely due to dramatic budget cuts over the last five years that have prevented agencies from growing their customer service centers or upgrading their online experiences. Indeed, according to a recent survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government (owned by e.Republic, which is also the parent company of Government Technology) and customer engagement and contact center solution provider Genesys, more than 40 percent of state and local governments claimed to need additional capabilities to better serve constituents. Needed capabilities include multi-channel communication methods, support for home-based work capabilities, and better customer service metrics and decision management support.

While government agency budgets have been cut, consumer expectations of service have risen sharply. More than 54 percent of residents use online self-service portals and more than 34 percent use social media to communicate with their state and local governments, according to the same study. Those numbers are only expected to rise.

Today, government agencies need to become tech-savvy while at the same adhering to the basic tenets of customer service that have helped brands like Amazon become powerhouses in their industry. While this may seem like a lofty goal for an organization not especially known for being customer-friendly, it is absolutely possible. In fact, some governmental agencies are already achieving success.

For example, the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) administers federal funds for public services — such as food, medical, financial, and heating assistance, as well as child protection and family welfare services — through a network of approximately 100 statewide offices. With the local economy in a downturn, the department was facing unprecedented demand for its services, which threatened to overload its caseworkers. This challenge required a major rethink of its contact center operations. By tapping into the power of cloud technology and state-of-the-art customer contact software, the department now uses integrated voice recognition to boost online capabilities, which has freed up caseworkers to tackle more urgent cases.

By making these improvements, DHS has seen workloads ease substantially and customer service levels increase. The agency has received more than 180,000 online application forms without anyone having to visit an office and the new voice systems handled nearly a half million phone calls without involving a caseworker. At an estimated five minutes per call, that equates to several thousand hours per month released for caseworkers to conduct more complex work.

The same factors that have made the Michigan DHS story a success can be applied to any governmental organization. To be successful, governmental customer care experiences must follow the three golden rules of customer service:

●    Optimize technology: Agencies should leverage their existing technology. This is exactly the approach that the Michigan DHS took. With the power of the cloud and affordable software, there is no limit to what can be achieved for reasonable costs as opposed to the old days when any change meant a massive overhaul.

●    Offer good service: Let's be honest, the chance of a governmental agency of any type exceeding customer expectations is nonexistent. And the fact is that people don't even care about this — they just want an experience that meets their expectations. And this type of good customer service can actually cost less. It all goes back to the “first call resolution” mantra of customer care: if a citizen gets their issues resolved the first time they contact the agency, the agency can experience significant cost savings in delivering that service. Computer telephony integration to ensure that an agent has all the information that they need can shorten a call by more than 20 percent.

●    Achieve consistency across channels: Consistency of service is the big black hole of customer care. To fix this, you need to make sure there is a consistent message and service across all mediums. The reason why most customers still prefer the phone is simply because they know what to expect. Once the level of service on the web is virtually equal to what it is on the phone, more people will migrate to the Web, which is where most want to be anyway.

When governments invest in engaging and useful customer experiences, they ultimately lower costs and optimize workforce efficiency, particularly in areas such as unemployment, welfare, social services, and child support. State and local government leaders have known this but have not had the right technology available to make this a reality in an affordable way. The cloud has changed this. Government is at an important inflection point — one that the challenges of the Affordable Care Act site has magnified. A simple, affordable investment in cloud-based customer care technology can change citizens’ perceptions of government, increase efficiency and effectiveness, and lower costs. The time for this change is now.

Bill Grabner, Director of Government Solutions at Genesys

Bill Grabner, Director of Government Solutions at Genesys, has 20 years of experience in the contact center/telecommunications industry.