Volume 10, Number 1 – February 2013

New Directions in Business Development: Rethinking Customer Service

Remember Reinventing Government?  Then-Vice President Al Gore’s plan to transform the public sector never fully lived up to its hype, but it did help generate an important and ongoing movement to make government agencies work better and more efficiently.   In many cases, the impacts on the ground are palpable.  For example, I recently made a visit to my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office.   While it was no day at the beach, it was a decent customer service experience—far removed from the Kafkaesque ordeal that the DMV presented in early years.   Many of these everyday government service experiences—paying taxes, reporting potholes, or even voting have been markedly improved thanks to new ideas and strategies for reinventing government. 

While progress has been made, some parts of the public sector remain largely untouched and unreformed.   Business services are one primary example.  In most communities, it is still quite a burden to obtain a business or professional license, to build or renovate business space, or to learn about how to access needed services or support.   The subtitle of a recent Slate article, “Starting a Business is a Huge Pain,” captures the reality in many communities:   “I’ve been to three offices, filed five forms, spent $200, wasted a day of work—and I’m not even close to getting the license I need.” 

This lack of progress in the customer service experience for small business is frustrating, but at least policy makers are starting to recognize and respond to the problem.  At the Federal level, an interagency task force, the Interagency Network of Enterprise Assistance Providers (INEAP), has been meeting for years to discuss better ways to serve business   More importantly, local governments are waking up and realizing that the real customer service problems are closer to home in their agencies and offices. 

The challenges of providing effective customer service to businesses are myriad.  A recent study from GovLoop and Oracle makes for sobering reading.  The report analyzes customer service challenges and also reports on a related survey of program managers.  The research finds that government agencies do a poor job of identifying customers, and in using data to better understand and serve their customers.   Then, the situation is further worsened as technology shortcomings and organizational roadblocks make it hard to implement any far-reaching program reforms or service improvements.  In a nutshell, it’s often a big mess that has its origins in poor data collection, weak technology capabilities, and dysfunctional organizational structures and management practices.

While the challenges are daunting, many communities are stepping up to the plate.   The creation of state and city Chief Innovation Officers is one promising trend.  These new CIOs focused on a host of different issues, but improving customer service is generally one of their core focus areas.   For example, in San Francisco, the Office of Civic Innovation, is heavily focused on open data initiatives, but is also supporting a program to streamline business permitting.

Two other promising models can be found in New York City and Kansas City.  In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is six months into a new Business Customer Service initiative with the laudable goals of making rules easier, clearer and faster.  The first stages of the effort have produced a series of ten NYC Starter Guides that offer step-by-step guides to starting common businesses like restaurants, professional offices, or salons.  The guides are further supported by by a Business Acceleration Team with a focus on speeding up the business start-up process.   Future plans for this initiative include allowing more online payments and the ability to get online updates of the status of various license and other regulatory requests.

Kansas City (MO) is also in the midst of a promising initiative based around its KC BizCare Center.  KC BIzCare is a powerful web portal that not only provides access to information on regulations and procedures, but also links business owners to other kinds of development resources, such as loan funds, technical assistance, and the like.   It is also linked to the City’s 311 Call Center where residents can access public services from all city agencies. 

When I’m looking at promising new initiatives like those in NYC and KC, my initial reaction is: it’s about time.  But, I’d also add that “it’s better late than never.”   It’s taken awhile, but all levels of government seem to be getting the message that small business customers deserve quality customer service.   Watch this space for future updates on these important trends!

What’s New at EntreWorks Consulting?

We’ve got some upcoming speaking engagements over the new few months, including the North Carolina Economic Developers Association in March and the IEDC Federal Forum event in April.  Hope to see you on the road!

We continue to provide more regular news and updates at the EntreWorks blog at http://entreworks.net/blog.  Recent postings have taken a deeper look at the Creative Class and profiled success stories like economic gardening and the Community Development Financial Institutions program.  You can also access blog updates at our Facebook page.