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Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer

This post is not about a completely new idea, at least not for readers of this blog. It is a continuation and reinforcement of an earlier post, titled “Create Public Services By Enabling People To Serve Each Other”, in which I described the idea of government leaders facilitating citizen collaboration as a way of delivering at least the first line of public services. We’re not talking about just getting citizen “input”, but instead this is about creating citizen action.The reason for this posting is an article in today’s New York Times Business Section,titled “Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer.” It describes the way that Verizon uses unpaid volunteers to supply customer service — http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/business/26unbox.html. If you remember the last post, this isn’t new. Among other companies, ATT has done the same thing for awhile at http://forums.wireless.att.com/cng/. But the article describes in some detail how Verizon runs this service and what motivates the minority of volunteers who are willing stand up and become leaders of the volunteer community. In government, we would call these people auxiliary deputies in a police force or doyennes in a special park.As I noted before, what these private companies have learned is that people who do not work for the company are often more credible with other customers than employees. When these companies use these public forums, of course, they need to have a certain tolerance for criticism. Looked at the right way, though, this criticism is a form of free market research and can alert a company early to a brewing problem before that problem gets completely out of hand. That same logic applies to government. Given the declining fiscal outlook for the next few years, citizen collaboration may be the only way that some public services can be adequately sustained in the future. I suppose that Verizon, which arguably does not have the greatest reputation for customer service, feels that it cannot do any worse with volunteers. That Verizon can get people to do this is a marvel to me. It should be much easier in the public sector, since people have a direct interest in the success of their community and government.And government can start with some basic services where the only necessary expertise is having gone through the process before. So, a senior who has gone through the process of applying for “meals on wheels” or para-transit can help a senior who hasn’t done so yet. Similarly, a parent with older kids can be the one who can explain how to another parent with younger kids how to enroll for Parks Department programs. What examples can you add to this list? Please write to me at {encode=”njacknis@cisco.com” title=”njacknis@cisco.com”}Norm Jacknis {encode=”njacknis@cisco.com” title=”njacknis@cisco.com”} April 27, 2009

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