A Tale of Two Service Experiences

Miguel Gamino, CIO & Executive Director-Department of Technology, City and County of San Francisco
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On a recent trip out of state with my family, I had the worst customer service experience of recent memory. The flight itself was delightful. The plane was new, the amenities modern and the airport was pleasant enough. Once we arrived, consistent with Murphy’s law, everything that could go wrong did.

First, the airline lost our luggage, then when we were most eager to start vacationing, we waited in a long line to report it lost. From there, we were promised the best experience one could expect in our situation. But they over promised and under delivered. We never received a phone call and our luggage didn’t show up for days. Instead of building sand castles on the beach with my daughter, I spent the first few days of our trip navigating a phone tree; chasing down the right customer service person and sending angry tweets.

Things inevitably go wrong, it’s how you respond that matters. What makes good customer service is no mystery: clear communication, professionalism, and friendliness are all part of the recipe. Excellent service is easily accessible and responsive.

San Francisco is raising the bar when it comes to setting the experience standard for its customers: our residents, businesses, and visitors i.e. the public. We recently launched a digital service strategy to re-design the public experience. We're creating opportunities for the everyday person to take care of their city business in the same way they do nearly everything else -- online or with their smartphone.

What does this mean for the everyday San Franciscan? It means the days of taking time off from work to make the trip to City Hall and running to various offices during business hours will soon be a distant memory. Anyone who wants to open a business gets a parking permit, or search for job opportunities in San Francisco can start the process at their convenience, using a web browser and #SFWiFi, our public wi-fi network. In the event a task cannot be completed online, we're making the information they need more accessible, so that no one has to walk into City Hall empty handed. San Franciscans can come to City Hall with forms already completed, a check list that informs them which offices to visit and what other supporting materials to bring, like multiple forms of ID.

The private sector is accountable to shareholders and customers. Shareholders want a return on their investment, and customers choose how to engage that business, along with product quality, convenience, price, and service.

  ​What makes good customer service is no mystery: clear communication, professionalism, and friendliness are all part of the recipe. 

If we think about our constituents as customers, then we too are responsible for quality assurance, accessibility and their experience. However, unlike the private sector, our constituents can’t turn to an alternative partner when our product isn’t up to par. Which is why I’m re-focusing our department to build tools that reflect the standard of excellence we're establishing as a city under Mayor Ed Lee's leadership.

Excellent service is a cornerstone of my department's strategy as we redesign how we deliver service to the 60+ departments that make up San Francisco's local government, and to the public. We're incorporating core principles of excellent service into our plan. The Department of Technology has long been a service organization, but our previous method of service delivery focused on our function. We're now committed to getting the job done and delivering an amazing experience to go with it.

We recently created a Digital Service and Products division to build modern digital products that make government more accessible to the public. The emphasis on service was the missing piece of the puzzle, Jack Donaghy’s third heat, if this were an episode of 30Rock.

With every product we design or build, we’re designing with the consumer in mind. We’ve started demonstrating how we can leverage technology to ease our constituents' burden. In late 2014, we launched the San Francisco Business Portal, a comprehensive web tool that consolidates the complex information surrounding business registration, permits and licenses. We built the portal to help businesses start and grow in San Francisco. Since launch, we’ve watched the positive feedback roll in from social media. Our constituents say things like “defies typical govtech,” and “a pleasure to explore.”

Previously, opening a business in San Francisco required the applicant visit up to 18 different departments and acquire dozens of permits before ever opening the doors to face the challenges that come with operating a business, like making payroll.

Despite the positive feedback, we can't rest on our laurels. Postlaunch, we continue to develop new iterations of the Business Portal. Adding functionality, like user accounts, so visitors can store documents, and starter kits, so entrepreneurs can plan their work, getting a checklist of the permits needed for the specific business they’re opening. Next, we’ll create a new way for entrepreneurs to submit applications and payments online.

Why are we restructuring in this way? Shouldn’t someone who wants to operate a business in San Francisco already know where to find permits and write a business plan? Maybe. Some say it’s not government’s job to teach people what should be learned elsewhere. This isn’t the point for us. It’s true that the information is readily accessible with a few Google searches, but we can save our constituents a few extra steps by empathizing with them, and it doesn’t require anything extra, just being thoughtful.

We never set out to build a website. We set out to design an accessible, delightful experience that provided entrepreneurs value. As an added consequence, we increased trust in the process and in local government. We’ve seen the number of unique visitors to the Business Portal increase more than 13x.

Though not everything is as complex as starting a business, we aim to bring this level of service to everything we do. Including how we serve our internal client departments.We serve them by implementing and maintaining the IT solutions that help them do their business. The majority of support calls that come to our service desk, only require simple fixes to resolve; things like email password resets and help logging in.  My team handles these calls daily, in addition to more complex service calls. We saw an opportunity to reduce wait times for the customers who didn't plan to spend a few hours with us and just needed a charger cable.

To handle these kinds of requests at scale, we’re launching ServiceLab, an Apple Store-like genius bar, where any one of the 30,000+ city employees can walk into our office and speak with a client success representative. ServiceLab staff, will be on hand during business hours to  help like things like device tune-ups, replacement equipment requests, loaner equipment, and software upgrades.

By creating a new pipeline for the quickly solved support calls to flow through, we unclog the existing pipe and create more space for the support calls that require more time and expertise to resolve.

Whether it's Amazon, Apple or another organization that delivers stellar customer service, San Francisco is taking note and we're not far behind.