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How's Uncle Sam's customer service?

Based on your interactions with various agencies, how would you grade the federal government when it comes to the help you receive?

By MSN Money Partner Jan 23, 2012 2:04PM

This post comes from Brian O'Connellat partner siteMainStreet.


Normally, the federal government is right up there with used car salesmen and ambulance-chasing lawyers in terms of customer service satisfaction. But Uncle Sam is making progress, depending on your political affiliation, at least.


Of course, it's important to note that most Americans don't approve of the size and scope of the U.S. government (only 29% do, according to a recent Gallup poll).


So when you do interact with the government -- big as it may be -- such as with the Internal Revenue Service or a U.S. senator's office, or with a Medicare or Social Security clerk, the real question is this: How was the help you received?


The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based American Customer Satisfaction Index took a good look at that question and offers some eye-opening answers. The ACSI came out with a study Wednesday showing that Americans are growing more satisfied (OK, slightly more satisfied) with their customer service interaction with the government.


The data show a year-to-year improvement in that sentiment, up 2.3% to 66.9 (on a scale of 1 to 100) from 2010 to 2011. The ACSI data also shows a marked improvement from the prior year-to-year customer service satisfaction rate, when Americans' satisfaction toward government customer service fell almost 5% from 2009 to 2010.


Interestingly, the data seem to show a clear-cut case of Americans not liking government but liking the individuals they meet (politicians may be an exception) when they actually interact with government.


"While people generally distrust federal government as a whole, they are much more positive towards the job that individual agencies are performing," says Claes Fornell, ACSI founder and author of "The Satisfied Customer: Winners and Losers in the Battle for Buyer Preference." Post continues below.

"Paradoxically perhaps, these findings suggest that the more people come into contact with government service, the more they actually like it," he says. "The lack of trust has much more to do with politicians than it does with federal workers and the services of the federal government."


Consumers appear to give higher grades to the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior, while giving low marks to the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Treasury. The report mentions the National Weather Service and the U.S. Small Business Administration as good examples of public sector agencies that rival anything the private service economy offers.


The much-maligned IRS is showing signs of improvement as well. Americans who use the agency's online tax-filing services have a much higher satisfaction rating (at 78) than do those consumers who file their taxes on paper.


Obviously, your political leaning plays an important role in how you view customer services. ACSI says conservatives are less likely to approve of their customer service experience with the federal government, compared with liberals -- but by only five points, as ranked by the index.


Plus, the more online services used by a government consumer, the higher the approval rating. "Concurrent with other studies, e-government beats traditional methods when it comes to enhancing citizens' views about the functioning of government," adds Fornell. "ACSI results confirm that the promotion of e-government initiatives is not only a worthwhile pursuit but is one that will likely continue to alter the landscape of government."


Of course, nobody is lining up to give the federal government a "customer service provider of the year" award, but inch by inch, at least, customer service is making its way into the conversation.


More on MainStreet and MSN Money:

Jan 23, 2012 3:35PM
I give the IRS customer service an H because saying they deserve an F would be giving them too much credit.  A number of years ago I owed back taxes to the tune of $3000 with penalties and interest.  I continued to receive collection letters after I paid it off.  I talked to no less than four customer dis-service representatives and not a single one was helpful.  One even told me that she did not have the authority to take care of my issue and a manager would contact me within 48 hours.  Wanna guess if anyone ever contacted me?  They claimed to have no record of my payment despite the fact that I had proof positive that my account was settled in full.  I never got any resolution.  I got so angry that I just gave up and after a while the collection letters stopped.  I guess they found the payment that they misplaced.  Worst customer service experience ever.
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