Can Government Act Like the Waldorf Astoria?

Over a four year period, the New York City Department of Finance (NYCDoF) worked to design and implement a basic performance management system.  With the support of the Public Strategies Group (of which I played a role), NYCDoF established the process of focusing on results, developing performance measures, and implementing the measurement and learning process.

The transformation of NYCDoF included an effort to sustain a culture of customer focus and continual improvement in the results the organization delivers to New Yorkers. Hundreds of workshops and programs over several years were held across the organization focusing on results and on improving customer service. Specific training on customer service was targeted for employees directly serving the public in call centers and business centers.

Definitely not a hotel, but could it be a place for great customer service?

At the core of this initiative was a service vision: “We help people to pay the right amount on time.”

If you were an employee of New York City’s Department of Finance, what would that statement mean? Well, in general it would include the following:

  • “We” suggests that we all need to help support.
  • “Help” suggests that we’re going to take on a more supportive role.
  • “Pay the right amount” suggests an element of fairness and even transparency.
  • “On time” suggests that we’re going to create efficiencies focused around the payment process.

Now imagine that your role in the department of Finance was not to collect taxes, or to even directly work with the public, but rather handle security and clean bathrooms. Such was the situation for the site management team. They wanted to align themselves with a public-sector mission like “helping people to pay the right amount on time”. But just how?

Added to that dilemma was the fact that morale was at a huge low. Most people felt chewed up and spit out. The organization had experienced budget cut after budget cut, followed by organizational changes that made them feel like their right hand had been cut off. Complaints about the work they did were open and loud.

In contemplating this, the organization’s leader, Sheila Williams was contemplating the experience of what it would be like to stay at the Waldorf Hotel. Clearly, the site management would never be able to offer a facility as impressive as the Waldorf. But they could offer service that was equally impressive. They may not be able to provide million dollar rooms, but they could provide million dollar service.

Waldorf Astoria, Orlando, Florida.

They noted what triggers kept them from accomplishing their goals. They included the following:

  1. Uncooperative clients
  2. Give me, give me, give me
  3. Clients who don’t know what they want—change scope
  4. Egos vs….Customer wants or perceived ideas.
  5. How do we say “no” and have the customer walk away feeling valued.
  6. Negative/pessimistic thinking such as—“just get it over with” or “whatever”.

Addressing these issues was not easy. The work of trying to transform the organization was initially met with skepticism and pessimism. It felt like another flavor of the month. After considerable thought though, the folks at site management put to words their own creed.

Site Management

We are one of those unique groups in Finance. We are special. Why?

We get to personally touch each employee in the agency.

We are in their face. We are in their space.

Everybody gets moved or has their HM repaired. That’s us.

Almost everybody needs a phone and a chair. That’s us.

And the employees who do not have a phone or a desk or a chair, use a vehicle. That’s us.

Everybody needs their space cleaned. That’s us.

Everybody needs to be secure in their workspace. That’s us.

Site Management

We come together, we figure it out, we get it done.

To fulfill this creed, they focused on engaging their employees. They administered the Gallup Q12, which looked deeply at employee engagement. The results were initially painful. In trying to resolve matters, they focused on addressing their strengths, rather than focusing on their weaknesses. Training and development around customer service focused on areas for improvement.

In time, not only did employee engagement scores rise, but completion of work orders on a timely basis went from an abysmal 28% to 98%. That came from a lot of hard work and a focus on serving others. And Sheila, who led the team through these challenges, has been nominated by her peers more than any other in the agency for her leadership and courage to tackle this difficult area.

There are messages not just for government, but for any organization:

  • What is your service vision?
  • Does the image others have of you limit your potential?
  • What does it take to change the paradigm of how your employees see themselves?
  • How willing are you to really embrace your employee engagement scores and take action?
  • How will improving employee engagement improve the products and services you deliver to others?

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