Does fear trump customer service when it comes to the U.S. government?

Today I had some business to conduct with a government agency (insert groan here). Now, without boring you with the details, I had some questions I needed answered. I tried to handle my business in person, but was told that I had to call instead. I won't even go into how many days I tried to get through (four) or how long I was on hold once the system let me into the cue. What I'd like to concentrate on is the conversation I had with the person on the other end of the line.

So, after waiting for what seemed like days, I finally get connected to the government rep. Let's call her Patty Cake. I asked Patty my question and she gave me an answer. The answer, unfortunately, didn't provide the information I needed. Therefore, I rephrased my query and asked again. For the second time, Patty gave me an answer, but it still wasn't an answer that helped me. Ms. Cake then told me I wasn't paying attention.

I listened to her talking at me for another minute and then I repeated back to her what she said and I ended with, "Do I understand that correctly?" Her response, "No, you're not listening to me." Ah, gee, I suspect the issue is more important to me than it is to Patty, so I find it hard to believe I wasn't listening. Patty Cake continues talking, but I'm no wiser for it.

Now, I'm not stupid. I'm a good listener and I've handled communications for some large companies, so trust me when I say I know how to decipher information. Therefore, I try again. I take the latest details she's given me and repeat them back to her to verify that we're both on the same page. She snaps at me.

At this point, I want to call her a bad word (you know the one). Instead, however, I say, "Why are you being so mean to me?" She says she's not. Liar.

In any other circumstance I'd ask for her supervisor to express my dissatisfaction. However, the fact of the matter is, this rep has my social security number, my birth date, and my computer file open. She can delete something or add a note that would make my life a living nightmare. This woman has my entire existence in front of her and can turn my world upside down with the swipe of a key. I know that; she knows it, too.

As is the case with most government agencies, the customer service reps have the power to make things easy or tough for you. And, I'm sure I'm not alone in my fear that a rep might do something nasty just to spite an annoying caller. Yeah, yeah, don't tell me there are safeguards in place. I'm sure there are. But, despite health laws, an annoyed waiter still finds a way to spit in your food, right?   

So, that leads me to the question: Can customer service ever be superior in a government agency if people are afraid to complain about bad service? Or, am I the only paranoid Scaredy Cat?

Let's hear it! Be honest, but be kind. I'm still a little fragile from my Patty Cake experience.


  1. Fun post and interesting.

  2. Thanks, Kevin! It falls into the "truth is stranger than fiction" category, huh? ;->

  3. I went to the DMV last week. I'm still reeling from it & didn't come away with what I needed (of course). I think the gov't would be well served
    to adopt the Chick Fila customer service model. If they did Americans would complain less about the gov't.

    That didn't really answer your question ... I'm a "fly off the handle"
    type so I tend to gripe at my own risk.

  4. Dey, thanks for adding to the discussion and feel free to gripe away! This is an approved rant-zone ;->

    I actually haven't ever been to Chick-fil-A. I'll have to look into their customer service model. What is it you like about it?

  5. Sorry you had such a bad experience.

    I've had lots of experience with government workers. Ask for the supervisor. If there is anything put in your file you have FERPA protection to at least see what it is and make a statement why/why not it is accurate.

    As for Patty, "pat it, prick it...put it in the oven" Tell the supervisor what happened and ask him/her your question. Also keep a record of his/her name, date and time.

    ps. Thanks for the words of encouragement yesterday. Mary

  6. Mary, thanks for stopping by and adding to our little discussion. Yeah, I do know you have "protections" and are able to dispute things later. However, I also know that what the government says is law until they decide to say otherwise. A headache I just don't need.

    My pleasure to lend some support yesterday. When I saw your comment on Chris' blog, I could tell you were discouraged. Just do your best, but you don't have to be perfect. Besides, your version of perfect might vary from your readers' idea of perfect, so don't over analyze.

    As I looked at your blog, my only other thought is that maybe some posts can be broken down into a series of posts. For example, the post you have on Aaron could be a week-long series, each day tackling a different topic. You have a weighty topic, so I can understand why you pour so much time into your posts. But, maybe doing a series could be an easy fix. Less time per post and more posts to publish. Just a thought.

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  7. Amber, I'm so glad you bring issues like this to light. I can go from 0-FEAR even in the public sector because even they have a lot of information!

    But I like what you say about human communication. It isn't really them vs us. I think the least anxious person in the "room" wins. Winning in the way of leading the energy. They are relaxed because they have nothing to lose - so if you go in pretending you are in the same position it can really turn things in your favor. A bit of a mind trick but it starts with our breathing.

    I've been playing a game lately and asking myself how relaxed can I be in this situation? Taking deep breaths even though it makes no sense at all to be relaxed and I have every "right" to get upset etc. If that doesn't work then I curl up in a little ball and start sobbing. ;)

  8. that is horrid. I was cringing just reading this (having flashbacks of my own experiences with gov. people whose butts I felt I HAD to kiss). It's humiliating and infuriating! Amber, ask me later about my coworker who recently called the WeTip Hotline (so-called "anonymous") only to find her drug-dealer neighbor was on the take from the local cops who traced her number and threatened her afterward. Nice. Makes you feel all safe and cozy before you go to sleep, right?

  9. Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to contribute to the dialogue! Generally, I have no such issues in the "real" world, but those government types are a whole different breed! Honestly, I was experimenting a little with the "why are you being mean to me" thing. Wondering if appearing meek opposed to angry would yield a different result.

    I'll try your technique in the future. And hopefully, my deep breaths won't turn into hyperventilating! :->

  10. Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to contribute to the dialogue! Generally, I have no such issues in the "real" world, but those government types are a whole different breed! Honestly, I was experimenting a little with the "why are you being mean to me" thing. Wondering if appearing meek opposed to angry would yield a different result.

    I'll try your technique in the future. And hopefully, my deep breaths won't turn into hyperventilating! :->

  11. If you come back to my blog in the future, you'll find that generally I'm very squeaky! This is probably the only time you'll see me not causing a riot. :->

  12. See, there ya go! I'm not completely half-baked in a batter of paranoia! Your poor neighbor. Things like that do happen! No, they shouldn't. But, yes, they do! That's the thing about safeguards, they always seem to have a government loophole!

    Thanks for the federally-funded lullaby, Patricia! Your tragic example makes me feel a bit better, although a lot less hopeful! ;->

  13. We have had similar experiences with govt workers in trying to get matters settled for our small business. When we were in CA we paid a balance due, which we didn't owe, just to get them to go away; wasn't worth our time to fight over a relatively small amount. I wonder how often that happens? Maybe our mistake was in asking to speak to a supervisor, because we did and things never got better!
    Thank you for your post, another real-life, something we've all been through and can relate, winner! I look forward to the next one.

  14. Well, first off ... I'm a government worker. I've had lots of unpleasant customer service experiences with other government folks and even more with those in private employment. Heck, I'm in my 15th year boycotting Burlington Coat Factory (snarly clerk) and my 10th year shunning Hollywood video (clerk accused my ex of stealing the little pen that was on a chain at the checkout desk). Of course, I do realize it's a lot harder to cut out gov't agencies from your lives than it is a third rate clothing store. Something awful in customer service has been going on for quite a few years it seems -throughout "civilized" society. We've become so unhelpful and unkind. Technology allows us to snap back and keep humanity at bay.

    My new approach to all this is to remain as calm as possible and try to feel some compassion for an unhappy person who probably had a bad day or, like a lot of us, sometimes really need a hug. It might not make the person change, but it makes me feel a whole lot better.

  15. Hi Jean, thanks for adding your insights to the discussion! My commentary on government customer service is in no way meant to say the public sector is doing it right, either! Like you, I've certainly boycotted a business or two in my life. And, your Hollywood Video story is horrifying!

    I'm actually very calm and nicer than most people when it comes to those who call me doing surveys or other such things. I realize it's just a job they have to do and generally take the time to help them. As for Patty Cake, she gets no hug from me. If it was really a bad day, I think a "I'm sorry" to my "why are you being so mean to me" question would have been the logical response. After all, most of us know when we're wrong or just acting out. The "no, I'm not" response I got was indignant. I think Patty Cake is insulting to everyone.

    Plus, I reserve my hugs for deserving folks---like you! Thanks so much for chiming in, Jean. :->

  16. Jeanie: Thanks for sharing your personal experience on the issue. You provide some really good insights on the topic. Like you, I suspect many people just accept what the government says as fact because it's less stressful than putting up a fight. Kinda messed up, huh?

    In many other countries, the government fears its citizens and a possible revolt. In America, many tax paying citizens fear the power of the government and retaliation. It's an interesting dynamic.

    I think it would be an interesting experiment to have a corporate leader in customer service, Zappos for example, go into a government agency to assess its performance. I feel pretty darn confident in saying the expectations are as different as night and day.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment, Jeanie!

  17. Thanks again for the good ideas. It is a heavy topic and I'm giving it my best shot.

    Good luck in your gov. adventures. My motto: the squeaky wheel... Mary


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