Service Centers

Yesterday I had two interesting experiences. I had to exchange my San Francisco driver's license for a Washington DC one which meant a trip to the DMV. I also had to go to an Embassy's (Visa Department) to get a visa for my planned trip to that country. Previous experience of both the DMV and visa applications led me to pack – yes I felt I was going on an expedition – a long novel and some unobtrusive snacks. (Eating and drinking in most of these types of places is not allowed – however long the wait).

In both cases my preparation was similar.

  • Read the instructions on the website extremely carefully
  • Print off the form.
  • Complete the form accurately – always a challenge for me as I tend to dash ahead and do things like put my date of birth in the UK order and not the US order. NOTE in the UK the day comes before the month.
  • Collect together the various documents that are required. For the DMV that means – social security card, passport, previous driving license, and utility bill as proof of current address. For the Visa application it meant passport, letter from people inviting me, letter confirming hotel reservation + passport sized photo.
  • Check the opening times of the two offices and schedule enough time to sit in both for as long as it took. (I decided to leave the day free).

Getting this stuff together was not a two-minute exercise. I'd been taking what Dave Allen in his book Making it All Work calls "next action steps" for at least a week before I'd timetabled and steeled myself to go.

The offices are only a mile apart – hence the decision to attempt both in one day. I was of the view that if I ended the day with one of the two documents I definitely deserved a reward of some description. If I ended the day with both words would fail me – (you can guess why I'm writing this – words have not failed me). If I ended the day with neither I would grit my teeth and go again, bearing in mind the words of Yoda (Star Wars) "Do or do not. There is no try." As you may note my preconceptions and assumptions about official compliance offices are stereotyped, jaundiced, and probably (undoubtedly) not helpful to the transaction. I reminded myself of this in order to take action to redress my balance of feelings.

There were similarities and differences between the two centres that impact the 'customer experience'

Reception area
The Visa office has a desk with a person to greet each entrant. He (when I went) wanted to see in my bag and asked me to pass through the metal detector screening. The DMV does not have a greeter or metal detection screener. Several people (myself included) did not spot the DMV reception area on first entering the space. It is not signed. People looking around uncertainly were asked by security guards not to block the area.

Number allocation
At the Visa office each new arrival is given a number (of the type you get at supermarket deli counters) and told to go and wait sitting on one of the chairs. At the DMV the documents and form are checked before you get the number. I passed that first hurdle and got a number. You then have to watch a screen to see when your number comes up. The DMV has a voice speaking the number as it comes up. The Embassy does not. I was not sure of the added value of the voice – especially as it repeated the same number 4 times. At first I thought it was to do with blind people needing a voice to alert them. Then I realized it was unlikely that blind people would be applying for a driver's license. However, I then remembered that the office also offers identity cards so that might have been the thinking behind the voice.

Interaction with agent
At the DMV I waited around 50 minutes and was finally told (4 times) to go to counter 13. This took a few moments as the counters are not arranged in number order. At the Visa office I waited 10 minutes and could see directly which of the 5 counters in front of me had the beckoning agent. The DMV counter 13 was actually someone's office with her stuff personalizing it, whereas the Visa agent's counter like a bank teller's – behind glass with no evidence of anything personal.

Both agents had the same approach to scrutinizing the form and the required documents. This is always the bit I dread (although I dread the long wait too). I can't relax and watch them scrutinize – I am waiting for them to say one, or all, of several things a) "You have not completed this form correctly" b) "You have brought incorrect supporting documentation" c) "We can only accept this method of payment" – which is the usually the one I have not catered for although this time I had brought all possible forms bar a cashier's check. d) "I have to ask my supervisor about … " e) Something else that I have not anticipated.

Hallmarks of a good service center
As I am in the middle of preparing a presentation on service innovation the time spent was useful research. What could make the processes less of an ordeal and more of an efficient and pleasant experience for both customers and staff? Ten things sprang to mind (the same for both offices).

1 Post the anticipated wait time for each number (as in some telephone queuing systems)
2 In the offices themselves, have very clear signage and instructions posted or available for each stage of the process. (The TSA seems to be getting better at this – instructing people via short videos as they wait).
3 Let people know where facilities like restrooms and water coolers are. (If unavailable then provide them)
4 Have a roving helper (as in some USPS offices) asking people if they need help completing forms, having questions answered, checking forms, etc.
6 Make the look and feel of the centers less intimidating and more inviting.
7 Make sure there are no contradictions or inconsistencies between the on-line statements and the face to face statements. (I was expecting a DMV vision test that did not materialize. The opening hours of the Visa office as stated on the website were not the same as those posted on the door).
8 Enable people to pre-book appointments on line if they prefer to do that than simply drop-in. The Blood Donor Service in the UK offers both appointments and drop-in.
9 Segregate the reception into different types of services required to speed processing time. The UK post office has some counters for stamps only, and others for more complex transactions.
10. Remind customers that the service staff are there to help and not frustrate the compliance process. Short video clips with some information on the staff might work, on the lines of "Meet Susanna who has been a customer service agent here for 3 years. …"

Outcomes – I got the driver's license. I am returning to the Visa office tomorrow, in a relaxed, positive, and supportive mindframe.