I have previously written about The Department of Human Services before. The article actually garnered a fair amount of attention, which is always a good thing… as such I thought I would revisit the DHS, Centrelink, Medicare, and so forth.

The DHS could be a case study turned university doctoral thesis in itself, of how not to treat your customers or your staff. We will try and take aim at a few bite-sized pieces though 😊

Busy, busy!

There has been growing media attention over busy signals on the phone lines when calling the DHS. A recent example is here (The Age). The article talks about 55 million busy (or engaged) signals sent to customers trying to call over the period of a year, and those that do get through wait on average for 30 minutes on hold before speaking to someone.

The response from the Department of Human Services is gobsmacking though – they have blamed their customers. They said that because of a smartphone’s ability to redial so quickly, or as they eloquently put it: “I don’t think we can say it’s more people trying to get through, rather more people repeat dialling”

A standard or traditional response to this might be that their phone systems simply can’t keep up with the new technology, and should be updated. This might be entirely true… but there is a different way to solve the problem. To understand what that might be, we can dive into the article a little bit further as there are some details in there that help to paint a relatively ‘colourful’ picture.

The DHS stated that is has roughly 5.8 million callers in a year. Of those callers, around 2.8 million of them are faced with busy signals when they try and call at some point in time. 55 million busy signals across 2.8 million customers… geez. So we know that 48.3% of callers were confronted with a busy tone when they tried to call. Pretty much half of all customers.

If we make an assumption that the 3 million other callers who tried and got through were super-lucky and just happened to not get hit with a busy signal, we can also then safely assume that all customers needed to call DHS an average of 9.5 times each… based entirely on busy signals alone. Which of course shows that the DHS are pretty busy being busy!

But… why exactly does each customer need to call back so many times? Are the DHS simply incompetent?! Each customer seemingly needs to make eight-and-a-half extra phone calls in order to be serviced appropriately through the year. Why isn’t one call enough?

Never enough

Getting our collective heads around the fact that a customer of the DHS needs to call nearly 10 times a year in order to get what they want, we have to ask the clearly obvious question of ‘WHY?!’

The answer lies with the staff, and the way that the organisation is equipped to handle those incoming demands.

Every Australian will have to interact with the DHS in some way at some point. Medicare receives your details every time you go and see a doctor. Centrelink deals with most social security requirements like unemployment benefits. Child support and family payments are all managed by them as well. The DHS effectively holds the reigns (or the chequebook) in providing any services or payments that you might receive from the government relating to ‘people’ or better yet, ‘family’. This is – of course – a really rough categorisation, but it works nonetheless and demonstrates that pretty much every single Australian will experience this department in some form, no matter what.

In this description, what we have also begun doing is define their purpose, from our (the customer’s) perspective. That purpose is to provide family services. We can all be in a family of one, or a family of forty-two – the size of the family should make no difference. ‘Human services’ is an entirely apt description.

It doesn’t seem like they are very well set up to do this, though. I mean, if the customers have to call back nearly 10 times each, we can accurately make that assumption…

Knowing how traditional call centres are run, as well as having had to call the DHS myself on numerous occasions, I know that the staff on the phones are as hamstrung as you or I when it comes to being able to do what they need to do when trying to service their customers. The controls, targets, measures and so forth that are placed on them as so tight that they have no wriggle room to do anything except what their checklist says. If a customer doesn’t fit the category, or something falls off the wagon half-way through the delivery of a service, it’s back to the start.

Customer’s then call back. Again, and again, and again. Ad nauseam.

We’ve looked at the ever increasing controls being placed upon DHS staff by their management before. When I wrote about their desire to implement ‘attendance plans’ upon their employees for taking sick days, this was just one simple example. And it’s an example of when they need to not be at work… imagine what it’s like when the staff are at work!

Too much control

A customer can get frustrated with a service provider for seemingly silly reasons. When we use our traditional business lens, we don’t mind if a customer has to call back a few times, or has to provide information to the business formatted in a particular way at a particular time… this makes business easier, right?

The DHS takes this to the extreme. Press 1 for this service, 2 for that service, join a queue and wait on hold for 30 minutes, get only a little bit of what you need, call back again, get a busy signal, call back again, mash a few more buttons to join a queue, wait on hold for another 30 minutes, get another little bit of what you need… come on!

Some of you might be thinking to yourselves that this sounds like your call centre (I am looking at you, Telstra – another fine example how not to run a business). You’d be right.

This cycle leads to those eight-and-a-half extra phone calls that every customer seems to need to make to get what they need. The staff on those call centres are beholden to silly targets like getting customers off the phone quickly. This of course means that they aren’t being completely serviced.

The first thing that needs to change in any call centre, and especially those at the DHS, is to remove those targets. It doesn’t matter if a customer ends up being on the phone for an hour with your staff if they don’t have to call back again eight-and-a-half times.

The second thing that needs to change is trust – and this is a big one. Trust your employees to do the right thing by giving them the power and the tools to do everything a customer might ask for, on the spot. And trust in your customers not to “take the piss”.

The reason most of these controls exist in the first place is because sometime, somewhere, somehow, something happened. When that thing happened, management said to themselves that “we can stop it happening if we try and control it”. Thus, a control/rule/bylaw was born. It’s a vicious cycle though, because once you start controlling one thing, you need to try and control everything.

Here’s some news for you: you can’t control everything. Stop trying, you’re making it worse. I am not suggesting that anarchy is the future. On the contrary, I am suggesting that trust is the future.

The customer is right

If you’re a customer, and you’re getting exactly what you want, when and how you want it, would you really need to rort the system? Would you really need to try and get more than you need, or would you walk away satisfied and happy?

Not everyone is an upstanding citizen, and I am not suggesting that a completely open system will never be manipulated. That being said, giving customers what they want and when and how they want it does not provide an opportunity for them to get more. They already have exactly what they wanted… the demand has been serviced, and it was entirely of value to them.

Should something truly nefarious happen, how often exactly what that be happening? 1% of the time? Less? If you’re giving customers what they need, you’d be lucky to be stung more than a handful of times. Especially with government services, there isn’t a whole lot that can be ‘taken’ if you’re giving each citizen what they need. When these things happen, they are the things we likely want to understand better – mostly because they are perhaps a sign that we haven’t truly met the needs of the customer in the first place. Again, after all… if a customer is getting exactly what they need, first time, every time, why would these things happen?

The customer knows what they want, and the only realistic way forward is to find out what that is, and give it to them. If we do that, they won’t keep calling back. Imagine… ‘DHS call centre volume drops by 90%’ would be a pretty amazing headline, especially if it was for all of the right reasons, instead of the wrong ones.

The way to do this is to trust those customers, and then trust in your people to deliver for them – by giving them access to the tools and the authority they need to do their jobs, the first time, not the tenth.

Symptoms of mismanagement

The interesting thing about enabling people to do their jobs is that only one thing gets in the way of them doing that: management.

Management make the rules, hold the keys, implement the ‘things’. Except that management are not really doing anything that might help their customers. Instead, management in their traditional mindsets are trying to control too many things. Interestingly, the one thing that management could do that would help their customers and their employees succeed is to remove things in the organisation that get in the way of the jobs that need to be done.

This means removing those controls that they cling to, changing the rules that they created, or even giving employees more authority instead of compartmentalising functions… “Oh, that problem needs to be fixed by someone in level 3. I will submit a ticket to them, and they will contact you in a few days…” is a pretty shitty excuse to be given when you are a customer. Why not connect them directly to someone that can actually service their need the first time? Or, maybe even design and build the service so that it is simpler and does everything the customer needs?

These aren’t new problems, and nearly every company that runs something in a traditional manner has problems just like these. The DHS management are certainly taking the piss though, when they blame their own customers for their mismanagement. Maybe they need a new-age reorganisation to better deliver against their customer’s needs.

You guys know where to find me… 😉

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