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Category Archives: Child Support
The start of a new year is a good time to look back. We have been through a lot of changes in the past seven years. Let’s start with some of the sobering ones.
The economic downturn affected parent earnings and child support program funding alike. During the height of the recession, support collected through income withholding declined by 3 percent, while support collected from unemployment insurance tripled between 2008 and 2010.
At the same time, the child support program experienced significant decreases in program funding and staffing levels. Our peak funding year was 2008 — before the recession — when program expenditures were $5.87 billion in nominal dollars. Since then, funding has declined over 3 percent to $5.69 billion in 2014. Structural labor market changes, increasingly complex families, and reduced program resources have all taken their toll.
Despite the setbacks, our performance has improved slowly but steadily since 2008. In 2014, we collected $28.2 billion, a 6 percent increase over the $26.6 billion collected in 2008, even as the caseload declined by almost 4 percent. Our support order establishment rate was almost 85 percent in 2014, compared to 79 percent in 2008. The percent of cases with a collection was 60 percent in 2014, compared to 57 percent in 2008. Our current collections rate was just over 64 percent in 2014, compared to less than 62 percent in 2008.
Doing business in a changing world
There is no question about it: The child support program has been challenged to find new ways to do business to be able to respond to unprecedented changes in our world. During the decade from 1999 through 2008, the child support community engaged in extensive national and regional discussions about the future of the program, examining such issues as:
- The impact of organizational and funding decisions on the program;
- The shift from welfare cost recovery to family distribution policies;
- Strategies for addressing the accumulation of arrears;
- The role of fathers in families;
- The risks of domestic violence;
- Opportunities for tribal services in Native American communities;
- Strengths and limitations of automated enforcement tools; and
- The critical relationship between having a job and paying support.
These state planning and early implementation efforts, along with growing research, laid the groundwork for a more holistic approach to reinforcing noncustodial parents’ financial responsibility to their children.
Over the past seven years, we’ve successfully promoted a comprehensive family-centered framework designed to address barriers to employment, respond to changes in family roles, and increase the consistency of support payments. We are asking ourselves case-specific questions such as, “What are the reasons for nonpayment?” and “What would it take to obtain regular payments?” Practice in the field is shifting from a one-size-fits-all, standardized, and highly automated case management process to a more targeted approach that incorporates evidence-based practices framed as “the right tool for the right family every time.”
By strategically deploying a combination of early interventions, more thorough investigations, enforcement actions, and targeted services, we can do a better job of obtaining consistent child support for families. We have been working to build evidence about what works to increase support payments through our grant programs including the Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED), Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS), Parenting Time Opportunities for Children (PTOC) pilot projects, Tribal Innovations Grants (TIG), University Partnership grants, and more.
Tribal child support
Over the past few years, we’ve also managed a significant increase in tribal child support programs —more than doubling the number since 2009. We currently fund 62 comprehensive and start-up tribal programs. We also developed and launched our award-winning tribal child support system — the Model Tribal System (MTS) — that is now operational in nine tribes. Although it seems like just yesterday that we launched the system, we have now begun an MTS modernization project to take advantage of the flexibility and modularity offered by today’s technology.
Other technological advances
In 2009, we went live with our Child Support Portal. Passport Denial was the first application, followed by Federal Offset Online, Multistate Financial Institution Data Match Online, Locates Online, FCR Query, DoD Entitlements, Query Interstate Cases for Kids (QUICK), Debt Inquiry, eTermination, Employer Search and Electronic Document Exchange (EDE) accompanied by other federal system services such as Electronic Income Withholding Order (e-IWO) and FAST Levy.
We continue to advance the ball on international and interstate cooperation, with state-by-state enactment of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) 2008, following U.S. signature to The Hague treaty in 2007 and the Senate’s advice and consent in 2010, which you read about in the December 2015 Child Support Report. The treaty will greatly expand the number of countries that will recognize and enforce U.S. child support orders. Under the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, Public Law 113-183, all states must enact the UIFSA amendments as a condition of state plan approval and federal funding. States must adopt UIFSA 2008 in order for the U.S. to ratify the Hague treaty. All but two states have passed the legislation so far, and we expect to ratify the treaty this summer.
In the January 2016 Child Support Report, Retired Oklahoma Child Support Director Gary Dart continues his four-part change management series, Do healthy families initiatives conflict with performance measures? This month, he explains how an approach that aims for the best possible outcomes for each case can also “reward” agencies with performance incentives. All of the articles in the change management series will be available on our Managing Change in the Child Support Program webpage soon.
Also, be sure to read the article “Outreach to federal inmates.” South Carolina tells us how it is reaching out to noncustodial parents in prison. We also offer some tips on helping job seekers struggling with digital job searches.
Needless to say, we’re off to a running start in 2016! Thank you all for your tenacious work over the past seven years — and over the past 40 years since the child support program was enacted. For four decades, we have never stood still. And families deserve no less from us.
This year is the child support program’s 40th anniversary. For four decades, the program has fostered a culture of performance, innovation, and change. When I talk with child support professionals across the country, I hear a strong commitment to service, a deep engagement in the daily work of the program, and a willingness to do what it takes to accomplish our mission: collecting child support for children. We are always trying to do better. I think the phrase I hear most often from child support employees is that “The work is never boring!”
And indeed, it is not, for we are in the business of helping families succeed. Change has been our constant theme. Changes in the family structure, job market, and customer demographics since 1975 have required us to steadily adapt our services to the realities of today’s diverse families. From the beginning, we’ve looked to changing technologies for more effective and efficient processing of our caseloads. But behind the technologies, behind the dollars, behind the performance numbers are real families, families struggling to make ends meet, families trying to keep it together, families who are doing their best to raise their children.
National Public Radio ran three stories in November that provide a good backdrop for understanding program change. “How America’s Child Support System Failed to Keep Up with the Times” gives a historical perspective, summarizing child support’s challenges with the social changes occurring in the country in the last 40 years. Two other NPR articles focus on child support debt, explaining the reasons for billions of dollars in accrued arrears and how the Administration’s proposed rule can help minimize future accruals through realistic, right-sized orders. We provide the links to all three in the December 2015 Child Support Report (CSR).
Family mobility across state, tribal, and international borders requires even stronger coordination with other jurisdictions because these movements have expanded our intergovernmental workload. Our December CSR article, “Putting the “Uniform” Back in UIFSA”, chronicles efforts to strengthen interstate and international case processing with a common set of operating guidelines.
As the program evolved from a welfare cost-recovery model to one of the most significant income support programs for families, child support professionals have shifted their service mindset. We now strive for a more individualized approach, deploying a range of tools and strategies to “enforce, engage, and enable”, so that we do not leave any families behind. Our goal is to help all children receive the support and care they need from their parents. And it’s working. Our success at change management is a win/win for children, families, and agencies.
Be sure to read the first article in a new four-part change management series, “Do healthy families initiatives conflict with performance measures?” In this series, debuting in the December CSR, retired Oklahoma director Gary Dart explores the impact of “Healthy Families” principles on the five federal child support program indicators. He explains how an approach that aims for the best possible outcomes for each case can also “reward” agencies with performance incentives. Gary’s article, as well as other change management articles, are available on our Managing Change in the Child Support Program webpage.
While diversifying the program’s service delivery approaches, we are also experiencing change in the physical workplace. Staff turnover, leader successions, telework, consolidated offices, and different office layouts are just a few of the adjustments we are making in your daily work lives. OCSE’s recent moves to smaller, redesigned spaces give us a real appreciation of how environmental changes can affect the way we think and work.
After 40 years of service, you continue to dedicate yourselves to better serving our child support customers one person at a time. As we move into the future, we’ll continue to learn and use the evidence of “what works” to improve the program. Thank you for your commitment and hard work.
Happy 40th Anniversary and Happy New Year!
Celebrating the growth and success of tribal child support programs in honor of Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month
In honor of Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month, OCSE celebrates the growth and success of tribal child support programs.
Today, one in ten federally recognized tribes — 59 out of 566 — operate comprehensive child support programs. Another four tribal programs are in the start-up phase. Many tribes have incorporated traditional practices into a holistic tribal family-centered service delivery model.
Federal funding for tribal child support began in 1996 when the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act gave HHS authority to recognize and directly fund tribal child support programs. To jumpstart the implementation, OCSE offered Special Improvement Project (SIP) grants. Tribal nations could request funding directly or through a state partnership to establish a new child support program or enhance their existing one.
Three tribes collaborated with states to establish a tribal child support office. The cover article of the October/November Child Support Report, “Early history of tribal child support”, describes New Mexico’s use of federal funds to help the Navajo Nation establish three tribal offices in 1996. The Chickasaw Nation co-authored a SIP application with Oklahoma to establish its own tribal child support office in 1998. Wisconsin also received SIP funding and helped the Menominee Nation establish a child support office on the reservation.
Seven tribes received the first SIP grants directly in 1999:
- Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate
- Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
- Lummi Nation
- Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe
- Puyallup Tribe
- Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation
- Central Council for Tlingit and Haida Tribes
Tribal automation has expanded too. Nine tribes are using the MTS, one is installing the system, and three have Advance Planning Documents under review. They’ve come a long way since the Forest County Potawatomi Community agreed to pilot the system in 2009 and was joined the following year by the Modoc Tribe. To support program growth, OCSE and tribes collaborated to develop the Model Tribal System. Sandy Cloer, the Tribal Child Support Program Director of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians chronicled her tribe’s progression from membership in a tribal child support consortium to having its own MTS program, and now leads a consortium to help other tribes get started. Read about that journey in the CSR article, “Starting a tribal child support program.”
Over the years, I’ve seen a change in how tribal programs have come together to build a strong peer network by forming the National Tribal Child Support Association as well as emerging regional associations. I’ve also observed deepening and respectful relationships between states and tribes. I’ve seen tribes reach out to states and states reach out to tribes to support our common mission through openness, dialogue, and partnership. I’ve seen tribal child support transition from a young program without a lot of specialized experience or technology to a more mature, full-service program that is modeling best practices and holding itself accountable.
At OCSE, our organizational culture has evolved right along with the growth of the tribal program. We’ve integrated the tribal program into our daily business. We formally reorganized our office so that virtually every aspect of our work now has a tribal component. We continue to learn some lessons about consultation, dialogue, and trust in order to work through tough, complicated issues. We’ve learned to navigate together and we’ve seen the tribal child support program come into its own.
This is all part of building stronger futures for Native children. Our Tribal Innovation Grants are helping tribal child support offices improve their capacity to administer innovative, family-centered child support services that help parents provide reliable support for their children. You’ll read how the Forest County Potawatomi Community and Chippewa Cree Tribe are using grants to improve customer access to services, increase collections, and coordinate with child welfare and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
The tribal program has put down roots. It is moving into a new phase of deepening services, refining practices, and strengthening impact. I have had the honor to witness an incredible program take its place to support renewal of tribal family resilience, hope, and healing.
We feature more stories about tribal child support programs in the October/November CSR. I would love to hear your experiences.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We know that domestic violence is an every month concern for child support agencies, but October provides an extra reminder of the critical role safe access to child support services plays for survivors and their families. In the September 2015 Child Support Report, we feature a number of articles addressing the need for domestic violence safeguards and resources for parents receiving child support services.
In talking with child support professionals over the past year about the connection between child support and domestic violence, I’ve consistently heard the following theme: “We know domestic violence is a huge issue for families in our caseload and we want to do more to enhance safe access to child support, but we’re not really sure where to start.” Just like one size doesn’t fit all parents when it comes to delivering child support services, there’s not one approach to developing a comprehensive response to domestic violence. With that in mind, OCSE has developed new resources for child support agencies to use as a roadmap for starting the process of enhancing safe access to child support. These resources draw on the experiences of your peers in other states and jurisdictions.
Recent research data highlighted in OCSE’s upcoming resource “Safe Access to Child Support Services for Survivors of Domestic Violence: Scope of the Issue” are sobering. The data should prompt all of us in the child support profession to renew our efforts to enhance our program’s response to domestic violence:
- More than 4 out of 10 custodial mothers who don’t have a formal child support order and aren’t getting any informal support report domestic violence by the other parent,
- Underreporting of domestic violence by parents receiving child support services is substantial. Custodial parents surveyed by researchers at the University of Texas reported domestic violence at more than 4 times the rate disclosed to the child support program, and
- Nearly 1 in 10 unmarried mothers completing a voluntary paternity acknowledgment at the hospital report being injured by the father during pregnancy.
Behind those numbers are real people. Michelle, a domestic violence survivor, was able to get out of an abusive relationship because her child support agency staff was domestic violence-smart and responded to her with skill and compassion. Read her moving reminder of the importance of our jobs in the September CSR.
The good news from our Parenting Time Opportunities for Children (PTOC) pilot grants is that child support agencies can play a vital role in identifying and referring parents to those services. A PTOC grantee in San Diego described one parent’s experience this way, “The process was not intimidating and the positives that came from getting a safe visitation order really benefited her family.”
Learn about more domestic violence resources in the September 2015 edition of the Child Support Report.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the national child support program. Check out our 40th Anniversary infographic on our website to see some of the ways we’ve changed!
Thanks primarily to technology and proactive income withholding, our collections have increased from less than $1 billion to $28 billion, and our cost-effectiveness ratio has increased from $3.25 to $5.25 over the past four decades. Today, 75 percent of collections are made through payroll deductions. By the end of the year, almost all child support programs will use our centralized electronic income withholding (e-IWO) process through OCSE’s child support portal, under new legislation enacted by the Congress last fall.
One of the great things about the child support program is that we continue to innovate. Our portal applications include two of our more recent tools:
The first is Lump Sum Reporting: our centralized automated process that enables employers to provide information about employees who are eligible to receive a bonus or lump sum payment. As of July 2015:
- Forty-nine states and territories receive notifications from employers using Lump Sum Reporting, and
- More than 130 employers are participating, representing over 1,500 Federal Employer Identification Numbers.
The second is Terminations (or, as we call it, eTerm): our centralized, automated process that enables employers to notify states about an individual’s employment status. As of July 2015:
- Forty-five states and territories receive notifications from employers using eTerm, and
- More than 130 employers, with over 1,500 Federal Employer Identification Numbers, are participating.
Some of you may remember the days when income withholding orders sent to employers were handwritten. Today, employers expect to receive the OMB-approved Income Withholding for Support form to withhold child support and to send payments to a centralized state disbursement unit. In 2011, OCSE included language in the IWO instructions for employers to reject orders when they are not on the OMB-approved form or do not direct payment to a state disbursement unit.
With four decades of experience, the national child support program continues to excel. Our forward momentum depends upon modern technology and innovative strategies to respond to the needs of today’s families.
Read the August edition of the Child Support Report to find out how child support programs are continuing to improve.
As I travel and talk with caseworkers around the country, I hear your commitment and passion for our program mission, and see your hard work day in and day out to collect child support for children. The child support program has the reputation for being one of the best run programs in government. What we are all after is compliance with support obligations. When support payments come in regularly, custodial parents can budget for the money so there isn’t a household crisis every month.
What does the research say about improving compliance with support orders? Dozens and dozens of studies, some involving child support, all find the same thing: that the parties are more willing to comply with an order when they feel that they have been dealt with fairly. The research says that when litigants perceive that they are being treated fairly, they are more likely to comply with an order, even if they don’t like the order. Procedural fairness is an evidence-based and cost-effective way to improve compliance.
Researchers have identified and tested 5 specific elements of perceived fairness. They are:
- Voice — you feel that you have an opportunity to participate, tell your story, show your papers, and influence the outcome.
- Respect — you feel like people treat you with dignity and give credence to your side of the story.
- Lack of bias — you feel like you are being treated even-handedly and do not get different treatment based on your race, or gender or economic status.
- Understanding — you feel like people understand your circumstances, what you are dealing with, and when you are trying.
- Helpfulness — you feel like people care about you and want to help you as much as they can.
We have two bedrock values in our program. One is that parents have the fundamental responsibility to support their children. The other is that the government has a fundamental responsibility to provide due process and procedural fairness to litigants, particularly unrepresented litigants.
We accomplish our mission through parents. We know what works. We can increase trust and compliance if we can improve the perception of procedural fairness and deliver real due process — an opportunity to be heard, an order based on evidence, and realistic demands to comply. We can help parents address any barriers to employment and nonpayment. We can offer meaningful customer service that shows both parents that we care about them as people, understand their circumstances, and will do our best to get results.
Learn how other states and counties have increased their procedural fairness through strong judicial partnerships in the July 2015 Child Support Report, then tell us about your initiatives!
We’re always looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of our child support program, particularly in three major areas, modernizing technology, increasing procedural fairness, and gathering evidence of programs that work. In honor of Father’s Day, our June Child Support Report focuses on programs and initiatives that help fathers deepen their financial and emotional commitments to their children.
For more than 20 years, OCSE has been involved in efforts to secure consistent support for children through programs to improve parental responsibility and increase child support collections. Ongoing research and evaluation efforts are designed to yield the evidence required for developing and replicating program models.
Some of the earliest examples funded by the Office of Child Support Enforcement include the Parents Fair Share demonstration grants of the 1990s and the Partners for Fragile Families demonstration grants of the early 2000s. Both project designs aimed to improve child support payment compliance by increasing employment, earnings, peer support, and cooperative parenting, and by improving child support services. Noncustodial parents who
participated in the projects said they felt better about their roles as fathers and their ability to support their children financially.
Today, ongoing research projects will add to the evidence base for child support programs.
These studies include
- Child Support Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED) sponsored by OCSE (CSPED Fact Sheet #1)
- Parents and Children Together (PACT) evaluation of four Office of Family Assistance Responsible Fatherhood grantees conducted by the Administration for Children and Families (“Addressing Low-Income Fathers’ Legal Needs” article in the June Child Support Report and the Parents and Children Together (PACT) Evaluation webpage)
- Department of Labor Linking to Employment Activities Pre-Release (LEAP) initiative designed to increase employment for individuals, including parents, who have been incarcerated
- Paycheck Plus, a demonstration conducted by MDRC with OCSE support to test Earned Income Tax Credit-like benefits for workers who do not live with children, including noncustodial parents (Behavioral Buzz newsletter article, Helping Paycheck Plus participants plan to participate in an informational meeting)
Ongoing research and evaluation efforts are designed to build the evidence required for developing and replicating effective program models. No other program has such extensive contact with fathers as child support does. We know that effective child support is linked with higher father involvement. Fathers who are involved with their children are more likely to pay child support, and fathers who pay child support are more likely to stay involved. We also know that parents — fathers and mothers — are more likely to engage with the child support program if they feel that they are treated fairly and even-handedly, receive timely information, and experience the child support program as genuinely helpful and concerned about their well-being.
The most effective child support programs combine modern technology with parental engagement and evidence-based strategies to increase collections and address barriers to
Read more about effective child support practices in our June Child Support Report.
In the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, Congress asked my office, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, to submit a report to Congress that addresses the effectiveness of state child support programs. As part of our outreach to parents to inform the report, we asked custodial and noncustodial parents and adult children who grew up in a separated family to tell us their child support stories. To date, we have heard directly from over a thousand parents and children. We are grateful that they took the time to talk with us. Their voices have informed and moved us. Here are excerpted comments from a few of the adult children who shared their experiences with us:
“My parents divorced when I was almost 5 years old. My mother worked two jobs at times. My mother, sister and I lived in a low income apartment complex. We received food stamps and cash aid at times. My father was a loving father but absent a lot and didn’t pay child support. We heard a lot of negative things about my dad that kids should not have to hear. The more parents are involved with their children the happier the children will be. I have a true appreciation for the struggles my mom went through just to make ends meet for us but it was a hard life.”
“My mom and dad were divorced when I was ten years old. I was the oldest of three children, and I watched my mom struggle to make ends meet. Unfortunately, my parents used child support in their visitation tug-a-war.”
“I was the youngest of five children. When my parents divorced in the late 70’s, I was eight years old and the only child in the home. My mother did not graduate from high school and had no real work experience. We had to move from the home I had always lived in because my mother could not afford it. We moved into low-income housing and relied on food stamps and my mother’s church community to survive.”
“I am a product of a blended family. My father always provided for his children. However I was able to witness first-hand how not having our dad in their home affected my older three brothers who lived with his first wife. Each one of them had child support cases, and each one of them had been incarcerated at some point for unpaid child support.”
“My parents divorced when I was very young. Fortunately, my parents were able to work together very well. The courts wanted my father to pay an amount of child support that my mother knew was unrealistic for my father. They were able to discuss this amongst themselves and decide on a more reasonable amount.”
Most parents love their children and want to do right by them. Children need regular support payments. But most of all, children need their parents to love them and help bring them up. Both adults and children can struggle, and family relationships can be fragile. If we want to improve children’s lives, we must do more to support and encourage their parents to do their best for their children. In the May issue of the Child Support Report, we include articles about grandparents raising grandchildren and two-generational approaches to child support.
Millions of children in this country have grown up with a parent in prison. One in two state prisoners are parents. The data reflect strong racial disparities. One in three black men can expect to go to prison during their lifetime. One in four black children born in 1990 had a parent in jail or prison by the time the child was 14 years old — more than double the rate of black children born in 1978, about the time when our program was getting started.
Many experts believe that the loss of a parent due to incarceration is more complicated and painful for a child than other losses. Repeated incarceration destroys all but the strongest family relationships. Most children love their parents, miss their parents, want their parents to come home, and mourn when they are gone. Helping parents and children overcome stigma and maintain contact during incarceration can help. But a child who has lost a parent to prison may never fully get over it.
Often, children lose their primary source of financial support when their parents go to prison. Not all of this support comes through the child support program, but instead may be provided informally. Although there are exceptions, parents are generally not able to pay child support once incarcerated. After release, many owe an average of $23,000 or more in child support. The prospects for employment are bleak for most re-entering parents. Many never finished high school. The combination of limited education, limited job skills, limited job openings, and a felony conviction mean that reentering parents and the families that depend upon them have little hope for steady employment. Debt from child support, fees, and fines, and other debt adds to despair and pushes parents right back into the underground economy. Every door closes.
Many child support agencies, including those featured in this issue, have begun to do something about the collateral consequences of incarceration. They reach out to parents in federal and state prisons and jails. They take affirmative steps to reduce child support orders commensurate with the parent’s loss of income and inability to work. They provide tools for parents to communicate with the child support program during incarceration. They work with community partners to help children maintain contact with their incarcerated parent. They stop the clock on accrual of uncollectible debt. They provide targeted post-prison child support services, partnering with re-entry, fatherhood and employment programs, and helping parents manage child support debt after prison. Opportunities for child support agencies to get involved include pre-sentence orientations, facility visits, modification, debt compromise, and connection to job services and other supports.
Through shared objectives and promising practices, child support and justice partnerships at the federal, state, tribal, and local levels are helping incarcerated parents and their families. These partnerships promote access and communication between child support agencies and parents, provide for individualized case management, work to establish trust, and improve the likelihood of employment and reliable support for children and families. Jobs and family ties keep people from going back to prison.
Our enhanced March-April Child Support Report features several model practices to consider and a list of resources. We look forward to hearing from others about your work in this critical area.
Lauren Glaze and Laura Maruschak, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, Bureau of Justice Statistic, Department of Justice, rev. 2010.
Report of the Sentencing Project: Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, 2013.
Sara Wakefield and Christopher Wildeman, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality, 2013.
Many years ago (in fact, only a few years after Congress authorized the IV-D program), I was a mom on my own with two small children to feed. I did not receive child support, and was the sole breadwinner in our family. I was a full-time waitress then, receiving a very small paycheck. To get by, we had to rely on my tips. Every night, my sons and I counted out the dollar bills and rolled the dimes and nickels. I set aside the quarters for the commercial washer and dryer in my apartment building. I used the pennies for bus fare, to the annoyance of those boarding the bus behind me.
So, I worked for tips. I hoped that customers would like my service well enough to give me a good tip. What I quickly learned was that the better my customer service, the better my tips — most of the time. This is what I learned about customer service:
Get organized. Before the first customer walked in, I organized the creamers, the ketchups, the napkins, and the silverware. I arranged the tables and chairs. I put several pens in my pocket. Then, I would down a couple cups of coffee and get into a rhythm. If I came in late or didn’t finish prepping on time, I’d lose the flow, and my customer service would suffer.
Listen to your customers. Sometimes they knew exactly what they wanted, and they just needed to place their order. Other times, they needed help selecting their best choice. Each experience is different. You have to give your undivided attention in order to provide the best information possible and be responsive to the interests and preferences of the customer.
Focus on the customer in front of you. Each person wants to feel important. Most of the time that person isn’t the only customer you are waiting on, but when you’re at that table, the customer should be the center of your universe. Some customers were nonsense and expected efficient service. Other customers wanted to talk and appreciated a human connection. Some customers were unpleasant – but sometimes left surprising tips.
Follow through with their requests or tell them in a professional manner why you can’t. If the customer orders a salad and asks you to hold the nuts, but the salad is prepackaged with nuts, it might be ‘nuts or nothing’. As much as I wanted to, there were times when I just couldn’t comply.
Follow up when necessary. OK, they have their food, their glasses are full, and they all have silverware. They should be fine for a while, right? Not always. Maybe the salad has the wrong dressing or their condiment bottle is empty. You won’t know until you ask how they’re doing. Even if you have a lot of tables to manage, you pay the price if you do not check in with customers that might need a bit of extra attention.
Make amends when you make a mistake. Once I accidentally spilled a glass of ice tea all over a customer’s child at the end of the meal. The child wailed and the customer yelled at me. I apologized. I grabbed some napkins. I apologized again. They left. It was a big table. I did not receive a tip. Nor did I expect one.
Start fresh. I had a colleague who grew to resent the customers and stopped trying very hard. Her tips were about half of mine. For me, each table was a new and unique experience. I had some customers who were rude to me and treated me like I was beneath them. I had some customers who demanded special services and were never satisfied. And of course, I had the ice tea mom. But I couldn’t let that experience carry over to my next table. I would be setting up a domino effect that could ruin an entire night’s tip jar. Every night I went home to my own life, and the day’s difficulties faded.
Try to smile, or at least be diplomatic. Just because a customer is rude or obnoxious doesn’t mean you have to stoop to the same level. Child support can be frustrating, maddening, and scary. Your calm head, professional skills, helpful demeanor, and friendly face can be enough to alleviate the tension.
We have a lot on our plate this year at OCSE. We are implementing new legislation enacted by Congress last fall (see the 2014 November-December Child Support Report). We are preparing a federal report on the program’s future requested by Congress. We just published a notice of proposed rulemaking to update some rules that were around back in the day when I was a waitress. We’ve received over 2,000 comments on the proposed rule from states, tribes, counties, community groups, and parents that we are beginning to read and analyze. And we are conducting a strategic planning process with states and tribes, which we do every five years. We are reaching out to you and other child support program stakeholders to invite you to give us your ideas on the program’s future. We want to know what you think about ways to improve the program to better meet the needs of our customers – the parents and children who participate in the child support program. Watch for information on our website.
What customer service techniques have you had the most success in implementing? We’d like to hear from you.