Tag Archives: Customer Service

Everything I learned about customer service, I learned while I was a waitress

vicki_waitress_voiceMany 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.

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Ten challenges for the New Year

"What's Next" headline in newspaperIn my previous Commissioner’s Voice column, I talked about the three generations in our society and three generations of our child support program and how the generational shifts in our society have impacted the way we do business. I gave examples of how you, the managers and staff in child support agencies, are addressing the changes in our caseload in innovative ways.

The members of the rising generation in our society—and in our program—expect clear information. They expect respect. They expect resources. And they expect results. In OCSE, we are beginning a new national strategic planning process for 2015-2019, involving all state and tribal child support directors. We want to use this process to help us position the child support program for the future. We have challenges ahead, but also a great commitment to our mission and the people we serve.

What do we need to accomplish as we face the third generation of our program? As we start the New Year, please consider these 10 challenges. We need to:

  1. Modernize our systems, automate as much as we can, maintain strong security controls, and figure out the right balance between data privacy and data sharing.
  2. Update our communications, customer service, case management, and service delivery approaches for diverse families to get the best results for this generation.
  3. Plan for generational succession in our offices as the people who built this program retire.
  4. Improve interstate enforcement, the last frontier, and develop effective federal/state/tribal/international case processing procedures.
  5. Modernize our laws, guidelines, and judicial processes, including updating our medical support, policies, and routine use of contempt hearings.
  6. Set accurate orders based on real income, reduce reliance on imputed income, keep orders accurate, and reduce state debt on the books.
  7. Pay all of the money we collect to families and address the loss of revenue involved in shifting to 100% family distribution policies.
  8. Figure out how we leverage and coordinate employment, parenting time, health care, and other services for those parents who need help.
  9. Make the most of the political credibility we’ve established due to the work of the last two generations by carrying it into the communities and parents we serve.
  10. Accomplish all of this with constrained resources.

I know we can do it.

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Child Support’s Role in Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

GrandparentRoughly 10 percent of the phone callsthat ring in our OCSE customer service office are from grandparents seeking information about child support services; some have custody of their grandchildren. From conversations with these callers, we know that most grandparents who are thrust into custodianship of their grandchildren depend on access to public financial resources. Many, who may have accumulated some financial assets from years of working, are now living on fixed incomes. The OCSE staff helps to answer the grandparents’ questions about child support services, and often refers grandparent callers to other services, including SNAP (food stamps) and Access and Visitation services.

An AARP article tells its readers, “As increasing numbers of grandchildren rely on grandparents for the security of a home, their grandparents are taking on more of the responsibility for raising them in a tough economy—many with work challenges of their own. For these grandparents, raising another family wasn’t part of the plan. But they step up to the plate when their loved ones need them.”

A Pew Research Center analysis of Census data reports that 1 in 10 children in the United States lives with a grandparent. This ratio increased slowly and steadily over the past decade before rising sharply from 2007 to 2008, the first year of the recession. About 41 percent of those children are being raised primarily by the grandparent. And, nearly 20 percent of grandparent caregivers are living below the poverty level.

It isn’t a new phenomenon that grandparents often step in as primary caregivers. Grandparents step in, for example, to prevent the child from being moved into foster care or as a result of the parent’s military deployment, unemployment or incarceration. (A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than half of state inmates are parents.)

What is changing, however, is that child support agencies are beginning to help grandparents in a proactive customer-responsive manner. The article on page 1 of the May 2011 Child Support Report gives a snapshot of the Georgia Department of Human Resources’ holistic approach to providing grandparents with all of the available state services they might need. Georgia’s family-centered approach puts the OCSE “bubble chart” into action by providing a collaborative and coordinated approach to child support service delivery.

Does your state offer a holistic approach to providing services to grandparents? Please let me know by posting comments to this Commissioner’s Voice blog.

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Passport Denial—A Model of Customer Service

PassportsThe OCSE passport denial program collects tens of millions of dollars for children every year. We work closely with state child support programs and the Department of State (DOS) to ensure that passports are denied when appropriate and “holds” are released quickly upon payment. Did you know that DOS paralegals (in its Bureau of Counselor Affairs) work with embassies to help parents who are stranded overseas? And OCSE staff members work closely with the DOS “special issuance passport” members who handle all diplomatic and military passports, which take longer to process than others.

A custodial parent recently credited the passport denial program for receiving an unexpected $75,000—from a father who had never paid child support—on behalf of her now-adult daughter. In fact, she was about to close the case when she got word of the payment. The father’s employer loaned him the money in order to rush the release of the passport.

The director of a large urban child support program sent in a letter from a parent who unexpectedly received nearly $150,000 from a passport denial action: “I am forever indebted to all your hard work and dedication. May you all be blessed with much success for other parents seeking support for their children. Realize and understand that you are helping secure the future of our greatest resource, our children!”

A passport hold can be released within a day—in expedited cases, within a couple hours—a model of intergovernmental coordination. “Thank you very much for your help in getting my passport,” said one noncustodial parent. “It is so nice to see someone take pride in their job and go the extra step to help a fellow man in time of need. You went above and beyond and for that I am truly grateful as I did not lose the job and in part it was because of all your help.”

Passport denial is a powerful tool, one that can help children receive the support they deserve. I, for one, appreciate the dedication and care taken by OCSE, DOS and state child support staff to ensure that both custodial and noncustodial parents receive prompt attention and individualized service through the passport denial program.

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