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Delivering the Ultimate Customer Experience: What Cities Can Learn by Thinking like a Business

Delivering the Ultimate Customer Experience - Featured Image

Delivering the Ultimate Customer Experience: What Cities Can Learn by Thinking like a Business

When it comes to the private sector, there are many great examples of businesses that offer stellar customer service. Take Costco, for example. As Franco Amalfi of Oracle put it, “Costco is an experience.” Every time you go in, you can find new products, experience something new, and the level of service you receive is high, consistently, every time. Or take Amazon. The online retail giant is known for a simple buying experience, speedy delivery, and hassle-free returns, which is why it claimed almost half of all online sales in the USA in 2018. If you look at any industry, companies are always striving to deliver the ultimate customer experience.

How can a city do the same?

Although we often talk about people in the city as ‘citizens’ or ‘constituents,’ they are, in fact, customers. Citizens, tourists, students, employees, businesses—they are all customers of the city. So how can city leaders deliver the best customer service to everyone who lives, works, or plays in the city?

One issue is that of complexity and finding a way to hide it from the customer’s eyes. Cities are often made up of many departments. However, a customer doesn’t care that the city has more than 40 departments. They just want to do something, whether it is open a business, visit the city, pay a bill, or something else. The challenge for cities is to make the experience as simple as possible and hide the complexities that actually happen behind the scenes. Think of it like this. If you buy something on Amazon, you are not concerned about how they get it to your house; you just want to make sure that it’s delivered on time.

Cities should focus on delivering the best customer experience in any interaction it has with its customers. Three of the main responsibilities of a city include:

  • City as an Enterprise: The city’s ability to deliver efficient and effective systems of record, and to embed a data-driven decision making culture.
  • City as a Service Provider: The city’s ability to deliver people-based services: child and adult social care, public safety and enforcement, and to build a resilient and prosperous local economy.
  • City as an Infrastructure Provider: The city’s ability to design, deliver, and maintain an infrastructure that meets citizen’s liquid expectations, leveraging technology to drive efficiencies in operations and management.

As an exercise, city leaders were asked to “put on a private sector thinking cap” and think about their responsibilities in the city by solving a challenge of customer retention, then contemplating the assumptions surrounding that challenge and possible solutions that would provide a better experience for the customer (whether the customer is the citizen, government workers, or someone else). Some of the thoughts that came out of these discussions include:


“How do you hide the complexity from your customers to make it as simple as possible to do business with the city?” – Amalfi, Oracle


Challenge: How do you organize internally around the city’s agenda?

First, a city must figure out how to create the right agenda. That is a matter of finding the right data, which can give direction to the city agenda. Once an agenda is set, it requires communication plus execution. Communication is a crucial step, so people in the government can come together around a common goal. To move forward, the city also needs to get other stakeholders on board, including customers and outside agencies. Community engagement and buy-in is key to success.

Challenge: How do we educate and engage in bidirectional communication, both internally and externally?

This challenge comes with a fair amount of assumptions: the public cares and wants to be engaged; the public has access to engage; the government has the will to listen and act; the government has a common or shared goal to educate and engage; the government will respond to citizen feedback. If any of these assumptions are not true in the city, it has to be dealt with or mitigated through planning or actions before moving forward.

Delivering the Ultimate Customer Experience - Open Graph

Once the assumptions are met, to successfully meet this challenge, education, both internally and externally, has to be transparent, whether written, verbal, video, or through any other means. People also need to come together, for example, in advisory councils, emerging technology boards, private industry, and university forums, and neighborhood associations.

Challenge: How do we partner and build trust with our citizens?

To tackle this challenge, a city must be properly equipped with the right data privacy policies and governance. Communication with citizens has to be transparent and clear. Many citizens fear the word ‘experiment’ or ‘pilot’ because they feel they might be used as lab rats. To move forward with projects while also building trust, the government has to explain the value and get citizens involved in the process so they can claim ownership too. Keeping citizens in the center, being honest and clear about constraints, promoting successes, and learning from failures are all avenues where cities can build trust.

Challenge: How can we make sure all residents have a home?

Before tackling this challenge, it is important for a city to get a full view of the problem. How do we understand what the problem is, what people who are experiencing homelessness face before we just jump into solutions? What is the definition of a home? Do we understand why various citizens are homeless? Mapping homelessness could be one way to dig into the problem and find where it is most pronounced. And any solutions that come from the city must be rooted in empathy for the people who are experiencing homelessness.

Delivering the Ultimate Customer Experience - Open Graph 2

Challenge: How do you get cross-departmental collaboration within a city?

To whittle away at this problem, it may be helpful to understand the hierarchy of the government and if it is structured in the best way. That said, the hierarchy of any sort should not prevent collaboration. A city can foster collaboration in various ways, including building relationships between departments and rewarding them with interdepartmental budgets so they can work together. Clearly stating city goals is essential too, because departments should feel that they are all working together on the same common, shared goals.


“Collaboration is key, not necessarily a hierarchy.” – Chaudhry, Accenture


These are just examples of challenges that city leaders discussed. In truth, any challenge could be stated in a similar manner, then analyzed by thinking about how we understand the problem and how we can find solutions that put the customer first. When cities start to contemplate their roles as service and infrastructure providers from the perspective of a successful business, they can deliver the best customer experience that makes people happy to live, work, and visit the city. 

Perhaps, we should change the lenses on how to approach our work.  We need to shift our thinking from solving challenges, and focus instead on the opportunities for improvement, to further differentiate local government from other central governments, and its innovative approaches to customer experience.

**These insights were shared at the Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator at Harvard.

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