Customer Service – What Do Citizens Want?

Posted: June 17, 2015

We talk about needs assessment when planning our programs, policies and activities, but do we know what our customers want?

Is it ‘a penny for your thoughts’ or ‘give your two cents worth’? Both sayings refer to one of the most basic tenets of customer service: finding out what the customer wants. It’s fundamental to business planning, but what about local governments, community groups, service organizations, professional associations, and even educational institutions like Penn State Extension? Most of us talk about needs assessment when planning our programs, policies and activities, but too often we’re presuming that we know what our customers want.

A really thorough needs assessment will use a variety of methods to collect comprehensive information. It will incorporate primary and secondary data. The secondary data is usually easier to come by: this is data that has been collected and organized by others. Good examples are US Census data, community health assessments, or workforce statistics. Secondary data holds a wealth of information and that can be analyzed to help create a ‘picture’ of the community or customer base. Comparing different kinds of secondary data can be particularly valuable. But for many small organizations, the resources for such an effort aren’t available, and a comprehensive look may not be warranted.

Which brings us to primary data. This is basically getting information directly from the people in question. Let’s say you want to learn about problems in homeownership for your local housing organization. You’ll find good secondary data from the Census about the percentage of homeowners in your community, and you can gain insights about the number of foreclosures last year from your county assessment and taxation office. But to find out how many homeowners are concerned about foreclosure within the coming year, you’ll have to ask them. That’s primary data.

Surveys are a common source of primary data. There are several ways to conduct a survey. You can create one online, distribute a print survey by mail or hand, or you can conduct it in person. Another great way to find out what customers, citizens or clients want is to hold a structured discussion, such as a town hall meeting, focus group or listening session. These techniques work best when you’ve planned a series of question or topics for discussion.

The hardest part of primary data collection is planning ahead to make sure you’ll have data you can use. When people think your data collection effort is sincere – when they think you’ll really listen to them and that their input can have an effect on your programs, policies and activities – they won’t hesitate to speak up. So spend some time thinking about how you’ll ask for input. You may want to explain

  • why you’re asking questions
  • what you’ll do with the responses
  • who will analyze the data
  • how you’ll share the collection of data
  • whether responses will be anonymous
  • who is the contact if people have concerns about the process

These are the same questions you should be asking within your organization as you plan the primary data collection process. So once you’ve answered them for yourselves, it will be much easier to answer them for your customers.

Finally, know when you need help, especially the first time you tackle a needs assessment. You’ll find good advice in our blogs, or contact us at Penn State Extension. We’d love to give your our two cents!

Contact Information

Judy Chambers
  • Educator, Economic and Community Development
Phone: 717-334-6271 x313