Customer Surveys

Dear Management Doctor:

I work in the Development Service Department in Tucson, Arizona. As I believe you already know, the Planning function was recently reorganized resulting in (among other things) rezoning being removed from the Planning Department and incorporated with plat and building permit review in the Development Services Department. Subsequent to the reorganization, we in the Development Services Department have embarked on an effort to build a Service Promise and create a Service Culture based on our customer priorities. To discover our customer priorities, we are preparing customer surveys. Because we no longer deal primarily with technical reviews, our customer base is no longer predominantly the visible customer submitting a plat or building permit for review, but now to a much greater extent includes the less visible customer, people who live or own property next to or near rezonings, neighborhood groups, environmental groups, and the public in general. In the Development Services Department, rezoning and the public involved in the rezoning process have historically been viewed as an impediment to providing good customer service (issuing permits quickly). (We used to be able to blame Planning, but now we can't.) I think we have a handle on surveying the more visible customers, the ones at the counter. The question is how do we survey our less visible customers to get the balance of input we need if the survey results are going to have any meaning?

Thanks for your suggestions and keep up the good work.
Glenn Moyer, AICP
City of Tucson

Dear Glenn,

We normally reach the broader community representatives through the use of focus groups. However, you could also send a survey to environmental groups, neighborhood groups, etc. Your rezoning applications likely include a legal mailing list within so many feet of the property to be rezoned. You could pick three or four rezonings and mail to these lists. I would tend to segment them by the type of rezoning case to help in interpreting the results. I would also wait a few months after the case is finalized to get a less biased response.

The City of San Jose is going to be trying a new measure as follows:

“Percentage of citizens/neighbors rating new development in the community good or excellent based on completion of new project requirements and the maintenance of the projects and surrounding neighborhoods at one, three and five years after completion.”

This should be an interesting measure. I would appreciate you sharing your findings with me.

For better customer service,

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

With a great deal of respect, your advice was not asinine. Based on 20 years of continuing planning commission service at city and county level, applicants are customers and the department and commission are selling a service. Call the applicant what you want, customer/stakeholder, but always remember that they are paying through the nose for a product, namely a permit to do something with or on their land.

They are entitled to courteous service and fair treatment at every step of the process. If their permit is denied, they deserve and have the right to a clear and understandable reason.

Of course, if their application is not approved, the planners and commissioners must expect to be called "jack-booted storm troopers". Or worse yet, "simple-minded and arrogant bureaucrats". Here, a thick skin always helps.

Larry Hawkins
Monterey County California

I disagree with avoiding the term "customer" to describe the people we serve. It's true that people cannot choose whether or not they want to be governed, but they can choose where they want to be governed and the level of service that they want to receive. In the City of Brea we see ourselves, in many respects, as providers of public services - services on which we no longer have the monopoly. If our citizens no longer believe that the City of Brea is the best service provider for police, for example, they may choose to hire a private security company. Then, if the City is looking to do a bond issue to build a new police station, they may not be supportive since their services are being provided by elsewhere. In addition, we see ourselves as competing for "quality" residents and businesses - those that will not only consume services, but also provide value to the rest of the community through their volunteer efforts, leadership skills, financial support, etc. If those folks do not feel that the City organization is one in which they want to be involved, they may move or just become absent. Again, when it comes to seeking financial or political support, they may choose not to give it, or they may move and be replaced by less "quality" residents and businesses. So, as we say in Brea, "The monopoly is dead."

Karen Haluza
City of Brea

Whether you identify the people that you provide your service to as "customers" or "stakeholders", they are the ones that we beat our heads against the walls day in and day out to try to solve their problems and issues in a fair and equitable manner according to the regulatory systems in which we work. Building a good rapport with those individuals that use the system on an ongoing basis is critical to the perception of how efficient an organization is working, since those people are often the ones that have the ear of the Chamber of Commerce and political establishment. However, you need to remember that even the one time user can be a valuable ally through the use of customer evaluations. We have recently instituted a survey that is sent to all applicants upon project completion to try to improve our process. Unfortunately as of this time, we haven't had it operating long enough to assess whether it's working or not. But, the problem with all surveys is that the person with an axe to grind always responds, and those happy with the system, or at least with no major complaints, often don't respond.

I agree that the Phoenix Planner is being jacked around, but that is the nature of politics to react to perceived problems by screwing up a system that is working.


I am in total disagreement with the responder, "with all due respect." Regardless of the label that you give folks who walk through the door or have to live next door to a permitted subdivision or maybe never even come in contact with your office, the "citizens of your community" are your customers. Call them stakeholders; call them what you will. They still have the choice whether to do business with the development service departments or not. And, if they have the will, they can eliminate those who don't provide good customer service or they can choose to take their business elsewhere, be it out of the county, city, or country.

Customers, like stakeholders, have their own interests too. I believe we live in a Republic and as such "the customer" determines who and how they will be governed. I believe customers can choose "not to be governed" as evidenced by our recent legislative session (with its minions of lobbyists and the ever changing laws that were passed and then redrafted for special interest areas) and they can choose who governs them, which may be as good as not being governed at all.

The idea that we have no power to determine how, when and who will govern us sounds like you believe we live in a dictatorship. While it may appear at times that we're moving that way, I still feel free to choose my government and I consider myself a "governmental servant" and a "customer."

I don't know that surveys are the best way to measure customer service, but it is one way. In order to get a good cross section and not count only those who have either had a terrible experience or a very good one, I believe there is value in doing a number of different types of "surveys" and seeing what, if anything, they tell you about your customer service ethic.

I would like to learn more about others' experiences with determining customer needs and outcomes, besides what's been discussed so far on this site. There's got to be other ways as well.

Thanks for letting me express my opinion.

Donna West
Canyon County, Idaho

With all due respect, this is a completely asinine piece of management advice.

Governments do not have customers. They have stakeholders, each with interests.

A customer is someone who can choose to do business with your organization. Citizens cannot choose not to be governed.

The correct measure of effectiveness is quality of governance, not a narrow metric such as "fewest complaints." Taking this to the extreme, an automaker could demonstrate excellent quality if it surveys just those customers who are not actually killed using its products.

This poor sap in Phoenix is being played for a fool. This is not about playing games with the Planning Department.

And the Management Doctor replies,

First of all, thanks for taking on the Management Doctor. We hope to encourage an exchange so let's see what some of our other readers think about your point. It sounds to me like you are just hung up on the word customers. If you are more comfortable with the word stakeholders, that's fine by me. The point is, how do you know what your stakeholders want? Surveys and focus groups can be one way to find out. You have numerous stakeholders including: applicants, general citizenry, neighbors, elected officials, other units of government, employees and vendors; as well as your own professional ethics. The traditional problem with planners is that they place their values (i.e., themselves as the stakeholders) above the values of the other stakeholders. Since government does have a monopoly, as you suggest, it places even more burden on us to be sensitive to stakeholder interests.