60 Minutes recently reran an episode featuring Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer overseeing BP’s $20 billion Gulf oil spill fund and tasked with being the chief liaison to the people. Around minute 20, the story showed Feinberg meeting with commercial fishermen in town-hall type settings to discuss the claims process, answer questions and address concerns. I’m sure you can imagine that with the amount of devastation and cost the oil spill caused these people and their trade, these meetings can get a little heated. But Fienberg has a reputation for being a straight-talking lawyer who cares both for his employer and the people looking for help. After Sept. 11, for example, he oversaw (for free) the administration of the fund compensating the victims of the terrorist attack and their families.

After one of his forums, the cameras caught a group of fishermen outside and asked them about the claims process and Feinberg’s credentials. One man was quite blunt when asked if he thought Feinberg had credibility: “I don’t care about 9/11 … I don’t even care about any other claims … I care about my claim.”

I was only half listening to the program while getting ready, but that quote just seemed to hang in the air. Did he really just say that? Is he so selfish that he just casually brushed over the role this man played in one of the most significant events in modern history? So single-focused that he won’t dignify the question with a more thoughtful response? Then, like a bubble, it burst, and I was more focused on shaving than commercial fishing claims. It wasn’t like it was an earth-shattering statement; it just hit me wrong.

Over the next couple of days, clips of the show stuck in my mind. Over the past 20 years, I‘ve facilitated my share of town hall meetings for various government agencies, and it seems to me that the worse shape the process is in, the more I hear some variation of, “I don’t care about anything but me and my stuff.”

Several years ago, I worked with a group of business owners who had just been granted their minority and women-owned business certification. At the time, the process took approximately a year and many businesses dropped out after finding it redundant and too demanding. The focus group agreed the process was broken and that it didn’t even keep out people trying to cheat the system. All the checks and balances put in place simply added time and complexity; and while large companies could pay someone to navigate, small companies were left to determine if it was worth the effort. We shared some proposed changes and all agreed they would substantially cut the time and make the process easier. One business owner, however, announced, “You do that and I’ll call my representative. I did it the hard way, and my competitors need to do it the hard way.” I’m living through the Fienberg experience on a much smaller scale, and then it struck me why the quote stuck with me: We serve selfish people.

The government serves selfish people because it makes people selfish. That’s right, we take perfectly nice and caring people and make them self-centered and bitter. We do it by stealing their time, setting up confusing hoops to jump through and dangling a carrot in front of them. Some chase a carrot they need like a permit, and some chase a carrot we force them to eat like a building inspection. Either way, depending on how desperate they are for the carrot or how tired they are of jumping, they turn on us and, like a cult, we brainwash them into selfish and upset hostages.

Much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there’s a hierarchy of customer satisfaction and at the top of the pyramid is the result. Without results, nothing else matters. Once we have results, we can move down to things like great customer service. But when we don’t get results or don’t get them fast enough, we begin the metamorphosis. And the longer it takes, the more red tape we encounter, the more confusing it becomes just speeds the change.

Results are simply why we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing. We want the permit so we can put in a pool; we need food benefits so we can feed the baby. Above all else, we need that result and want it more than a friendly face across the desk.

On the Gulf, those fishermen need answers and, in some cases, a check to compensate them for business lost to the oil spill. Feinberg’s success, to them, will be mainly based on when they get those. Customers of government are no different, and we’re all measured by our ability to get results.

I would argue you could have the crappiest customer service in the world, the worst facility and the dirtiest bathrooms, but if you get your customers results, they’ll be happy. Well, happier than if you had the best customer service, the newest building and Reese’s Peanut Butter cups for everyone, but it still takes nine trips to get the result you need. All else is wasted when you fail to get the customer their results.

Getting the result is as essential as getting food — and not getting either makes us grumpy. Which brings us back to the fisherman who had already morphed into a customer who’s lost his ability to see beyond his own immediate need. It’s not that he really doesn’t care about 9/11 or Fienberg’s role in helping victims get their benefits. It’s a matter of customer survival, and he’s hungry for results.

If governments want to keep their customers happy, healthy and well, focus first on getting them what they need: results.

Do you have selfish, upset customers? Have you found a way to keep them happy?

*Originally published as What Citizens Really Want (Public Great @ Governing.com, April 7, 2013)

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