Local government adopting customer centric culture

14 PUBLIC MANAGEMENT | JULY 2015 icma.org/pm
Does it really make a
difference if a local
government adopts
a customer-centric
culture? Yes, say
government officials
in Ottawa County,
Michigan, who have undergone training to
learn The Disney Way of providing quality
customer service.
Ottawa County, Michigan, is located in the
southwestern section of the state. Located 174
miles west of Detroit and 150 miles northeast
of Chicago, the county includes six cities, 17
townships, and one village within 565 square
miles. More than 272,000 residents enjoy
famous Lake Michigan beaches and 7,000
acres of county parks.
Ottawa County is also a vacation destination with Holland, Michigans Tulip Time
festival and Grand Havens Coast Guard
Festival held during the summer.
Some may wonder about a possible
disconnect between the public sector and
a Disney-like customer-centric culture. At
least in the private sector, competitive forces
provide an incentive to emulate outstanding
customer service icons like Disney, Starbucks,
or Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Surely,
counties already have a monopoly on their
services, many of which are regulatory in
nature, and Ottawa County is no exception.
Given its assets, why should the county be
concerned with customer service? Responding
to this question, a county official noted that the
county has earned its reputation largely due to
the people who live, visit, and do business with
it. As such, it owes great service to visitors,
residents, and employees. Besides, its just
good business.
When a new business locates within a
region, for example, the effect on employment
is: 1) a direct impact from the jobs provided
by the business itself; 2) an indirect impact if
By Al Vanderberg and
Bill Capodagli
icma.org/pm : online and mobile accessible JULY 2015 | PUBLIC MANAGEMENT 15
A Michigan county adopts a
customer-centric culture
The Ottawa Way
16 PUBLIC MANAGEMENT | JULY 2015 icma.org/pm the business buys production materials
and services locally; and 3) an induced
impact or multiplier effect from the
flow of wages spent by new employees,
which may provide new jobs in other
businesses, and in turn, the spending of
those wages.
The Michigan Multiplier 2013
(Montgomery Consulting, spring 2013,
fs27-1370442191-27000.pdf) reports that
Ottawa Countys employment multiplier
is 2.12. This means that if a business
locates within a county and provides
100 new jobs, 212 additional jobs will be
created to support the new business.
If a visiting executive who is searching for a new location within a county
has a good customer service experience,
it certainly may help his or her decision
to locate there. A terrible customer
service experience, however, could result
in a search for another location.

Ottawa Way Customer Service
After reading the best-selling book The
Disney Way, Ottawa County officials
contacted the company created by the
books authors to help the county develop
a Disney-like customer service culture.
Training began in fall 2012 with the customer service steering team. This group
continues to meet monthly to oversee the
customer service initiative and to review
accomplishments and next steps.
The steering team included key
leaders from the 33 departments, offices,
courts, and agencies that make up
Ottawa County. The first step was total
immersion in the Disney Way experience
through a series of three, one-half-day
workshops over a period of two weeks
(see Figure 1).
During initial workshops, the county
team came to realize that although the
33 areas ranged from law enforcement
to social services, the same Disney Way
experience should drive them all. From
that point on, Ottawa Countys customer-centric culture would be known as the
Ottawa Way.
Here are the steering team accomplishments from its initial workshops:
Developed preliminary dream and
vision. Here is the last paragraph of
The Ottawa County Customer Service
Story: Imagine a team with a variety
of skillscollaborating, engaging one
another, and having fun. . .that work to
improve, protect and serve their citizens
and the environment. This is Ottawa
County and you are the Ottawa Way!
Identified preliminary values. The
customer service value statement
reads: Empowered to Solve Problems with Integrity and Empathy to
Inspire Trust.
Established preliminary codes of conduct. Examples of Ottawa County codes:
We live the Golden Rule. We take
accountability for our actions and decisions. We create a culture of service in
which every customer is valued!
Storyboarded potential barriers to
the implementation. A storyboard is
a visual display and problem-solving
technique that captures, organizes,
and prioritizes the thoughts and ideas
of everyone on the team. This tool was
developed by Walt Disney.
Developed a road map for change. One
of the main tasks was the commitment
for everyone in the organization to
experience the three-day, customercentric culture training.
Management Buy-in
The next step to implementing the
Ottawa Way was a three-day leadership
workshop for 100 front-line leaders.
Becoming customer-centric is not
an activity to be checked off during
an annual strategic planning process
or a performance review, or briefly
communicated in a retreat setting.
An organization-wide cultural change
driven by top management is required
for success. Front-line leaders must
not only embrace the new culture,
they must also believe they have
ownership in its development and
results. This was the main focus of the
leadership workshop.
Here are the front-line leaders
accomplishments from the three-day
Finalized dream and vision.
Finalized values.
Finalized codes of conduct.
FIGURE 1. Disney Way Experience.
Dream/Vision Values
Disney Way
Moments of Truth
What to Measure
How to Measure
icma.org/pm : online and mobile accessible JULY 2015 | PUBLIC MANAGEMENT 17
Storyboarded potential barriers to the
Understood road map for change.
Understood the Disney Way experience, which means beginning to live
the dream, believe, dare, and implement principles.
The Rollout
Upon completion of the leadership
workshop, the steering team planned
a three-day Ottawa Way experience
for all employees. For the ensuing year, approximately 60 to 100
employees per session participated
in the training that was facilitated on
a monthly basis, with a total of 973
employees completing the training.
Local government managers might
question why the training needed to be
conducted for three days. Couldnt the
principles required for any new culture be
communicated in less than a day? If it was
that simple, however, countless organizations would be as magical as Disney.
When employees arrive at the threeday training, they do so with a set of
values that has been ingrained in them
over the course of their careers. Now
they are expected to embrace a new set
of values, yet they need time to realize
that the old values are no longer the best
for the organization as a whole.
Here are the employee accomplishments from the three-day training:
Participated in the Disney Way
Storyboarded potential barriers to
the implementation.
Storyboarded solutions to eliminate
key barriers.
The Hot Seat
During the afternoon of the second day
of training, participants experienced
the Hot Seat segment. The county
administrator and two of the steering
team department heads were members
of the Hot Seat panel. Participants were
invited to ask the panel any questions
pertaining to the Ottawa Way or to
County operations.
How the Hot Seat benefits the staff:
1) top leaders being available, displaying
candor, and demonstrating support to
employees; and 2) trust and open communication established between management staff and the workforce.
A question asked at every session was
How can we provide excellent customer
service when in government the answer
is not and cannot always be yes?
The answer: It is all about how you
treat someone. We use the Golden Rule
that stresses that people treat others as
they wish to be treated.
Storyboard Treasure Trove
Something of extraordinary and unanticipated benefit resulted from the training.
As many as 480 storyboards provided
a wealth of information about what
county employees think; 452 storyboards
displayed concerns that pertained to
management and leadership. Lack of
trust in management, poor communication, and little coaching and feedback
were a few of the topics of concern.
Participants, by way of 1,406
storyboard response cards, communicated that improvements in leadership,
empowerment, accountability, encouragement, and setting clear expectations
and direction were needed. Lead by
example, live the Golden Rule, and
provide more feedback were some of the
ideas for improvement.
The Leadership Challenge
The storyboard process is an ideal way
for leaders to gain anonymous feedback
and to engage their entire teams. A
powerful way to begin helping leaders to
become more effective, which was one
of the concerns that emerged through
county employee storyboards, is to
conduct a leadership storyboard.
As an author of this article and the
workshop trainer, I challenged Al to
allow his direct reports to participate in
this exercise in which they answered the
question, What is the ultimate leader?
After an initial briefing with staff, Al
left the room so that they would have
total freedom to continue the process by
ranking what is most important to them,
what Al does best, and which areas
are opportunities for improvement.
Al admitted being a little nervous
with the process, but he saw great
value in the results. As a next step, both
elected and appointed county leaders
completed the leadership storyboard
process within their own departments.
Brain Trust Follow-up and
Next Steps
Ed Catmull, president of Disney and
Pixar Animation Studios, was quoted in
the book as saying that A hallmark of a
healthy creative culture is that its people
feel free to share ideas.
One of the best ways to produce this
type of environment is by establishing a
brain trust, which is a group of people who
assist, advise, and support one another but
do not have authority to make decisions
for each others teams or departments. In
Front-line leaders must not only
embrace the new culture, they must
also believe they have ownership in
its development and results.

18 PUBLIC MANAGEMENT | JULY 2015 icma.org/pm general, the members also help each other
become more effective leaders.
The county is on the verge of
creating a leadership brain trust, which
will be seven groups composed of 15 to
20 middle-management leaders and one
facilitator, along with one group of upper
management with a facilitator.
Like the leadership storyboard, the
brain trust is intended to improve county
leaders effectiveness. Each leader will
complete a self-assessment customer
service implementation questionnaire by
rating teams in these categories:
Constant purpose and improvement
and forever using the system of
customer service.
Institute training in codes of conduct,
customer service values, and quality.
Believe in elements of the show or
customer experience.
Eliminate fear.
Break down barriers between
Remove barriers to pride of
Every 10 weeks after the initial
meeting, brain trust meetings will
be held to provide updates on the
progress of implementing Ottawa
Way and to help leaders identify and
solve problems.
The Future
After the Ottawa Way training sessions
were completed in the fall of 2014, the
county created an 18-member customer
service team with representation from
county department operations. With
the same lead facilitator, the team can
coordinate with the brain trust. Here are
team initiatives:
Determine next steps to customer
service training.
Determine ways to help customers
better navigate county buildings and
the phone system.
Find ways of providing more services to
residents with the use of technology.
Implement customer service best
Implement an ambassador program to
assist new employees with on-boarding
as they transition to county employment
and to create a network, which provides
a resource to all employees seeking
information on programs, departments,
people, buildings, and more.
Early successes have been amazing,
particularly considering that the Ottawa
Way is still relatively new. A quarterly
Outstanding Customer Service Award
that began in January 2014 has netted
an average of 70 employee nominations
each quarter.
A sheriffs deputy was nominated for
a customer service award after issuing
a traffic ticket to a motorist. The Public
Health Departments restaurant inspection
division, heavily criticized by many restaurants just three years ago, has received
87 customer service nominations from
the private businesses they serve. Businesses praised the transition from a highly
regulatory gotcha attitude to more of an
attitude of educating and coaching, thus
becoming a valued partner.
These are just a few examples of
great stories emerging that celebrate
county employees going above and
beyond the call of duty. The county
references achievements on its website at
A few years ago, the notion of having
the 33 different areas of the county singing
the same customer service tune seemed
like an impossible dream; however, as Walt
Disney said, If you can dream it, you can
do it. That is the Disney Way, and now it
is the Ottawa Way, too.
county administrator,
Ottawa County, Michigan
([email protected]
is president, Capodagli Jackson Consulting,
Winter Garden, Florida ([email protected])
and coauthor of The Disney Way (2nd edition,
McGraw-Hill, 2006).
A quarterly Outstanding Customer
Service Award that began in January
2014 has netted an average of 70
employee nominations each quarter.
One of the with Ottawa County employees.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without

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