The Un-DMV

Posted by jlubans on January 10, 2024

It has been said, if Franz Kafka were alive, he'd be writing - glumly - about customer service.
In the USA, the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) serves as a caricature of bureaucratic client abuse; only the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) or the SSA (Social Security Administration) come close in popular disdain.
Unlike the extra-terrestrial NASA, each American will have, over a lifetime, frequent contact with the named agencies.
We will do so with trepidation and, often, loathing.
We are told to take a number and to line-up. We expect to wait, stew and dither, yearning for acknowledgement, if any, from an eye-contact resistant, dour-faced staff.
But, hope springs eternal. (You can quote me.)
After a recent night of cold wind and rain, I shook off my dismay, and remembered there is sunshine behind those dark clouds. And, that the dawn cometh, however rarely, even to the most Kafkaesque.
I first wrote about the Oregon DMV in late 2018, Ambassadors for Government.
No, it was not the usual, cliched, jeremiad.
Rather, it was a heartfelt hip-hip-hurray.
That story, revised, follows below.
Who would think a DMV would provide a "best practice" model for client service?
Or, as I term it, exemplary Courtesy and Kindness in service, (the C+K Factor.)
Well, the North Salem DMV branch (one of 60 in Oregon) does just that.
My conclusion is based on several trips to the DMV following a cross-country move to Oregon.
During those visits, I was taken with how well this DMV works: fast and courteous service with knowledgeable and pleasant staff.
Not a sullen face in the bunch, no one afflicted with office.
Still in recovery from a nightmarish experience in an East Coast DMV, I asked myself, how does Oregon do it? What's the secret sauce?
Looking for answers, I interviewed - amidst their busy schedules - Bea Halbert, Customer Service Manager; Stefanie Coons, DMV Field Services Group Manager; and, Thomas L. McClellan, Oregon?s DMV Administrator (Director).
Each state in the USA has separate DMVs and a driver is obligated to register her car, prove ownership and insurance and to pass a written test prior to getting that state?s driver?s license. Newbie drivers - in an American coming-of-age ritual - have to pass, along with the written test, an on-road drive test.
In brief, the DMV gets to say yea or nay on your freedom on the road.
Not everyone gets what they want: a failed driver's test, an adjudicated loss of license, or an iffy car title, can result in unhappiness.
Bea told me, "We deliver a lot of bad news every day". Statewide the DMV handles about 20,000 convictions and other court orders.
So, there is no shortage of self-inflicted frustration to be dealt with amidst the daily volume of walk-ins: on average the North Salem branch sees 482 customers per day and on peak days as many as 700.
If you handle conflict well, your clients will respect you; if you do not, well that is how some DMVs become a mockery (see the cartoon, one of hundreds).
My interview with Bea (a DMV employee since 1984 and a self professed servant leader*) revealed several clues to how her 17 staff members achieve high levels of service.
These points also illustrate how her branch gets high staff buy-in.
And, given the recent anecdotal erosion of America?s superior quality of customer service, these points provide tips to any organization wanting to regain and excel at the Courtesy and Kindness Factor toward clients.
1. Weekly staff meetings with expected input from staff. This hour-long meeting occurs each Wednesday prior to opening. It features a Not On Agenda opportunity to bring up urgent items. Several customer service improvements, like express lanes, have resulted.
2. A regular rotation of staff (no one does the same thing over and over) among workstations. Staff then become familiar with all parts of the DMV, not just a narrow bailiwick.
3. Strong support for training, in house and at other venues with paid time off. Bea regularly promotes training opportunities and frequently participates.
4. Strong support for and action on a promote-from-within policy. Bea has benefited from mentoring by her supervisors and others from the time she came on as a summer temp in 1984 to now managing the North Salem office. She told me that reaching out, asking for help, describing scenarios and what ifs to her mentors were important to her career. "The managers I have worked with all have the same mentality, how we coach and how we train."
5. A very supportive top leadership with clearly stated expectations, e.g. in the published handbook, DMV in Motion: A Strategic Vision there appear acronyms like PACE (Public Service, Amazing Quality, Customer Focus and an Engaging Workplace). And, there is regular statistical feedback to evaluate and monitor the service, business, and program aspects. A current statewide goal: 70% of customers will be seen within 20 minutes.
Tom and Stefanie told me (confirmed by Bea) that managers have leeway to try out ideas and to see what happens; mistakes are not career ending. There is freedom to problem solve and to propose solutions; it is expected when someone identifies a problem, he will make recommendations on what to do differently.
6. Facility-wise, most Oregon DMVs are an open building, with a barrier-less lay out. This is quite remarkable, as I have observed an ever-increasing trend for architectural barriers (including what looks like bullet proof glass) in many public offices. The agency must think it is OK for a client to stoop and speak and hear through a 4 inch diameter cut-out hole!
7. Very well informed receptionists (see # 2) including at-the-door greeters and, on occasion, so-called floaters who mingle among waiting, seated clients. The floater makes sure no one (unlike a Kafka hero) gets lost in the process.
8. Stress on face-to-face, one-on-one communication between managers and staff. Problems are dealt with immediately.
9. Teamwork. Bea sees herself as the Coach of her team. She is a player/coach, since she works out front (doing real work, not just a photo op) once a week. One routine that takes teamwork and good ideas well beyond the local office is that, when necessary, most offices share staff with other regional DMVs.
10. Leadership role: When I asked Bea early in the interview about the many positive services and actions toward clients she told me without hesitation that the Vision comes from Administrator Tom McClellan and from Field Services Group Manager Stefanie Coons (and regional managers). While I would expect her to say that, she did so with sincere conviction.
In other words, the DMV leadership practices what it preaches
The five characteristics for DMV leadership (creativity, courage, communication, collaboration, and commitment) are not just office speak; they are routine.
Finally, an observation about Oregon:
When I comment about how helpful and courteous people are, the Oregonian response is: ?This is Oregon, Why would you be surprised?)
I have to agree there is something to that; it is a widely prevalent attitude one encounters in many Oregon communities and I think that attitude, the so-called Oregon Way, just might come in the door with the staff. So, many of the pro-customer practices may derive from the state's culture.
What is the Oregon Way?
"Pioneer spirit, a nostalgia for what we were and want to be. We are willing to try different things, to explore what Oregon has to offer. We are not complacent; we go out and enjoy the state?s natural resources. Everyone lends a hand. We are genuinely inclusive. A newcomer to the small community of nearby Amity described what she, as a parent, likes about living there: It is a giant family".

*Robert K. Greenleaf described servant leadership in a 1970 essay: "The servant-leader is servant first: It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead."

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Copyright all text John Lubans 2018 and 2023

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