As you cross the West Virginia state line on Interstate 64, there's a huge sign over the highway that reads, "Welcome to West Virginia, Open for Business!" You can't miss it, but what does it mean?
In 2004, West Virginians elected Joe Manchin III, the son of a third-generation Italian immigrant, as their new governor. His family owned a grocery store in Farmington, and before running for political office Manchin ran the business. He has first-hand experience satisfying customers and making a payroll.
One of the new governor's first priorities was an initiative called "Open for Business." To the governor, the phrase meant more than fixing the state's workers' comp system, reforming liability insurance laws to encourage more doctors to stay and practice in West Virginia, decreasing the state's debt, reducing taxes, and reforming teacher pay to make schools better. It meant bringing a new culture to state government...one that makes citizens want to call with questions or for help.
As part of his initiative, Gov. Manchin decreed that all state employees would greet callers with courtesy and proper telephone manners. He also implemented a dress code and became a stickler for good manners and customer service. "He runs the state government as if it were a retail business," says Jake Stump, a reporter for the Charlston Daily Mail.
Manchin doesn't want citizens calling a state agency and getting an impersonal voice mail message with a lengthy list of menu options. For example, rather than calling West Virginia's labor department and getting a recording that says, "Welcome to the department of labor. Please choose from the following 16 options to better direct your call," Manchin wants a real, live person courteously answering the telephone and directly helping people.
We've all experienced calling a state agency, only to hear, "Hi, this is Sarah Jones (or John Smith). I'm temporarily away from my phone. Please leave a message. If you need immediate help, please dial zero for the operator." Then, when you dial zero, you get a voicemail message for the back-up person, as well! Manchin told state workers, if you're out of the office, make sure someone is assigned to answer your phone, provide the needed assistance, and follow up.
Manchin believes citizens should not have to work their way through a maze of voicemail options or get bounced around the office in order to get help. "Telephone ping-pong" drives taxpayers nuts and gives them the wrong impression. He wants people in government who are trained to answer calls and direct citizens to someone who can help them.
The governor also has rules about returning calls, e-mails and letters promptly. Citizens need answers quickly and get frustrated when a plodding bureaucracy moves at a snail's pace.
Manchin personally visits state offices around West Virginia to make sure they all have the same customer-friendly approach. This way, he is reinforces his philosophy and gives those doing the right thing a pat on the back.
In early October, Gov. Manchin addressed the Council of State Chambers, the national organization of state chamber of commerce presidents, and urged chamber presidents to add a "customer-friendly" litmus test to their list of attributes for a business-friendly state.
Manchin also suggested that state chambers establish an annual customer service rating for government agencies and send it out to the news media. The good states would get well-deserved recognition, while the others would find themselves on an "unfriendly-to-citizens" list.
There is nothing like a little publicity to change bad behavior and reinforce the good work of people dedicated to helping citizens. "It works in business, why not in government?" Manchin asked.
It's a good question and a good idea.
Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.