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Local Government first impressions

Recently, a donut store in town was offering a special deal: buy a dozen donuts, get a second dozen for $1.  Who can turn down a deal like that?   

Once I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was not busy.  As I walked up to the counter and began eyeing the donuts like a kid in a candy store, an employee was replenishing the shelves.  After 30 seconds or so standing there thinking through these tough donut choices, the employee closed the display. 

At this point, the employee stood up and gave me a blank stare. I have no idea what is going on. No one else is in line, with only a few people scattered around the store.  This stare goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time, 15-20 seconds. I broke the silence and asked, “Are you ready for me?” with a slight shrug of my shoulders. The emotionless face then turned semi-pleasant, with an indication of being ready to help.

Here is the problem: With that start, the experience of not being welcomed, not even being spoken to, it would have been nearly impossible to have won me back. While the employee remained pleasant after I broke the initial uncomfortable and unnecessary silence, even if I was offered a $100 gift card, I don’t know if that would have changed my perception of the experience.  I don’t remember how much the donuts cost me, nor which donuts I ended up buying.  I remember that impression, that blank and emotionless stare, like I was a complete and utter disturbance. 

Testing the Local Government Appeal Process

After this experience, I wanted to do an experiment.  Durham County is set up much like any other North Carolina county regarding its tax valuation appeal process.  These meetings are considered open meetings in North Carolina.  Upon arrival, the taxpayer is invited to sit in the audience or take a seat in the lobby outside of the meeting area.  When the Board of Equalization and Review (BER) is ready, a staff representative invites the taxpayer to the podium, where he or she may begin arguing a case. Once all testimony concludes, the BER votes, generally, and the hearing is over.

I wanted to see if an over-the-top, extremely positive first impression with our BER process could change the game.  If we created a powerful set of initial impressions for these taxpayers before their hearing, how would it change their overall perception?  Would it matter at all?

Once I developed a game plan, I met with our senior tax assistant (STA) who escorts taxpayers to and from the waiting area to their hearing.  I pitched the idea, and she was intrigued.  In the control group, we allowed taxpayers to arrive and the process to play out as usual.  After each hearing in the control group, our STA raced to meet with the taxpayers as they were leaving to ask one question: “How would you rate your experience today on a scale of 1-10?”    

For the experimental group, step one was to make sure as many variables as possible remained the same since this experiment spanned multiple weeks.  In contrast to the standard process, we decided that as taxpayers arrived, we would invite them into a conference room.  The conference table was dressed up with a nice tablecloth, a couple pitchers of water, and I spent $10 of my own money buying a few small snacks for appellants.  To top off this concierge type of service, I brought in an Alexa and had soft music playing in the background.

As the deputy assessor and I shook hands, welcomed and offered refreshments to the arriving taxpayers, we began making small talk.  One goal for us was not to discuss their appeal, per se.  We were not there to defend our value.  We were there for them.  The one consistent message we shared with each taxpayer was how the BER process worked.  They were told what to expect, what was expected of them, the makeup of the BER, etc.  Beyond that, everything was fair game.

They saw that we were people and that we wanted the best for them.

Speaking for those staff members involved, it was draining.  It was an extreme example.  The experiment took time and patience.  But did our efforts to create a stellar, unmatched set of initial impressions for the taxpayers before their appeal hearing pay off? 

Increasing Experience Ratings by 100+ Percent

I wanted to do an apples-to-apples comparison and compare those in each group who had their appeal denied.  For the control group, those who had their appeal denied rated their experience on average as 3.3 on a scale of 1-10.  When someone has an appeal denied, the perception of that experience would, by default, take a nosedive.   Keep in mind that this is based on a normal procedure across North Carolina.    

Let’s talk about the experimental group.  The average rating for those who had their appeal denied in this group was a 7 out of 10!  Everything was the same, except for quite simply the initial impressions.  What we did up front carried weight through what could have been a negative perception by having the appeal denied.   

Evaluate the First Impression You Give

One goal here is for you to evaluate the first impression of your office.  When visitors arrive at your office, what do they see?  Do you have blank walls in the lobby and iron bars guarding your counters?  Or do you have a television monitor displaying county news, soft music playing in the background, and/or a method of greeting people when they arrive?  Are they inspired by your waiting area?  Are your department’s vision statement, mission statement, and core values on conspicuous display so visitors can see that your office is there for the betterment of the community?  Be a visitor for a minute.  Walk in and evaluate what you see.  Take all the time necessary to create a powerful and positive first impression, as draining as it may be, because it will pay dividends later.

Building a Culture that Promotes a Positive Experience

Once visitors have arrived, how can you continue that powerful and positive experience? Building a culture that embraces, dare I say captures, visitors can be done.  It should start within, however. 

Does each employee in your organization understand how important she or he is to the overall process and outcomes?

What is behind the scenes that many may not realize, whether it is the visitor or staff, is that our jobs have a much deeper impact than just those services on the forefront.  What we are doing goes on to benefit a plethora of nonprofits.  These are organizations that some people could not live without. 

Look at your jurisdiction’s budget to see everything that is funded.  If you want to know the importance of your role, look no further than these organizations that function at the grassroots level because of you. 

You may see some nonprofits, such as a rape crisis center, social and mental health nonprofits providing services for young children, and a nonprofit helping women and families navigate their journey to self-sufficiency, safety, and good health.  How humbling is it to be a part of funding such important organizations?  Remember, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Embrace that. 


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