SSA Special Reports


Gathering and Using
Customer Information
to Improve Service
to the Public

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This report is also available for download for printing, in Adobe's Portable Document Format. The report, Gathering and Using Customer Information to Improve Service to the Public is 117 KB in size.

March 2000

The Social Security Administration (SSA) enjoys a reputation as an agency that delivers quality service-service provided by an experienced and dedicated workforce and management team that ranks among the best in government. We attribute our success to the fact that for many years, we have obtained information from customers about satisfaction with our service. Annual satisfaction surveys, comment cards, focus groups and special surveys have helped us understand the needs and satisfaction of some of our customer groups.

But in working to achieve the Agency's goal of providing world-class, customer-responsive service to the American public, we realized the need for a critical step. We needed to expand the feedback we collect and enhance the way we collect it so that we hear from everyone who has a stake in how we provide service. Feedback that is more comprehensive and gathered in a more systematic manner, would provide us with the information we need to make sure we are serving all customers well.

This report describes how we have improved the way we collect feedback using our new Market Measurement Program, what we currently do to translate feedback into service enhancements, and what's left to do to help us improve as a customer-focused organization. Specifically, this report explains:

  • Why we decided it was important to improve the way we "listen" to our customers.

  • How we collect information from customers and others.

  • What we've learned.

  • What we expect to learn from our expanded program.

  • What we do with the information once we collect it.

  • Next steps-future directions that will help us become even more customer responsive.

While we know the Market Measurement Program described is a step in the right direction and provides a solid foundation for keeping SSA up to date about service needs, expectations, and satisfaction, we also know there is more we can do to improve the information gathering program. Currently, our ability to make further enhancements in some critical areas is constrained by lack of available resources. We would like to more aggressively manage the data so that we identify and address service problems in an expeditious manner. We would like to gather feedback from all our major customer groups more quickly so that we have baseline information from everyone sooner. And, we would like to conduct special studies in all the areas where we have identified a need for information, rather than have to defer action on some.

We also know that up to this point we have focused our attention on the customer and stakeholder segments of our market, with less focus on our employee segment. Because of the strong link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, we fully understand the importance of a survey process to learn if employees believe they have the tools, support and motivation to provide world-class service. This year we plan to test an approach for an employee satisfaction survey process involving a limited number of offices before making decisions about full-scale implementation.

Because we know there is more we can do to improve, we plan to work together with the Social Security Advisory Board on an effort to learn from the private sector how to best collect and use customer service information to improve service to the public. We will use what we learn to help us make improvements at SSA.

We want to do all we can to ensure that the way we gather data continues to provide us with the information we need to make the service improvements the public wants and expects.

Kenneth S. Apfel
Kenneth S. Apfel
of Social Security


The Need for Customer Feedback

At SSA, customer feedback is a critical piece of our service delivery equation. Balanced with other important factors such as resource levels and integrity considerations, customer feedback helps us set service priorities. It also helps us know where to best focus our limited resources so we can make improvements in those areas that will have the greatest impact on increasing overall customer satisfaction.

In 1993, President Clinton and Vice President Gore asked all Federal agencies to become more customer-focused-to find out what customers want from government, to stop assuming that we knew, and to set customer service standards. Since that time, we have learned from academia and from best-in-business organizations about how to become more customer-focused and the importance of fully understanding customers. We learned we have to understand the needs of all our customers, not just some, to be responsive; that responsiveness leads to better service, better service leads to satisfaction and satisfaction leads to customer loyalty. How does customer loyalty relate to the Federal government? It means committed customers spread the word about the quality of service they receive. And, the "word" translates to increased public confidence in and support for SSA's programs.

As we became more knowledgeable about what it takes to be customer focused, we realized that the information we collected did not provide us with everything we need to know. If we didn't have all the information needed, how could we be sure we were making the right decisions regarding service to the public?

Further, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), in a 1977 report, found there was no formal process for coordinating surveys, focus groups and other customer feedback mechanisms within SSA. The OIG recommended that SSA take action to better coordinate its data collection activities and to make sure each activity had a specific purpose that integrated into a larger scheme.

It was time to change. We knew we needed to develop a coordinated, systematic program of data collection activities that would give us more complete data so that we could make sure we are making the best decisions about our service-decisions that would result in satisfied, loyal customers who have confidence in our programs.

How SSA Gathers Feedback

About four years ago, a consultant with expertise in market research and analysis advised us about highly efficient and effective data collection techniques. Our objective was to develop a better coordinated and more comprehensive program based on "state of the art" thinking about the collection of information that could translate into an Agency plan of action.

The consultant told us we were not collecting information from all our major customer groups. For example, we had some good data from customers who file for disability or retirement benefits, but we had virtually no information from customers already receiving benefits, or customers who apply for Social Security numbers.

The consultant also told us there are two other segments that have a critical impact on our service delivery, and that we need to collect information from them too-major stakeholders, such as business partners, the Congress and advocacy groups, and our employees.

An intercomponent team of Agency senior staff, our unions and our management associations considered the consultant's recommendations and used them to develop a new data collection program for the Agency. In February 1998, Commissioner Apfel approved this new program, called the Market Measurement Program.

SSA's Market Measurement Program (MMP)

Market measurement includes a variety of data collection activities that, taken together, give the Agency the information it needs to fully understand its market-SSA's "market" is its customers, employees and stakeholders. Our Market Measurement Program consists of data collection activities tailored to each of these three segments.


We will analyze the information we collect to help us understand the distinct needs and satisfaction levels of SSA's ten core customer groups, which include people:

  • Applying for Social Security numbers
  • Filing Retirement and Survivors Insurance (RSI), Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) claims (these are three separate groups)
  • Appealing decisions
  • Making post-entitlement changes; such as address changes, becoming eligible for other benefits. (RSI, DI and SSI are three separate groups)
  • Providing/adjusting earnings information
  • Asking for general information

There are five different data collection activities that together will tell us what we need to know about our customers:

  1. Customer Segment Analyses - These are focus groups immediately followed by in-depth surveys conducted to provide information about the distinct needs, expectations and priorities of each of SSA's ten core customer groups, or what we call customer segments. The focus groups allow us to meet face-to-face with customers while they talk about service issues important to them. The surveys that follow provide more detailed information on the issues raised in the focus groups, and will permit us to attribute this information to each particular customer group in general. We plan to gather information from each group on about a 3-year cycle since experts tell us customer needs and expectations do not change significantly in the short term.

    SSA has begun work on three groups-we have completed the data gathering for disability postentitlement customers and expect the results later this year. We have conducted focus groups with our appeals and disability initial claims customers and will begin the surveys soon with final reports expected by the end of FY 2000. In January 2000 we conducted focus groups with postentitlement and initial RSI and SSI aged customers-we will do these surveys in the Summer and Fall respectively, and expect final reports in FY 2001. We plan focus groups with customers who apply for Social Security numbers during the last quarter of FY 2000 and surveys in FY 2001. We will work with the remaining groups over the next two years.

  2. Interaction Tracking - These are surveys conducted to monitor how satisfied customers are with the service they receive by telephone (both field office and 800 number), office visit (both field and hearings offices), and the Internet. We do these surveys shortly after the customer receives service while the customer's impression of that service is still fresh. We conduct each of these surveys twice a year.

    The 800 number customer survey has been in use for many years so we have comprehensive satisfaction data regarding our toll-free service. We also have data from the first Internet survey we conducted in 1999. We plan the next Internet survey for Spring of 2000. We are compiling data from the first office visit survey and expect results to be available in the Spring of 2000 also. The second office visit survey is taking place now. The first field office telephone survey was recently completed, and results are expected shortly.

    In the past, we assessed customer satisfaction with an annual survey that we sent to a sample of customers several months after a specific interaction, or contact with SSA. We asked respondents questions about the service they had received over the past year. The problem with this methodology is that with the passage of time, any interceding events described in the media regarding Social Security as well as other factors can obscure the memory of the respondent's service experience. Also, we could not sample all of SSA's core customer groups in the annual survey while we can include all in the interaction tracking surveys.

    The new interaction tracking method is clearly a better method for getting current customer ratings of SSA's service. We will do a rollup of the various interaction surveys (combine the results) to determine an overall satisfaction rating for the performance measures that are reported in our Annual Performance Plan.

  3. Special Studies - These are focus groups or surveys conducted whenever we need more information about specific issues. For example, we use special studies to help in implementing new initiatives, to evaluate the impact of a change in policy or procedure, to get customer reaction to specific notices or to track a new phenomenon such as the need for online services. We might also use special studies to obtain information from groups we normally do not gather data from on an ongoing basis.

    Even though special studies are an important component of the new Market Measurement Program, they have been used for years. In fact, in the past, most of SSA's information from customers has come from ad hoc special studies.

    We have completed more than 40 focus group projects over the past two years, involving about 3,000 customers. Some examples are: asking customers what they think of SSA's cost-of-living notices and seeking customer feedback regarding the complaint/compliment system being developed at SSA. Special study focus groups in process or planned for FY 2000 include:

    • SSI childhood disability packets
    • Increasing the number of automated services available to 800 number callers
    • SSI notice "due process" information
    • Plain language in notices
    • Applications on SSA's website
    • Privacy in field offices
    • Plans for Achieving Self Support
    • Return to Work

    We have conducted many special study surveys over the years as well and plan more for the near future. Currently underway or planned for FY 2000 are surveys to help SSA:

    • update standards for customer service
    • increase satisfaction with the automated services offered by our 800 number
    • understand why some 800 number customers call multiple times in the same day
    • assess success and satisfaction with kiosks used for issuing Social Security numbers
    • assess Disability Claims Manager pilots

  4. Comment Cards - For years, field offices and teleservice centers have used comment cards to solicit customer feedback on the quality of our service. Managers use these cards to identify and resolve customer service issues at the local level. Experience has shown comment cards to be a valuable tool. Beginning this year, we will use comment cards in hearings offices.

    In field offices, managers stock these cards in the reception area for customers to complete, if desired, after they have conducted their business. Many managers also mail these cards monthly to survey some of the customers who conducted business in their office.

    Teleservice Centers mail comment cards to 800 number callers using a sample selection method prescribed by individual Teleservice Center managers.

  5. "Talking and Listening to Customers"(TLC) System - This is an Agency-wide system that is being developed to capture, analyze and address customer-initiated complaints and compliments. Within the next year, SSA will pilot its TLC system to test this first-time, single, uniform and automated system that will facilitate and track the resolution of both individual customer complaints and larger, systemic problems.

In addition to these five data gathering techniques, we engage in other feedback-oriented activities. Recognizing that there is a wealth of SSA field experience in effectively handling customer service issues or dealing with business processes, we have developed best practice inventories posted on SSA's Intranet to share this information with all employees who deal with the public.

In addition, there are regional activities that help us learn from our customers. Regional offices occasionally solicit customer input on regional initiatives to help in planning and implementation activities. Some also conduct surveys aimed at understanding customer needs and satisfaction at the local level. Regional Public Affairs Officers work to "get to know" our customers as well as stakeholders and to understand their particular interests. Also, town hall meetings and meetings with community leaders and groups provide valuable input on local service needs and expectations.


The second important group from whom we need feedback is stakeholders. SSA's major stakeholders include employers, business groups/partners, advocacy groups, taxpayers, unions, management and employee associations, and oversight groups like Congress. These groups are important because they have an interest in and an influence on SSA's service.

Our program for collecting information from most of these groups is through periodic interviews, either in person or over the phone, about perceptions of SSA in areas relating to the delivery of service. We have already conducted interviews with employer-related organizations. In FY 2000 we are planning to conduct interviews with the staffs of Congressional representatives who have a particular interest in SSA, unions and management associations.

Employers are handled differently because they are a unique group. Employers are stakeholders in that they are business partners who supply earnings information for our customers, the working public. But they are also our customers because SSA provides direct service to employers to help them accurately report earnings. Understanding the needs and expectations of employers is critical to improving the earnings reporting process. Therefore, focus groups were conducted with employers during the Summer of 1999 and a follow-up survey is currently being conducted with employers throughout the country. The results from the survey will be available during the Winter of 2000. A yearly survey is planned to monitor employer satisfaction with our services.

In addition, SSA solicits customer input by means of presentations to, and discussions with, stakeholder organizations and community groups. Examples include:

  • Forums held to discuss privacy issues related to online access of Social Security information

  • Meetings conducted to obtain input on Plans for Achieving Self Support

  • Forums on issues affecting women, minorities, generation X and non-English speaking customers

  • "Brown bag" lunches and roundtable discussions with community leaders who have interest in the Social Security programs.

The information we gather from the general public-those who are current taxpayers and future beneficiaries-is not on service delivery, because this group does not often have experience in dealing with SSA directly. Instead, our objective is to find out how much the general public knows about SSA and the programs we administer. With this information, we can determine where we need to educate the public about SSA. To do this, we will use our Public Understanding Measurement System (PUMS). This system used a survey to provide baseline information about how well the public understands our programs, and calls for follow-up surveys to identify changes to the baseline resulting from our education activities.


Collecting information from customers and stakeholders is not enough. We also need to listen to the concerns and understand the needs of our employees. This advice has been reinforced many times over by literature that speaks to a strong and direct link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.

SSA has no quantitative information about employee satisfaction, although the Agency does have some qualitative information from focus groups conducted in 1996.

Therefore, SSA is in the process of assessing how to survey employees so that we know how satisfied employees are with their work environment-do employees believe they have the tools, the support, the motivation to provide world-class service to customers.

Collecting the information is one thing. Using it to make visible improvements in the workplace is another-the critical part of the employee survey process. Therefore, our assessment will also include examining how we use the information so that it is most meaningful to employees.

Summary of the Overall Market Measurement Program

The Market Measurement Program and other related activities provide the structure that ensures SSA continually has complete, current data from those who have a stake in the successful operation of the Agency. Effective use of market research requires turning data into information through analysis. During the planning process, we combine market information with resource and other data so that we are able to make balanced decisions.

The attached material in the Appendix organizes the information in the report into chart format, although it structures it differently. The charts organize the Market Measurement Program activities into:

  • What we do to learn about needs and expectations-that is, important issues that define "service" for customers based on past experiences in dealing with SSA, and

  • What we do to learn about satisfaction with our service-shortly after customers have a service contact with us.

The charts also include benchmarking under the "What we do" section. While benchmarking isn't part of our Market Measurement Program per se, it is a tool we use to make sure we are keeping up with current thinking, best-in-business practices and knowledge.

What We've Learned from Customers

One thing we've learned from our focus groups, surveys and other activities is that customer expectations regarding our service are quite reasonable. Our customers expect the same kind of service from SSA that we ourselves expect when we conduct our own business outside of work-e.g., telephone service that is accessible, knowledgeable employees who care about helping, and written information that is clear and easy to read.

Some of the major findings we have identified are:

  • Telephone access and field office waiting times seem to have a major influence on how customers perceive satisfaction with all other aspects of service. In other words, customers who have to call back multiple times or remain on hold for a long time before they get served perceive our employees as less knowledgeable and less courteous than customers who get through quickly.

  • Customers are more satisfied if the business they conduct with us is completed at the initial contact. Customers aren't as happy with our service if they have to call us back multiple times to complete their business. They are not as satisfied if they are told that someone else will have to handle their business at a later date.

  • Through analysis of survey findings, we have found that improving notice clarity provides one of the greatest opportunities for us to increase overall customer satisfaction.

  • Although access and timeliness are important to customers, the "human factor" is what means the most to customers. When asked to select the most important elements of service from a list of services that SSA provides, satisfaction survey respondents chose "Staff who care about helping" and "knowledgeable staff who give clear explanations" as the top choices several years in a row.

  • In rating service received in SSA field offices, customers are least satisfied with privacy and the amount of time they waited to be served. Those who had appointments for their office visits were significantly more satisfied with waiting time than customers who had just "walked in."

  • SSA Online survey results confirmed that SSA has a strong constituency for the Agency's electronic service delivery initiatives.

  • Employers who are computer savvy and large volume wage reporters are interested in using the Internet for wage reporting.

What We Expect to Learn from our Expanded Program

The Agency is in the early stages of using the new data collection techniques of the Market Measurement Program. While we have already learned important information and have used it to make significant improvements in service delivery, we expect that as we move ahead with our activities we will obtain an increasing amount of targeted information that will help us better understand:

  • How satisfied customers are immediately after they contact and do business with SSA. We expect to obtain the kind of information that will tell us if some customer groups are more or less satisfied than others, and that will allow us to confirm which aspects of service have the greatest impact on overall satisfaction.

  • The distinct service needs and expectations of each of SSA's different customer groups. This will tell us how well we are serving each group and what changes need to be made to serve customers better.

  • Customer opinions of what constitutes "good service" for all modes of contact with SSA.

  • Stakeholder perceptions of SSA in areas that are not related to specific policy issues. We expect to learn from stakeholders their views of how SSA is performing, such as how responsive SSA is, how good a job SSA does communicating with the public, and what aspects of service stakeholders consider important.

  • What we could do to encourage more employers who currently file paper wage reports to file electronically.

  • What changes in our current work environments would have a positive impact on enhancing employee capability and motivation to provide world-class service.

What We Do with the Information We Collect

The first thing we do is make sure that the findings of all our data collection activities are available to all employees. To that end, we developed and have in place, an electronic central repository of all data collection final reports. We call it our Market Measurement Program Clearinghouse. It contains national and regional reports of data collection activities such as reports of surveys, focus groups and interviews. Employees have one place to look for information that we collect from customers, employees and stakeholders. They can instantly access this information via the Intranet using a key word search. Easy accessibility to data helps ensure we consider this information-what we have learned-during Agency planning and decision-making.

SSA is using the data we collect to help determine the service enhancements needed to improve customer satisfaction. Improvement initiatives and new service strategies are discussed and approved as part of the strategic planning process. Approved objectives, key initiatives and strategies are then incorporated into the Agency Strategic Plan and Annual Performance Plan to ensure that they are pursued.

Examples of How Customer Feedback Drives Our Actions

  • 800 number improvements - We know through surveys and focus groups that the public is showing an increasing preference for dealing with SSA by telephone. Also, we learned that how quickly a customer gets through to us by telephone significantly influences that customer's overall satisfaction with SSA. As a result, we have spent significant resources improving our 800 number and are now implementing new initiatives that represent further steps toward responding to SSA's customer needs and expectations of teleservice.

  • More complete service - Our customers told us they would be more satisfied if they could complete their business in one contact. As a result, SSA is now piloting its Immediate Claims Taking initiative to determine the best way to expand the service we can handle to completion over the 800 number.

  • Redesign of the Social Security Statement - We asked customers to evaluate different versions of the Social Security Statement (a written communication that provides individuals with estimates of future Social Security benefits) to find out which would be most helpful and understandable. Based on customer responses, the Statement was improved for the universal mailing that began in October 1999.

  • Survey of SSA's Website - SSA conducted focus groups and surveys with people who use our website to identify shortcomings and to provide insight as to how the site could be more useful to them. Based on their suggestions, we added more online services and transactions and expanded the hours that some of our online services are offered. We also plan to redesign the website to simplify website navigation and to make it easier for customers to locate the information or service they want.

  • Clear and understandable notices - Customers have continually identified notice clarity as one of the most important aspects of customer service. Knowing this, we have and will continue to devote efforts to numerous initiatives that will improve our notices.

  • Quicker resolution of appeals - Customer feedback critical of our disability appeals process has led us to undertake significant hearing process improvement initiatives to reduce processing time and promote a more customer-focused approach. In addition, SSA is conducting a Prototype test in 10 States that includes elimination of the reconsideration step in the appeals process. We expect these and other initiatives to have a positive effect on overall appeals processing time.

  • Single point of contact - In response to customer input about how the disability process could be improved, SSA is testing an alternative approach to disability claim intake using a Disability Claims Manager (DCM). The DCM provides the customer with a single point of contact who is the decision-maker on all aspects of his or her claim.

  • Claimant conference - To help ensure the customer has an opportunity to include all relevant medical evidence in the decision on his or her disability application, SSA is testing the claimant conference concept. This allows the customer to talk with the decision-maker about the evidence in file prior to the final action. Many customers served at other than test sites have expressed dissatisfaction with their lack of opportunity to have such discussions. The claimant conference also provides an additional opportunity to explain the claims process and disability programs to the customer thereby helping to reduce or eliminate confusion.

Next Steps

We have many initiatives in place or planned to enhance or expand the way we gather feedback. But we recognize that we still can do more to improve. We plan to work with the Social Security Advisory Board to consult with outside experts who will help us understand more about private sector experiences in gathering customer information and utilizing it to improve customer service. We will use what we learn to help us make improvements at SSA. And as you might expect from an Agency committed to listening, we welcome your views as to how we can continue to better serve the public.









10 segments-external customers who:

  • Apply for SSNs
  • Apply for RSI, DI, or SSI claims
  • Appeal decisions
  • Make RSI, DI, or SSI postentitlement changes
  • Provide earnings information
  • Ask for general information

Considered both stakeholders & customers

  • Business partners who report earnings information on behalf of the working public
  • Customers receiving direct service from SSA

  • Organizations such as oversight groups (e.g., Congress, OMB), business partners, advocacy groups, unions, associations and advisory groups
  • General public

  • Managers
  • Rank and file
  • HQs
  • Field


  • Analysis of each customer segment every 3 years (about 3 per year)
    Uses new technique:
    -Focus groups, followed immediately by

  • Special Studies *

    focus groups or surveys to get more information on specific issues.
    Example: Customer Service Standards Survey which periodically provides information on expectations of good service

  • TLC (future system for complaints and compliments)
  • Benchmarking*

    activities to learn about best-in-business processes and outcomes, e.g.,
    -NPR-sponsored studies like 800#, One-stop service, Courtesy, etc
    -Agency-driven studies like complaints (OCSI), reception area practices (Oper.)

Focus groups - every 3 years

  • Interviews every 3 years- for organizations
  • Forums, meetings, "brown bag" lunches *
  • Public Understanding Measurement System (PUMS) - yearly surveys with General Public to assess level of understanding about SSA and programs

  • Organizational Culture Survey -conducted in 1999
  • Benchmarking * activities to learn about best-in-business processes and outcomes, e.g., like best practices study on warehousing (OFAM)


  • Focus groups conducted by OCOMM
  • Surveys conducted by OFAM
  • TLC lead is OCSI

NOTE: Even though data collection activities are carried out by different components, one component oversees the entire MMP process (OCSI), and all components work together to ensure that all activities are integrated and that no duplication occurs.

Focus groups conducted by OCOMM

  • Interviews by OCOMM
  • PUMS surveys by contractor under oversight of OCOMM

  • Culture survey conducted by OHR

* Activities undertaken prior to Market Measurement Program








10 segments-people who:

  • Apply for SSNs
  • Apply for RSI, DI, SSI claims
  • Appeal decisions
  • Make RSI, DI, SSI post-entitlement changes
  • Provide earnings information
  • Ask for general information

Considered both stakeholders and customers

  • Business partners who report earnings information on behalf of the working public
  • Customers who receive direct service from SSA

  • Organizations such as oversight groups (e.g. Congress, OMB), business partners, advocacy groups, unions, employee associations
  • General public

  • Managers
  • Rank and file
  • HQs
  • Field


  • Interaction Tracking Surveys,1twice a year
    - Surveys shortly after contact
    - Cover office visits (FO and HO), FO telephone, 800 #, internet
  • Special Studies *
    focus groups or surveys to get more information on specific issues
  • Comment cards *
    for FO, TSC and HO use
  • TLC (for future use)
  • Benchmarking *
    - American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)- yearly survey produced by partnership between University of Michigan and Arthur Andersen.

Survey every year

  • SSA Employee Satisfaction Survey - still in planning stages
  • Benchmarking --
    - NPR/OPM Government-wide Survey - yearly; 2nd annual survey results just released


  • Interaction tracking surveys by OFAM
    • Special studies by OFAM and OCOMM
    • Comment cards administered and used locally
    • TLC-under OCSI lead
    • ACSI-OCSI is Agency lead.
    NOTE: Even though data collection activities are carried out by different components, one component oversees the entire MMP process (OCSI), and all components work together to ensure that all activities are integrated and that no duplication occurs.

  • Survey by OFAM

    • SSA employee survey lead is OHR-survey will be contracted out
    • NPR/OPM survey Agency lead is OCSI

    · Activities undertaken prior to Market Measurement Program

    1 Replaces the Annual Customer Satisfaction Survey (ACSS) conducted since 1984 (first conducted by GAO, then OIG, and finally SSA's OFAM. ACSS did not cover all customer groups