Service Beyond Excellence

Singapore’s Central Provident Fund Board (CPFB) has won many accolades for its service excellence and innovations such as the groundbreaking my.cpf online portal. Ng Hock Keong, the Quality Service Manager (QSM) behind many of CPFB’s service initiatives, shares his views on the challenges of change in a mature service-oriented agency responsible for over three million members.

Date Posted

1 Apr 2008


Issue 4, 14 Apr 2008

CPFB has a hard-earned reputation for being a quality service-oriented agency. What is driving it to introduce new service innovations, especially when some of these could potentially disrupt existing service experiences that are already comfortably well received?

There are two driving forces. First, it is clear to us that the customer has changed. Citizens have become savvier, and have higher expectations of government, transparency and service. What was once a delighter or performance service is now considered a basic service. Second, a public service agency providing excellent customer service brings about national goodwill; we cannot be stagnant or complacent in meeting the rising expectations of our citizens.

From an organisational perspective, why would CPFB think of some new service to delight the customer or test the market every year? I believe it is a passion of wanting to be a service excellence agency: we take pride in exceeding expectations, and surpassing other service providers, public or private. The only way to surpass other benchmark organisations is to do something that has never been done before. Two most recent examples are the "m-ambassador" and "e-concierge" services.

Public service agencies are often stereotyped as being risk-averse. Yet how does CPFB’s organisational culture support change and innovation in service delivery?

I think we have a willingness to admit imperfection and mistakes—and the ability to then build on that, to come up with a better version of ideas. This is something you do not see that often outside CPFB.

One example was the development of the initial version of our mobile services, designed for personal digital assistants (PDAs) in 2006. Our target customers were not very receptive to it. So we took a step back, did a post-mortem, and moved on to a better solution today. Another project in which I was personally involved was a IT system for scanning in hardcopy correspondence. The idea was good and the system was developed with the latest technology available in 2000, but it did not take off as we wished because customer behaviour had changed by the time the system was ready, and more customers were simply writing emails to us. We eventually stopped using the system in 2003. Yet there were no repercussions on the officers involved. The experience we gained from the failure of the project helped tremendously when we developed other systems later on. The important thing was that management accepted that while the initial systems were technically up to scratch, it did not succeed operationally due to a range of other reasons, including users’ resistance to change. We learned from that episode. The core personnel of the project team were reassembled for the subsequent customer relationship management system project, which was implemented very smoothly as a result.

There are many other service innovation stories, where it is not “first version perfect”. But we have a culture where if someone is championing a project and it is not working out, they will not say “Let’s cover up” or “Let’s pretend it works”. The moment you take away the fear factor of a penalty for honest mistakes, people will be more upfront, and they will want to do better. And we are prepared to put in more resources to get it right the next time. It is very important that our top management has been so supportive of this culture of tolerating failure.

We also have an internal culture where we celebrate success and new ideas. We give out generous awards for successful new projects. And when one department tries out new ideas that work, every other department will want to come on board—the word-of-mouth effect is better than a top-down plan from the QSM office!

By freeing up less value-adding channels, we can now offer different strokes to different folks, instead of the traditional one-size-fits-all approach.

How has CPFB’s service model moved from pursuing cost savings and efficiency gains to one of value enhancement?

If we keep traditional service models, there is no way that we will have enough additional resources to do all these new things; you can only get incremental improvements. You can always do more with extra resources, but that is not sustainable. So first, you have to pursue the cost-saving model. Automate high volume transactions. We tackled this in 2003, by e-enabling these transactions, and began to reap raw cost savings. We cut down the number of physical counters, reserving them for those who really need them. We freed up staff to do other things, such as helping people with electronic transactions. We changed our physical layout so that the e-lobby with self-help service terminals is the first point of contact. Manned counters are still there, but with a much longer waiting time of say 60 minutes for walk-in, young and able customers. So the customer decides what he is prepared to do.

The fact is that given a choice, customers prefer to self-help and complete their transaction without waiting. And there are e-ambassadors around to assist them with this. We implemented the e-appointment system in 2005, where customers could book a face-to-face appointment ahead of time. So now you wait less than 10 minutes to see someone, and the counter staff would have had time to prepare your case, know what you need, and prepared a solution for you. The allocated transaction time is 30 minutes, but in fact it takes less than that because the process has become much smoother.

So by freeing up less value-adding channels, we can now offer different strokes to different folks, instead of the traditional one-size-fits-all approach.

We can now also sift out people who cannot use the e-channels and make options available to them. For instance, we have a Club 55 service for senior citizens who are probably less IT-savvy and need more personalised help. It would be wrong to force them to use e-services. At Club 55, they are served by specialists within 20 minutes.

Our Customer Service Officers (CSOs) are now also freed up to go out to the community. We started off with old folk’s homes, community centres and roadshows, to help people in the heartlands check their CPF balances, and take home very useful messages about their CPF and personal finances. We call them the "CPF m-ambassadors". If someone were bed-ridden without a support system, the m-ambassador could make a house call and help them. For the past few national projects, we were able to do sign-ups at community centres, instead of requiring citizens to come to the CPF building.

And we have done all this with a stable headcount of 1,300 staff. In fact, for the past three years, we have met the 3% headcount reduction requirement, without affecting our customers’ service experience with us.

Are there other new services you have introduced that represent a fundamental change in the established way of doing things?

E-concierge is one such service. It started as feedback from some customers, who emailed us to ask us to perform certain transactions, without using a conventional form. By traditional cost-benefit analysis, it does not make sense to develop a process just to cater to such exceptional, low-frequency tasks. But the customer does not really care whether his transaction is high-volume or exceptional in nature—he only cares about the outcome he needs. Yet if we look at the customer’s instructions and the desired end result, we realise that we can perform the transaction without putting in place a new process. So now we let customers put in a free-form request from the e-concierge page and we can perform his transaction, once we have confirmed who he is, what he wants and how to serve him. It has changed the entire traditional mindset of form-based transactions. Now you can tell me what you want, and I will serve you.

From the Board’s perspective, this is more costly in terms of time and resources than a structured form. For instance, the human element is now needed to decipher the request, just as when reading an email. But it is far better than having to manage the customer who has come to the counter to kick up a fuss, or writing letters to argue over why the request cannot be processed in that way. In fact, departments spend less time performing the transaction than trying to explain to customers why they cannot carry out their non-standard instructions.

This e-concierge concept is a bold initiative that no one else in public service has tried so far. But in fact, there is no risk, since authentication and confirmation still take place. And as a public service agency, we actually hold a lot of authenticated information and can do specialised transactions for customers that even commercial banks cannot access. There is the potential for tremendous value-add to the customer.

Of course, the initial fear was that customers would only use this e-concierge system instead of the prescribed forms. But our operational experience has been the opposite—customers would rather tell you precisely what they need, by using the correct form if they could. This is really a last resort solution for them, and if there is in fact a standard form that customers can be redirected to, they quite reasonably proceed to complete the process on their own. The end result is that we can say “yes” to customers a lot more often, and we end up with a much better service experience overall.

You have said that CPFB goes beyond excellent service delivery to furthering national objectives by creating more informed, financially self-sufficient customers. Could you elaborate?

I think the big picture we are out to achieve is to make sure our greying population has enough for their retirement. So we need to move beyond a transaction-based relationship, i.e., you want this now, we carry it out quickly for you. Instead, we should leverage on the basis that people trust us since we have given them good service. Our transaction time also represents valuable interaction time with the customer; they are a captive audience.

During this time, we are able to influence and educate customers: Do they know the consequences of each transaction? Have they calculated the financial implications of the housing loan they are about to take on using their CPF? What is the retirement income they need based on their current lifestyle?

With information technology, it is relatively cheap to include these things on the website. How do we then draw customers in? We provide short teasers and games, send them text messages, give vouchers for little quizzes. It sets people thinking.

Development should be driven by business processes and customer context, rather than technical specifications alone.

So here is another mindset change. Instead of giving them just the facts of their CPF account, we try to bring the bigger message across. CPFB can push out personalised messages because we know your customer profile, and give you prompts, say six months before you hit your CPF balance limit for your housing instalments. We provide online calculators so people can see the bottom line impact on their own pockets instead of reading pages of news reports. We will leverage on new media to further extend our reach in public education in the next two years.

What advice would you give to other public service agencies that are just beginning to transform their existing service models?

A lot of organisations jump on the technology bandwagon, when they think of service innovation. They spend money and resources hoping to find a breakthrough to better service their customers. That is well and good, but I think the implementation has to be backed by an entire service culture, leadership and the right mindset; otherwise, you will not get very significant customer results. You also need to have a certain confidence in and knowledge of your business process and customer context, rather than let the development process be driven by technical specifications alone.

Outsourcing to vendors is also not a bad thing, because you lay off less efficient channels, but accountability should not be compromised. You must watch them even more closely, because when they are staff, you have a certain trust in them. But when they are vendors driven by profit, you have to be more careful. You have to be sure that they are aligned with your service values, because the customer will not care whether the service is outsourced or in-house; it is part of their service experience. This is an especially sensitive issue when outsourcing some public service functions.

I always tell my chaps that service delivery is not only about transactions. Through these service experiences, goodwill has been built over the last five decades and that is why the customer has trust in the organisation. It is not an overnight task. It takes a long runway to build a strong service culture in an organisation. It is a journey that never ends.


Ng Hock Keong is Director of Customer Relations Division in Singapore’s Central Provident Fund Board (CPFB). As Quality Service Manager, Mr Ng ensures a high level of customer satisfaction for its three million CPF members. He is the key advocate for service excellence in the Board, which has won the prestigious Singapore Quality Award (2004), Singapore Service Class (S-Class) Award (2005), Pro-enterprise ranking award (2004–2007), CAPAM Innovation Award (2006), APAC Government Technology Award (2007), and most recently, re-certification of Singapore S-Class Award (2007). Mr Ng has also initiated many e-transactional services that allow members to easily transact with the Board at any time. He introduced “my.cpf” online portal that seeks to both serve and educate CPF members on retirement planning based on important life stages. Today, the website is one of the most popular government websites in Singapore, serving more than 39 million transactions a year.

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