The DMV Gets It!

Hard on the heels of my experience with the San Juan Unified School District came one of startling contrast, even more so because it came from such an unexpected quarter: the much-maligned California Department of Motor Vehicles. Was the experience a good one? Not really. Did it contrast in almost every way with the one at San Juan? Remarkably so, in that the DMV has clearly put thought into almost every aspect of their interaction with their customers, all with an eye toward reducing the anxiety of the public. To wit:

WIN! the web site

The DMV web site is easy to find. Two clicks got me to the page for my local office. That page showed the office hours, holiday schedules, the address, the phone number, a map, driving directions, even a picture of the building. What a great help in finding the facility! The page even shows wait times at the office (but more on that below) and offers to let you make an appointment without leaving your computer. The web site is compatible across platforms, accessible to the disabled, fast, clear, and — while not the most aesthetically pleasing site on the web — it is easy to navigate and puts relevant information all in one place. The San Juan web site is kinda pretty. The DMV web site is actually useful.

FAIL: available appointments are too far in the future

Alas, the soonest appointment I was offered was nearly a month away. They really should be offering next-day appointments. Impossible, you say? I’m pretty sure that I’ve proven it can be done. In any case, I couldn’t wait a month for an appointment. They said the wait for walk-in service was 46 minutes. I can do that! So in I went.

WIN! entering the facility

The facility and parking lot are well marked. It is obvious where you need to go. I was directed by clear signs to a non-appointment line that was long but moved with steady, reassuring speed. In about six minutes I had a number in my hand. The waiting area was crowded but, in contrast to the one at San Juan, was clean and quiet. Adequate numbers of (uncomfortable) chairs were available. Monitors all over the place showed a list of numbers recently called and the window to report to. When new numbers are called, they are announced by a soft voice and displayed in huge type on the monitors. You don’t have to worry about not being able to hear your number, or missing it if you glance away from the displays for a moment. Contrast with being in a noisy, dirty waiting area with no hint of whether there was any movement in the waiting crowd, and you get a sense of just how important those little touches are to helping reduce anxiety and making the wait seem less onerous.

Which is a good thing, because…

FAIL: estimated wait time way off

The 46 minute estimated wait time seemed long, but tolerable. When I was still waiting 2½ hours later, the estimate seemed like a joke. It seemed they were still a long way from calling my number, and I had to pick up my son from preschool in about 15 minutes. At first I wasn’t concerned, because it seemed as though there would be plenty of time to pick up Josh and be back at the DMV office before my number was called. As the minutes ticked off, though, it became increasingly apparent that my number was going to get called right about the time I had to leave. Yes, it was stressful. At the same time, I found that I wasn’t angry. What makes me angry? Feeling as though people don’t care. (As Ernestine used to say, “We’re the phone company. We don’t have to care.”) Instead, I felt as though an honest and largely effective effort had been made to make the wait less anxiety provoking. Six minutes before I absolutely had to leave, my number came up. I didn’t think I’d be able to finish the process, but hoped they could somehow streamline my return visit.

WIN! well-informed, courteous, efficient personnel

Five minutes and forty seconds later, my driver license was renewed.


Reading my previous post, several people commented that they didn’t see why San Juan, or any government agency or monopoly, would put any resources into making their customers’ encounters less angst-filled. Wouldn’t it just be spending money on building loyalty with a customer base who doesn’t have any choices anyway? If somebody stomps off mad, doesn’t that just mean less work for the bureaucracy? My point was that it is more than a PR move. Every time someone doesn’t have a hostile encounter with a DMV employee or doesn’t cause a disturbance in the lobby or is more cooperative in solving a problem, the DMV saves some money. I’m way too cynical, anymore, to believe that any bureaucracy will act appropriately just because it’s the right thing to do. Remember, I have to deal with health insurance companies all day. But I am convinced that, even for the most heartless of organizations, considering your customers’ experiences, however captive those customers might be, makes economic sense.

Ron – 12 Jan 2010