Office of Management Assessment
National Institutes of Health
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Customer Service Plan


NIH Customer Service Plan


The National Institutes of Health (NIH), founded in 1887, is one of the world's foremost medical research centers, and the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States. 26 Institutes and Centers comprise the NIH, which has the primary research goal of acquiring new knowledge to help prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat disease and disability from the rarest genetic disorder to the common cold. The NIH mission is to uncover new knowledge that will lead to better health for everyone.

In 1993, President William J. Clinton issued Executive Order 12862 challenging Federal agencies to improve customer service. Further, Executive Order 12862 tasked agencies to survey their customers to identify what kinds of services they really want and to gather ideas from front-line employees on how to better deliver those services. The goal of this Customer Service Plan is to convey to you, the customer, a realistic, achievable approach for improving customer service at the National Institutes of Health.

NIH is committed to improving the way it offers high quality services that are easily accessible to every American citizen. With this in mind, this Customer Service Plan is organized for your convenience. Customers may look at Attachment 1 to find some examples of activities going on at NIH that are organized by customer groups, consumers, health professionals, other governmental agencies, and grantee organizations. We want the plan to be as user-friendly as possible, and we welcome your comments and suggestions.


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Executive Order 12862, "Setting Customer Service Standards" requires Federal agencies to:

  • Identify customers who are, or should be, served by the agency;
  • Survey customers to determine the kind and quality of services they want and their level of satisfaction with existing services;
  • Post service standards and measure results against them;
  • Benchmark customer service performance against the best in business;
  • Survey front-line employees on barriers to, and ideas for, matching the best in business;
  • Provide customers with choices in both the sources of service and the means of delivery;
  • Make information, services, and feedback systems easily accessible;
  • Provide means to address customer feedback; and,
  • Provide feedback to our customers on what improvements we have made.


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This Customer Service Plan is based on ideas, suggestions, and feedback received from our customers as well as an extensive best practices search. It defines our customer service standards and processes for building and maintaining high quality services to meet those standards throughout the country.

The following principles drove the process for developing the plan:

Customers Know What They Want - Rather than sitting back and assuming that we know what customers wanted and needed, our agency is going out and asking. Through formal surveys, focus groups, and conversations, we are listening to what our customers think about the types and quality of services and products we offer. What we learn is helping to shape the ways in which we strive to redirect our services to ensure that we continuously improve our ability to meet your needs.

Customer's Needs Are Paramount - Based on feedback from our customers, NIH must respond to comments and suggestions about improving the way we deliver products and services.

Communication Is Key to Our Success - Developing effective tools to maintain lines of communication with our customers will help us do our jobs better. By developing more effective ways to direct information to our customers and by providing clearer paths to receive feedback, our agency will better address customer needs and concerns.


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NIH is diligently working to address the spirit of Executive Order 12862. A dedicated group of representatives from across the agency is convening to form an on-going Customer Service Management group to implement the customer service program and to ensure that the agency enhances its customer focus as it improves current services and develops new initiatives.

The agency has gathered information from customer service surveys, focus groups with front-line staff, and conversations with key external partners, to ensure that initiatives address issues important to our customers. This plan presents an opportunity to share with our customers our commitment to providing quality service.

NIH is committed to protecting, promoting, and enhancing the health of the American people and to improving its processes to offer high quality services that are easily accessible to the public. The Customer Service Plan establishes a broad framework to address customer issues. The customer service standards address issues our customers have told us are important to them.

The primary focus of this document is to ensure that we are continuously listening to our customers and making certain that their needs are being met or exceeded. While the focus is on our outside customers, it does not diminish the need to ensure that our internal NIH customer needs are also being met. It is imperative that an integrated view of all our customers' needs be pursued in order to ensure that the needs of our entire customer population are met. If we do not provide outstanding service to our internal customers, we will be unable to provide outstanding support to our external customers.

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The NIH serves four primary external customer groups--the general public, health professionals, other governmental agencies, and grantee/contractor organizations. These four broad categories encompass the populations that we serve and work with most often. When the agency embarked on this process, we felt it was necessary to define and limit our primary groups. As we continue with our customer service initiatives, we may include additional customer groups.


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The standards described in this report represent the NIH effort to identify the needs and concerns of our customers and to establish measurable processes to address these needs and concerns. The standards have been developed from information gathered from surveys/focus groups, and benchmarking with other outstanding organizations and are based on measured performance attributes - a set of criteria that expresses customer requirements and expectations. Performance attributes are organized into two categories.

  1. Process attributes -- transaction-related characteristics represented by internal operations, such as procedures, policies, and functions - the primary focus is continuously improving our internal operations so we can deliver our products and services quicker, better and cheaper; and

  2. Quality attributes -- image-related characteristics that describe the contact between the customer and the organization. The overall standard of quality we seek is customer service for the American people that is equal to or better than the best in business.

The following attributes were used to develop the standards:

Process Attributes

  • Consistency in policies and procedures - holding to the same principles across the organization
  • Convenient feedback mechanisms - feedback that are easy to use and access
  • Frequent communication - including follow-up - any form of communication on a regular basis, where taking action following that communication enhances the effectiveness of that communication
  • Managing resources well - careful control and use of resources, human as well as fiscal, to maximize their impact and effectiveness
  • Problem solving and attempts to remove barriers - proposed solutions or considerations to resolve something that is an obstruction or prevents progress
  • Prompt handling of customer feedback - immediate or quick management of customer dissatisfaction by empowering employees to fix problems
  • Flexible options - sending and receiving information using a variety of methods, including greater use of e-commerce solutions
  • Continuous Improvement - striving to do everything quicker, better and cheaper

Quality Attributes

  • Accessible - ability or freedom to approach, communicate with, or make use of
  • Courteous - respect or consideration
  • Flexible - capability to adapt to or change requirements
  • Knowledgeable - familiarity with or understanding of facts and/or conditions
  • Listens well - gives attention and/or careful consideration to what is said
  • Reliable and Trustworthy - dependable, confidence in character, abilities, and truth
  • Timely - information and/or responses are provided early or on time


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The following standards apply to all customer groups.

All NIH Customers are entitled to:

  • fair, courteous and professional treatment
  • information that is accurate and current
  • timely responses to requests
  • reasonable access to appropriate staff
  • two-way communication
  • opportunities for collaboration and partnerships, as appropriate and
  • consideration of their opinions and concerns by the agency in the decision making process
  • use of plain language for all communication with the public (Attachment 2)

In addition:

  • The General Public is entitled to accurate and timely health information about research being conducted.
  • Health Professionals are entitled to timely information that will assist them in advancing and protecting the public health.
  • Other Government Agencies are entitled to:
    • cooperation from the NIH in maximizing efficient use of resources, eliminating duplication of efforts and carrying out collaborative efforts;
    • technical assistance, training and guidance
  • Grantee/Contractor Organizations are entitled to:
    • timely review of applications and awards;
    • professional treatment in resolving disputes;
    • fair application of laws, regulations and policies;
    • fair and consistent application reviews;
    • respect in the performance of duties and responsibilities; and
    • timely payment.


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NIH will continue to embark on a variety of initiatives to ensure that it continues to address customer needs. The on-going Customer Service Management group will coordinate these activities. Ensuring that quality service is provided is an on-going process that requires changes in the way we do business by increasing emphasis on listening to our customers and by learning from the best in private industry. The agency will strive to reinvent itself -- to become more efficient and effective--and to provide the types of services the public expects.

Over the coming months, the agency will:

  • develop programs and initiatives that address customer needs. The agency, as a whole, and the individual centers and institutes will use the information gathered from the survey and focus groups to develop and enhance services.
  • benchmark against the best-in-the-business. The agency will determine what internal processes need to be improved, benchmark with leading industries, and establish performance standards.
  • establish processes to improve customer feedback. Systems will be established to receive and address customer suggestions and feedback.


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For further information, call  (301) 496-2461.


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Last updated on:
October 18, 2002
Office of Management Assessment
National Institutes of Health