Civil servants are widely denounced for being neither civil nor offering much in the way of service. Drivers trying to replace lost licenses and companies seeking permits for underground storage tanks don't normally encounter a lot of beaming faces inquiring, "How may I delight you today?"

The state of Michigan wants to raise its service game, and it is turning to entrepreneurial businesses for help. Zingerman's, an Ann Arbor–based deli and food company at which doing the right thing by customers is bred in the bone, has stepped up to train government employees in service culture. Michigan's new governor, Rick Snyder, posed the idea to Paul Saginaw, a co-founder of Zingerman's, when the two crossed paths at an awards dinner last winter. "I said, 'Are you serious?' " recalls Saginaw. "But I thought, Wouldn't it be great if the orientation of public servants was, My job is to be your resource. You are paying my salary. How do I help you get your business open?"

Snyder, a Republican, ran partly on his business bona fides, which include a stint as president of Gateway and the co-founding of HealthMedia, a medical consulting company. "My experience at Gateway and assisting start-ups taught me that you can have a great product or service, but you need to be responsive to your customer each and every time you have the opportunity," Snyder says.

If Michigan were a business, it would have plenty of frustrated customers. The state has a budget gap of $1.4 billion, an unemployment rate of more than 12 percent, and the unenviable distinction of being the only state to lose population over the past decade. Snyder's service overhaul is meant to keep people and companies in the state as well as to attract newcomers by making transactions as efficient as possible. So instead of competing on cost—luring businesses with incentives like the 42 percent tax credit for movie production that bit the dust in the state's new budget—Michigan will compete on quality of service.

"At the core, the state's solution is to enable businesses and citizens to live in an efficient way," says Elizabeth Parkinson, senior vice president of marketing at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Parkinson imagines, for instance, creating job boards to connect job seekers with companies that are expanding in the state. She wants to see state agencies extend their hours, using job sharing and cross-functional training.

"One thing I've noticed since I've been working for the state is most people are flying under the radar," says Parkinson. "They don't want to draw attention to themselves. They don't want to make decisions on their own. We need to reward people in government for doing the right thing."

How to create those incentives is one thing agency managers will learn as they circulate through ZingTrain, the consulting arm of Zingerman's. The group has trained more than 1,000 clients, including managers from Microsoft and Bridgestone/Firestone. ZingTrain teaches practices such as explaining in concrete terms what great service looks like and treating staff members the way staff members are expected to treat customers.

Those practices are at the core of the success of Zingerman's. "Nobody in this town gets up and says, 'If I don't get a $15 sandwich this morning, I am going to kill myself,' " says Saginaw. "We've got to give them a reason to come in. We're going to service the hell out of them."

The arrangement with Zingerman's and outreach to other companies are in their earliest stages. Most likely, agency officials will undergo training and bring back what they have learned to their staffs.

Government learning from business is not new. The Clinton administration, for example, was captivated by David Osborne's book Reinventing Government, which called on public agencies to be more customer and mission driven. But Osborne, now a senior partner at the Public Strategies Group, warns that infusing state government with a culture of service won't be easy. Says Osborne: "It's got to be more than smile training."