No matter what job you have, you can’t wish your customers away. Government employees know this better than anyone, as the services they offer are vital to the public good, and when they are not delivered promptly and cleanly, citizens can be quick to remind agencies in comment sections and feedback forms.
So it might sound odd that U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Chief Information Officer Alexis Bonnell dreams of a day when she doesn’t have any customers. But in fact, that very goal powers many of USAID’s most concerted customer experience (CX) efforts.
“Success for us at USAID is people not actually needing to be our customers anymore,” Bonnell said at GovLoop’s event Tuesday. USAID delivers civilian aid and humanitarian projects to people outside of the U.S.
Bonnell targeted programs that would help recipients of aid to benefit themselves and move on from assistance. The programs should be standalone, and customers should be happy to use those services whether they’re offered through government or not, as that is the true test of their value, she said.
Bonnell was one of four panelists who spoke directly to how agencies could understand their biggest CX challenges, the third session of the “Citizen Engagement and Experience Seminar.” Also on the panel were Lauren Alexanderson, Digital Services Expert for the Veterans Affairs Department (VA), Jonathan Benett, Technical Director for Digital Government Solutions at Adobe, and Nicole Johnson, Managing Editor at GovLoop.
Throughout the event, panelists shared examples, thoughts and anecdotes of how agencies could best grow their CX. While agencies all strive for different goals and meet different challenges, panelists seemed to agree that many experiences carried over.
One such experience is the apprehension surrounding CX.
“Step one, you have permission to do this. Step two, you have to go and find your users,” Alexanderson said.
Government employees can be reluctant to stray too far away from their job description, and CX can take on a “next” mentality, whereby employees will constantly expect the next person to cover customers and not address issues themselves. However, panelists said, agencies need to educate employees on their individual responsibilities and potential pertaining to CX.
Alexanderson said that VA hosted a session in which leaders informed staff of their opportunity to improve CX. Alexanderson said that while many of these employees might have ignored another plea from a digital services-focused voice, leadership’s outspoken support was crucial for suffusing a customer-first mindset throughout the organization.
A customer-first mentality in government often manifests itself through human-centered design (HCD), a philosophy in which designers and managers attempt to bring about solutions that address direct needs of users in friendly formats.
Examples of HCD in the public sector include whether public transit servicers ride buses, or whether employees use the same online portals as constituents.
“We actually have expectations, you and I, in our private lives that are not met when we go to our government organizations,” Benett said.
While government agencies are typically hearing that constituents expect convenient experiences that can match those of the private sector, they often don’t know where to begin.
Gaining executive buy-in, agencies can assign small teams to tackle easy wins on meaningful projects. By engaging with and collecting actionable feedback, agencies can look to address the biggest and most common pain points that users face in their interactions with agencies. From there, they can incorporate small teams to address specific challenges and, piece by piece, improve the citizen journey overall.
While a baseline customer experience process of internalizing feedback, identifying points of stress and accomplishing easy wins might seem straightforward, sometimes agencies need collective shifts in approach.
Bonnell admitted that she couldn’t always recognize the importance of customer feedback for her agency, despite the fact that she would engage and provide feedback and complaints to companies she purchased items from in private life. She was struck by how she had one set of expectations in being a customer in her private life, but sometimes struggled to even identify the customer and initially be of best service to them in her professional life.
Now, Bonnell said, she’s proud of USAID’s focus on “the Journey to Self Reliance” and the ways the agency is proud of putting the customer first. That’s why in starting the customer journey, the first step can be to take a step back and focus on the citizen.
“The only organizations that can afford to not think about their customers are monopolies. And that should really wake us up,” Bonnell said.