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Leaders in Customer Experience Offer Advice to Agencies

Government work is called “public service,” but many would argue that phrase is a euphemism for the disservice that governments can saddle constituents with. Oftentimes, people feel hindered – not helped – by government at all levels, and their discontent with the public sector is the product of unpleasant customer experiences (CX).

Sadly, alienation from constituents has become the norm for government. In fact, the 2016 American Customer Service Index rated the federal government as a 68 out of 100, which was 9 points below the national average of organizations that the public interacts with.

It’s no surprise that the President’s Management Agenda named “improving customer experience with federal services” as the fourth Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goal. Yet, resource-challenged agencies have had trouble adapting the necessary measures and tools to reliably improve customer experience.

“It’s no secret that over the years, government has lost the trust of the American people,” Dominic Sale, Assistant Commissioner in the Office of Operations at the General Services Administration (GSA), said.

To learn best practices for reclaiming trust and provide better service to citizens, government and industry employees descended on the Agriculture Department (USDA) headquarters for ACT-IAC’s Customer Experience Community of Interest Best Practices Exchange. Sale moderated one of two panels, which included CX program leaders from prominent federal agencies and industry.

While every agency struggles with available resources and change management as they attempt to prioritize CX, agreed-upon best practices can help agencies reach their goals and adhere to federal policies, such as the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA). Here are four takeaways from the meeting.

  1. Connect Emotion to Work

Private-sector firms are profit maximizers, while government agencies are mission maximizers. That’s not to say that to say that private sector firms are entirely motivated by financial gain, but cash does rule. In government, the end goal is instead “for the people” – one way or another.

Yet, from a cubicle, this crucial difference can often be lost. An accountant at an oversight agency, for example, might not directly interact with customers and fail to see the value to their work. Since money is not the motivation, what is?

“There’s a little bit of a culture change that needs to happen when you survey your organizations and a decent number of them say, ‘Well, I don’t have customers,’” Will Brady, Associate Deputy Secretary at the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), said.

Brady’s finding at HHS is a common hurdle for agency leadership. Consequently, providing a value chain that can display direct outcomes of work is crucial for ensuring a motivated workforce that’s dedicated to CX.

  1. Prove the Shared Mission

It can be challenging to measure the immediate value of some jobs, but customer experience offers a uniform measuring stick for government progress. Creating a customer feedback loop that yields quantitative and qualitative feedback can point governments to spaces of success and areas for improvement.

“There are easy wins,” said David Maron, Acting Branch Chief of Biostatistics for the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Prioritizing CX means redefining agency goals and requires change that is often more archaic than legacy technologies, Maron urged. Making gains in CX is a team effort and requires new ways of thinking.

By informing all employees of their role in CX, agencies can generate valuable ideas and accomplish the easiest tasks first, while constructing long-term plans for solving more entrenched problems.

  1. Focus on Process Success to Reach the End Goal

After solving for the why and the what of customer experience, agencies need to focus on how. Oftentimes, aside from outdated systems, internal processes are not suited to the customer.

Workflows can be inefficiently roundabout – lengthening wait times – or the wrong people can answer important questions.

Michele Causey, Acting Director of Online Services at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), said that people need consistent experiences in order to trust government. Calls must be handled in a predictable and efficient manner, letters must be consistent and easy to read and call center interactions should include clear steps and targets.

IRS has more than 40 outward-facing taxpayer tools that it manages, but a majority of customers failed to utilize many – some of which should be quite popular, according to Causey.

“Unfortunately, we often measure outputs instead of outcomes,” Chad Sheridan, Chief of Service Delivery and Operations for USDA, said.

Too often, government services for customers are underutilized, despite their vast potential. So in 2015, the IRS consolidated tools and worked to connect customers to its offerings.

  1. Integrate Product Lines and Learning

In addition to identifying what needs improvement, agencies should identify what they do well and stretch their successes. For example, USDA has what Sheridan calls “multigenerational trust” – the connection local farming families and businesses feel to their local USDA agents. However, this trust is often severed when it comes to the central agency.

To improve CX at USDA, Sheridan wants to pair digital government with local agents, allowing more problems to be solved in the field. That way, farmers can receive higher-value service while maintaining a level of trust.

However, Sheridan urged that agencies can’t support customers only through one medium. Customer experiences make up a customer journey, and every part of government should be accessible.

In this case, Sheridan emphasized offering a consistent experience – not only as an agency, but as an entire government. USDA modeled part its Farmers.gov off of other government projects designed for military veterans, Sheridan said, creating a website that could enhance self-service and expand employee functionality in the field.

Learning and approaching old problems from new angles is often the only way to keep up with customer demands and agency goals, panelists advised.

“You never know when the next initiative will come your way, and you never know when the next initiative will be paused,” Causey said. “That’s really, really important, but empathy and being transparent and building that trust internally allows us to build that trust with the public.”

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