People First: How to Ingrain a Customer-Centric Culture

Here’s what you may get wrong about being customer-centric: You won’t get to the right solution by being solution-centered. In fact, being customer-centric looks more like centering the pain points and challenges of customers over the solution.

In other words, you have to “fall in love with the problem,” said Sanjay Koyani, Chief Technology Officer at the Labor Department (DOL) and former Executive Director of the Health and Human Services Department’s (HHS) Chief Technology Office.

There are many benefits to being customer-centered in government, such as:

  • It leads to more meaningful work and is correlated with increased employee engagement.
  • It enables agencies to improve customer experience and increase satisfaction, whether that is the public, other agencies or other sectors.
  • It avoids wasting time and resources on solutions that don’t actually work, and leads to a higher return on investment on tools that are implemented. To achieve these benefits, however, agencies have to go about customer-centric problem-solving in a different way.

To achieve these benefits, however, agencies have to go about customer-centric problem-solving in a different way.

Slow it Down

It’s easy to jump too quickly into finding a solution without thinking enough about the problem. That’s what the Indian Health Service learned when it enlisted the help of a public entrepreneurship team from HHS to improve health outcomes for patients at a hospital in Phoenix.

“A key issue they identified was that people coming in with health issues were all standing in the same line, whether they had a splinter on their finger or were dealing with a heart condition,” said Koyani, who was at HHS at the time.

So the team immediately went to work to improve the check-in process, and the solution it landed on was installing digital kiosks, as they heard about colleagues doing in a hospital in Baltimore.

Through the pilot project, however, they quickly found that the solution didn’t solve the problem. Patients went around the kiosks due to unfamiliarity with the technology and continued to stand in line.

The team hadn’t spent enough time understanding their customers. To implement a customer-centric tool, they couldn’t assume that patients in Phoenix had the same challenges and needs as those in Baltimore. They had to investigate and focus on the problem more deeply than the solution.

The final fix was to use a triage nurse who could ask a quick set of questions when patients entered and prioritize care for those who needed it most urgently. It seems simple, but it worked. And the hospital has now adopted the system and secured funding for long-term use.

Best Practices

To fall in love with the problem and create a customer-centric culture, here are some best practices you can apply, Koyani said.

Iteratively validate the problem. Iterative work shouldn’t only happen when building solutions; it should also happen when determining the problem. Validate and test assumptions about customers’ problems, because even if you get them right the first time, they will inevitably change. The first ideas are rarely the right ones, and it’s hard to know your customers’ needs unless you’ve spent ample time with them.

Create a safe space to innovate. It’s difficult to work in new ways unless there is a safe environment to do so. Spaces such as DOL’s emerging technology incubator allow agencies to test and pilot new ideas with less risk. They also help determine which solution has the highest mission value. In these environments, you can identify wrong solutions more quickly and save costs, rather than pouring resources into a tool only to find it was ineffectual much later.

Focus on your current environment. You don’t need to invent something completely new to be customer-centric. Focus on creating improvements in your current environment. For example, before the iPhone came along, people were already using punch-button phones. The new product aimed to improve the user experience of existing phones, instead of trying to create a new one altogether. Again, this kind of solution-making focused on the customers, their problems and their feedback.

This article first appeared in “Your Guide to Becoming an Adaptive Agency,” from GovLoop. For more insights on embracing agility, download it here.

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