Where Customer Experience is Winning (and Losing) in Government

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Without the spotlight of a presidential administration or a top-down leadership push, most federal agencies have long fought a losing battle in meaningful customer experience improvements.

This story has been updated.

In the past year, the Obama administration has increasingly pushed for better customer experience between federal agencies and their stakeholders, without a single, unified plan to accomplish this massive goal; rather, agencies must decide for themselves. 

And make no mistake, improving federal customer experience is an utterly massive undertaking: According to a report from Government Business Council, Government Executive Media Group’s research arm, public satisfaction with federal customer service is at an eight-year low. Collectively, the government’s American Customer Satisfaction Index score of “64” puts it comfortably behind every major private sector industry.

Similar research from Forrester puts the government in the precarious position of serving customers who haven’t had the opportunity to build goodwill toward the agencies that provide services like tax filings, doling out billions in Social Security checks or managing a $1 trillion portfolio of student loans.

The Government Accountability Office, too, is closely monitoring agencies’ customer experience efforts, critiquing select agencies in a report released in late 2014. For professionals and stakeholders in federal customer experience, this is about as surprising as a Donald Trump speech offending someone.   

That’s the bad.

Without the spotlight of a presidential administration or a top-down leadership push, most federal agencies have fought a losing battle in meaningful customer experience improvements. However, the White House’s recent push to make customer experience one of its cross-agency priority goals has injected energy into the effort.   

Like an adrenaline shot to the chest of the customer experience comatose, the effort is creating a customer-centric dialog perhaps not seen before in government.

Where CX is Winning

On Aug. 5, Brenda Wensil, the chief customer experience officer at the Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid, shared FAFSA’s customer experience journey at an event hosted by Nextgov and Government Executive.

Wensil, the first chief customer experience officer in the federal government, came to the department five years ago. At that time, there was no customer experience office, and prospective students seeking aid money were forced to peruse “a few dozen websites,” most of which weren’t regularly updated.

That isn’t the best way to appease some 20 million-plus prospective college students annually, but it would have been an impossible task to “take everything on at once,” Wensil said.

“How do you get stuff off the ground? Chunk it down into phases, create business cases that are efficient and use drivers to get the wind at your back,” Wensil said.

Her office completed the first phase – consolidating its websites to a single portal – in July 2012, and then the second phase last spring, which included a nifty tool called the Repayment Estimator that helps students track how long it will take them to repay loans. Phase three included the creation of financial-aid toolkits.

FAFSA’s digital team also plays a prominent role in its customer experience improvement. Digital staff members interact with students via social media and hold repeated “office hours,” or hour-long periods where staff man a command center and “talk to people around the country.”

“This (digital) work might be some of our finest work -- the ability to get into that ever-going conversation, 24/7 with students,” Wensil said.

It’s important to remember that everything Wensil and her office are doing is driven by mission. The mission-driven nature of some federal agencies is sometimes viewed as a reason why agencies struggle with customer experience. GBC’s latest research suggests agency mission tends to dictate its motivations for improving and perceived obstacles to providing enhanced customer experience.

Yet, use cases like those found through Wensil’s work suggest agencies can both meet mission and deliver significant customer experience improvements across large organizations.

In her closing remarks, Wensil suggested agencies near the beginning of customer experience-oriented projects become “data informed about what they’re doing” before anything else. Next, they need a “seat at the table,” and to “be in the conversation” with senior leadership, and lastly, to be prepared for cultural change.

Not everyone, Wensil says, reacts well to large-scale changes, even if they happen in iterative fashion.

“We're not a data-driven organization; we're a data-informed organization that's mission driven,” she said.

Wensil’s remarks contrasted from those provided by Tom Allin, chief veteran experience officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Less than a year into his position, Allin is still assessing what must be done to build back trust with veterans. And he’s already uncovered a slew of things that need to change, including consolidating over 1,000 help websites for veterans.

“We have over 1,000 websites in VA,” Allin said. “If a veteran is on Google, it’s just about impossible to get something done.”

Go Digital or Go Home?

Two panels brought more nuance to the customer experience conversation, and one unlikely takeaway is that technology doesn't always improve customer experience. As Forrester Research senior analyst, Rick Parrish, said, digital is not the end all, be all solution to customer experience.

“Only 41 percent of Americans say they want federal agencies to do more with digital and data,” he said.

To be truly effective, customer experience strategies must be backed by data from customers, existing efforts and outside research and sources, Parrish said. Doing digital for the sake of digital – like a remote foreign embassy launching a YouTube channel with three followers – wastes resources and taxpayer money.

It’s also vital to take data from frontline employees, said Rajive Mathur, director of Internal Revenue Service' Office of Online Services. The customer service employees in call centers or responding to emails often know better than anyone what is and isn’t working, he said.

“Our employees are a big part of our customer base; our frontline employees know the pain points,” Mathur said. “We’re generating our own data.”

Ruby Burrell, the Social Security Administration’s chief strategy officer, echoed Mathur’s sentiments. Superior customer experience, she said, is the top goal of the agency’s forward-thinking 2025 plan, and it is based in part on feedback from more than half of its 50,000 employees. It should be noted that Burrell began her career as a customer service representative with SSA and knows those pain points all too well.

“We have customer service in our DNA,” she said.

Martha Dorris at the General Services Administration honed in on contact centers as a central issue for agencies that interact extensively with the public. People pick up the phone when they need answers, and when the government doesn’t answer, they get mad.

The IRS could only answer 40 percent of taxpayers’ calls in March as tax season ramped up, leaving many frustrated. The IRS will probably never be as revered by the public as NASA is – instead of doing cool science-y stuff like NASA, IRS takes your money – but a poor customer experience makes people feel worse about interacting with the organization in question.

As Mathur noted, “How do people feel about interacting with us in a certain way?” is an extraordinarily important question, and one that suggests getting off to a good first impression goes a long way.

“Digital is important but biggest area for improving customer experience for government is the contact centers," Dorris said. “The biggest area for improvement in government is picking up the phone.”

Don’t Forget the Data

Relying on digital efforts entirely may not be wise, but relying on data is paramount for any customer experience strategy.

Stephanie Thum, vice president of customer experience for Export-Import Bank, said internal measurements of loan cycle times drive the bank’s customer experience efforts. A private sector customer experience expert before she came to Export-Import Bank three years ago, Thum set up the structure for how the bank collects and measures data, with the most important metric being cycle time, or the time between when a customer makes a loan request and the bank determines whether to issue it.

Thum and her team have been able to significantly reduce cycle times through “pinpointing pain points in the customer’s journey in the bank,” which has made Export-Import Bank both more efficient and competitive with other international lenders of last resort.

All employees, she said, have access to cycle time data, and key stakeholders meet as often as weekly to review data and talk about key product lines. That effort has paid off.

“We have seen cycle times reduced 10 percent in small business,” Thum said. "In fiscal 2009, 57 percent of cases were decided in less than 30 days. In fiscal 2015 – as of June 30 – 92 percent of cases were decided in less than 30 days."

Dennis Alvord, executive director at BusinessUSA, said it is important to “capture metrics where you can,” acknowledging the importance Google Analytics and similar platforms can play in any organization’s customer experience toolkit.

“Google Analytics has told us things about where our customers are coming from, what platforms customers are using, and how their use is evolving over time,” Alvord said.

For example, in February 2012 when BusinessUSA got off the ground, about 10 percent of its users were mobile, “and we saw right away an opportunity to be more mobile friendly.”

Those percentages jumped to 20 percent in 2013 and 30 percent in 2014, which “influenced us greatly to develop mobile applications and a mobile platform to make sure we meet users on their terms," Alvord said.

BusinessUSA also uses analytics to track how BusinessUSA products and initiatives are received through various means like surveys, a customer contact center, emails and chats. Alvord also offered a “cautionary tale,” in which BusinessUSA gave people the ability to rate programs with “thumbs up,” “thumbs down” and with comments.

“What ended up happening is that people were not providing useful comments and were basically just advertising their own services or businesses -- it was distracting from the content and not providing useful input,” Alvord told Nextgov.

He added that it ended up being “so much work to moderate,” with 90 percent of the comment becoming derogatory.

Apparently, even government can’t escape the trolls.

(Image via Jon Bilous/ Shutterstock.com)