Improving Customer Experience Doesn't Always Mean More Money and Tech

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But it can help.

Federal agencies have been steadily increasing focus on providing better customer experiences, usually centered on implementing better technology. But it doesn’t always have to be about spending money on new tech.

“There are two different ways … to talk about improving customer service: one involves technology, what we’re doing does not,” Joe Doyle, director of the Office of Customer Experience at the Agriculture Department, said during a July 12 panel discussion hosted by the Partnership for Public Service. “A lot of things that we want to automate, we have to get the process right before we try to automate.”

He offered an example from his days working in Georgia state government, in which a mother was trying to get a court order to compel her children’s father to pay child support. The process took more than six months.

“Employees mapped out the processes and made simple changes to internal policies of the agency in Georgia,” he said. “That service for court orders went from 72 days to same-day service. And it cost nothing: It was just changing the internal policies.”

“That’s management 101,” he said. “It’s not about buying new equipment. It’s just asking the questions and putting a focus on it.”

To that end, Doyle’s office is putting the focus on Agriculture’s employees, who interact with the customers—farmers, ranchers and the nation’s food distributors—on a regular basis.

“We want to hear from the customers. But in the absence of a robust data collection system—which is important for us to get—we simply rely and trust our own employees to say, ‘This is what is driving people nuts,’” he said.

The department’s leaders named 40 “champions” to spearhead these efforts. Those champions—hand-picked employees who are able to think outside the box and command the respect of their peers—have developed two-page plans detailing how their offices will improve customer experience over the next 12 months.

“We will be making changes—not relying on very detailed plans or funding requests, we will simply be getting better results with existing resources,” Doyle said.

On the other hand, technology can also be an accelerator for that process.

“Technology can provide an opportunity to rethink a process,” said Charles Worthington, chief technology officer at Veterans Affairs. “You don’t need that—you can rethink a process due to new leadership focus on it. … But I do think, frequently, you’ll see a big technology project—maybe it’s a system that needs to be rebuilt or modernized—that provides a great opportunity to rethink the underlying processes.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the process people should be cut out of the loop.

“That partnership between the delivery components of an agency and the technical components is really important and should be, really, closer and closer every day,” he said.