6 Lessons from Government Customer Experience Professionals

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Officials from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Transportation Security Administration and Office of Federal Student Aid explained what’s worked in improving customer experience.

The federal government’s collective customer experience efforts typically score poorer than industry counterparts, but an assortment of policy pushes—including directives laid out in the President’s Management Agenda—has renewed some agencies’ efforts.  

On Tuesday, executives from three such agencies—the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Transportation Security Administration and Office of Federal Student Aid—shared steps they have taken to improve customer experience and outcomes. Below is a summary of their remarks, which came at a customer experience summit hosted by the Partnership for Public Service.

Go where your customers are.

The Office of Federal Student Aid engages with millions of students each year, and as technology and the rest of the world changes, so too does the office’s customers. Mark Brown, chief operating officer for Federal Student Aid, said his customers “are younger than Google and Amazon for the most part,” and live and play in a digital world. In response, his office moved its services to that digital world, and the investment paid off. His office expects around 16% of all student aid applications to be filled out via mobile device, one of many changes the Federal Student Aid’s “Next Generation” push.

You better recognize.

Mary Denison, commissioner of the USPTO, said her agency includes customer experience training as part of the new employee onboarding process. A staple in the private sector, such training is becoming the norm across the federal space too, with agencies like the General Services Administration and Veterans Affairs Department investing in it. However, Denison said USPTO has had success promoting CX within the agency by recognizing employees who provide good customer service. The agency launched an awards program several years ago, and recently created a customer service hall of fame, Denison said.

Get executives to the field or frontlines.

TSA’s workforce includes 60,000 employees, most of whom are not based in proximity to decision-makers in Washington, D.C. Kimberly Walton, executive assistant administration for Enterprise Support at TSA, said she regularly takes senior executives, including the chief information officer and human resources chief, on airport visits. The reason? “So they can hear directly where the pain points are,” Walton said. She added that visits to the frontlines remind all employees to “keep the customer in mind as they deliver services.”

Measure and take action.

Surveys are commonplace in government, but agencies have always struggled with the timely collection of data followed by quick action to remediate potential issues. Denison said USPTO tweaked its survey process, shortening their length and changing the way users are solicited for survey feedback. The goal, she said, is simple: To know what the experience was like and “translate that to actionable data.”

FAFSA, Brown said, makes use of focus groups, surveys and panels before implementing major changes, ensuring users’ points of view are considered. “Put people first,” Brown said.

Culture change is hard. Do it anyway.

Walton said TSA, which recently underwent a reorganization, emphasizes both an external and internal customer focus. With 45,000 of its 60,000 employees located outside Washington, D.C. and situation around 400-plus airports, things like human capital training and development are challenging, but necessary. “In addition to that, we’re trying to change the mindset of many of our headquarters and enterprise support employees to realize they are there to provide a service,” Walton said “That is not as easy as you might think. They sometimes get so focused on, ‘Here’s what the rule is,’ that they forget there is a person or employee behind that service.”

Employee experience matters, too.

Earlier this year, FAFSA set up an employee engagement office. One of the office’s key functions is conducting a skill-gap analysis, Brown said, “To look at employees, look at where we’re going and invest in training that gets them to where we’d like them to be.”

“Our first customer is internal,” Brown said.