5 Tips from Practitioners to Improve Government Customer Experience

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An Office of Management and Budget official on Tuesday reiterated the importance of improving the federal government’s customer experience almost a year after President Joe Biden issued an executive order on the matter.

“The American public should get a simple, seamless and secure customer experience when they interact with the government,” said Andy Lewandowski, digital experience advisor to the federal chief information officer within OMB. Speaking at ACT-IAC’s Customer Experience Summit, Lewandowski said customer experience is one of four key priorities for the office of the federal chief information officer, along with cybersecurity, IT modernization and using data as a strategic asset.

And just like improvements in those other priority areas, improvements in customer experience require sustained focus, strategy, funding and people dedicated to them. During the summit, several customer experience practitioners and experts shared tips and advice with colleagues and peers hoping to replicate successes—and avoid pitfalls—at their agencies.

Leadership buy-in matters

Government projects don’t get far, nor will they get much funding, without the support of agency leadership. Nicole Callahan, a data analyst within the Education Department’s Federal Student Aid Office, offered several tactics for achieving buy-in. Chief among them, she said, was “building empathy and showing value.” Earlier in her career, Callahan worked for the office’s social media team, which would often display customers’ social posts on elevator monitors, where leadership could see the impact the team was making. With more employees working remotely, the practice continues through emails “reminding people from the mouths of customers that what we do matters.”

Callahan said the team also brought leadership along for contact center visits. This practice—seating leaders with contact center agents in the field—helped leaders understand  the daily challenges agents face.

“When you bring leadership in and they sit next to a contact center agent and hear the agent working, it’s extremely effective at building empathy,” Callahan said. She added that leadership tends to love saving money, so implementing changes that lead to a return on investment—like reducing costly contact center calls—can be crucial, especially when packaged correctly.

“Data storytelling is the secret sauce,” Callahan said.

As with any business discipline, customer experience can be complex and nuanced, but business cases to leadership need not be. Sometimes, simplicity wins the day.

“Make the story simple, small and relatable,” urged Kenneth Corbin, chief taxpayer experience officer for the IRS.

Enable your employees

Even an exceptional workforce cannot compensate for having the wrong tools in the digital toolbox.

“The number one factor for employee enablement is: Do you have the right tools you need to do your job?,” said Amber Chaudhry, customer experience lead at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Chaudhry said HUD replaced a 20-plus year-old customer relationship management system and incorporated robotic process automation to simplify and streamline its employees’ experiences. Not surprisingly, good things happened.

“It’s been pretty incredible to watch that shift towards employee enablement,” she said.

Culture is clutch

Anyone who has been through an airport has likely engaged with the Transportation Security Administration. TSA officials protect the nation’s transportation systems, but along the way, they’re serving customers—millions of them annually, in fact. And according to Nicole French, customer service branch manager for TSA, the agency is working to embed customer experience into its culture, beginning with its new-hire training and “Demystifying Customer Experience” briefings “to educate the screening workforce on how customer service supports TSA’s mission.”  

The agency wants to reduce the number of complaints it gets from the public, the majority of which are “rooted in miscommunication” between passengers and security officials.

“We’re working to shift the culture at TSA to embed CX. People tend to think we do security, not CX,” French said. “We literally bust myths about what CX is and isn’t as far as TSA.”

Added Chaudhry, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, so [do] anything you can do to shift culture.”

Customer trust is critical

The Veterans Affairs Department established its first veteran trust baseline seven years ago by asking veterans a simple question: Do you trust VA to fulfill its commitment to veterans?  Only 55% of veterans agreed or strongly agreed, according to Barbara Morton, VA’s deputy chief veterans experience officer.

“In fact, it wasn’t a great look,” Morton said. “But it’s important to know where we were to know where we need to go.”

In the years since, VA has transformed the way it handles veteran experience, codifying it into the agency’s core values, creating a CX playbook for other agencies and establishing a culture that seeks to treat every veteran as they themselves would like to be treated.

“Our veteran trust now stands at 76%, proof positive that you can move the needle on trust,” Morton said. “It is worth it for us to invest in better experiences [for veterans] to build that trust.”  

Nicola Hall, federal health customer lead at Deloitte, summarized the importance of trust in customers among agencies: “Trust builds loyalty, trust builds equity, trust saves lives. Trust is paramount.”

Measure what matters

During tax season, the IRS becomes the most engaged federal agency in government, with millions of Americans phoning agents for filing assistance. For many, it is a stressful time that can involve long wait times. 

Last filing season, IRS offered a customer callback option to 5.7 million Americans, ultimately saving 1.7 million hours of time customers would have spent on hold. Those freed hours fostered an improved customer experience and increased trust among taxpayers.  According to Corbin, they’re exactly the kind of metric agency leaders wish to see when evaluating the effectiveness of technology or customer experience investments. 

“What you measure, matters,” Corbin said.