Constituent Engagement, Customer Experience

Serving the Customer: Federal Agencies Focus on Big Picture


This month’s focus in the Carahsoft Innovation in Government series is as timely as it can be. One need look no further than news headlines to find examples of government customers – citizens – thinking they are poorly served by government and making decisions based on that belief. A common argument exists behind the cases made for the political campaigns of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the British exit from the European Union. That argument is that supporters of each believe the pertinent government doesn’t listen to them. That’s also the most common complaint about private-sector companies with poor customer service ratings.

I’ll leave it to others to debate whether constituent or customer beliefs are valid. But there are lessons government organizations can learn – and that some have already learned – about improving customer experience.

#1: Customer service is dead. Long live customer experience

The best way to understand this comes courtesy of my conversation with government customer expert Martha Dorris. “Customer service is related to a single touch point,” Dorris tells me. “Customer experience is about the entire journey. It’s about the perception your customer has of your organization.”

Take, for example, a call-center event. A customer/citizen calls you on the phone to get an answer to a question. A customer-service metric would measure one, maybe two deliverables, based exclusively on the original point of the call. Did the citizen learn what she wanted to learn? Did she get the answer to the question at hand? A customer-experience metric is far broader. How long was she on hold before she spoke to a human? How many menus did she have to “press 1 for…” to get to a human? Did the person she spoke to know the answer or look it up quickly, or did the answerer have to put the caller on hold to ask someone else? Did the answerer ask the caller if she was satisfied, or if her question was answered completely? The possibilities are almost endless.

#2: Don’t think like you; think like him

Governments historically think like themselves, that is, they think in terms of the services they provide. “We can do this, and this, and this, and the most effective and efficient way to do that is this way (see enormous flow chart).” The greatest example in the federal government is probably the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Secretary Bob McDonald is pushing toward a veteran-centered effort called MyVA. The fact that this is a major change for the agency at least implies, if not explains, that the agency wasn’t vet-centric before. Now, they are starting to “think like him (or her)”, the person on the other end of the service provision.

Another example comes from the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Their New and Beginning Farmer and Ranch Program was tasked with providing resources and support to grow the next  generation of farmers and ranchers, at a time when practitioners of the two professions are rapidly aging and replacements are fewer in number. Coordinator Lilia McFarland told me recently the first step was to think like prospective farmers and ranchers. What information did they need? How did they want to receive it? How would they most effectively use it?

Certainly successful customer experiences in government will require more than just these two principles. But consider them the fundamentals on which other principles will stand. If you get these two things right, your customer experience success journey will be shorter, and more rewarding.

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