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Use Data, Not Assumptions, to Improve the Customer Experience

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Agency leaders and the citizens they serve are not always on the same page.

Most federal leaders assume they understand the needs and problems of those coming to them for assistance, whether it’s veterans, businesses, college students, senior citizens or others who rely on the government for help. But they do not always have data to justify those assumptions about their customers. 

A new report from the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture Federal Services, “Government for the People: The road to customer-centered services,” examined agency efforts to implement a customer-centered approach, and found many challenges. At the same time, the report offers examples of successes that can be replicated across government.

Leaders interviewed rated their customer service with an average grade of “B.” But this relatively high self-assessment contrasted with low citizen satisfaction scores on the 2015 American Customer Satisfaction Index. The federal government’s index score is the lowest it has been in nearly a decade.

Based on dozens of interviews, the report found that agencies can improve by using customer data and feedback more effectively, assigning senior leaders responsible for the customer experience and building a workforce that is prepared to serve customers well.

Using customer experience data and feedback to drive decisions and improve customer service has been a big challenge. Even though most agencies collect data and feedback through broad annual surveys, the information often is outdated by the time it reaches decision-makers, and sometimes fails to pinpoint the underlying cause of customer problems.

In addition, agency staff typically have a narrow view of customers because datasets from agency divisions and service delivery channels are not integrated or shared throughout the organization. For example, staff may have data about customers who called a contact center, but not know if those customers first checked the agency’s website, visited a field office or received services from another agency division—important information to understand the full customer experience.  

A number of agencies are addressing these issues.

The Office of Federal Student Aid in the Department of Education created a “customer listening process” to aggregate, analyze and share customer data across service channels and project teams. Representatives from each office meet monthly to discuss customer feedback and create a report for senior leaders identifying trends, problems and opportunities for collaboration. 

The Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at the General Services Administration also aggregates customer data across all its services. The agency asks customers a common set of core questions to gauge satisfaction and uses the data to create a customer experience index. This enables leaders to compare programs and services, identify areas for improvement and track satisfaction consistently.

This approach should be implemented governmentwide; currently federal programs all ask different questions in their customer surveys, making it difficult to compare the customer experience across government and prioritize improvements where they are most needed.

In addition, some agencies have established a chief customer officer with responsibility to strengthen and coordinate the customer experience across agency programs and services. Nine of the 12 agencies reviewed for the report, however, did not have a senior leader responsible for customer experience.

Great customer service is central to the mission of many federal agencies and can change lives, from the millions of students who attend college with the help of federal financial aid to veterans needing immediate health care. If agencies are to help their customers, they must first understand them, and that understanding must be rooted in facts, not assumptions. 

Eric Keller is a senior research manager at the Partnership for Public Service.  Download the complete report, “Government for the People: The road to customer-centered services,” at http://ourpublicservice.org/publications/viewcontentdetails.php?id=934.

(Image via Jason Salmon/Shutterstock.com)

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