How to Improve Government Customer Experience

More agencies need to move beyond the basics.

The private sector sets a high bar for customer experience as companies continue to innovate and exceed expectations in many realms, leaving federal organizations in catch-up mode.

According to Forrester’s 2017 Federal Customer Experience Index, 80 percent of federal agencies measured have overall scores that fall into the “mostly poor” or “very poor” categories, compared with 22 percent of private sector companies.

Agencies are trying to up their game. Many have conducted customer surveys and made more services and information available online. These are good first steps toward improving customer experience, but federal leaders need to do more. They must innovate and adopt more advanced customer experience strategies if they are to keep up with citizens’ raised expectations.

In a new issue brief, “Beyond the Basics: Leading Practices for Improving Customer Experience in Government,” the Partnership for Public Service and Accenture Federal Services examine three strategies well-established in the private sector that government organizations should consider adopting to improve citizen services.

Understand Customers’ Needs

While many agencies are using surveys to gather feedback and seek citizens’ perspectives, surveys do not always provide enough insight to fully understand customer experience. Agencies should also draw on more advanced research methods to paint a more complete picture. These include interviews, firsthand observations and data-gathering.

For example, the office of Federal Student Aid learned from customer research that it needs to go beyond what customers say in surveys and study how they actually behave. The agency used randomized controlled trials to observe how borrowers responded to various messages prompting them to act to prevent defaulting on their student loans.

Surveys had indicated that customers preferred positively framed messages, yet testing showed that negatively framed messages that highlighted the consequences of student loan default were more likely to get people to act. These studies revealed that, in a few cases, messages were having the opposite of the agency’s intended effect. These results enabled FSA to understand its customers better and target outreach more effectively.

Connect Interactions Across Delivery Channels

Agency leaders also should ensure their efforts are coordinated and integrated across all channels so citizens receive seamless services no matter how those services are delivered.

The General Services Administration’s governmentwide information website, USA.gov, is a good example of a service that enables citizens to use their preferred device or method of interaction to get quick and straightforward answers to their questions.

USA.gov gives customers consistent and accurate information whether those customers go through call centers, websites or social media channels. To get to this point, the USA.gov team changed its organizational structure and implemented a comprehensive knowledge management system and strategy. By consolidating content across channels into one authoritative, searchable knowledge base, the team decreased confusion and eliminated duplicative information. Leaders also reorganized the USA.gov staff by functional areas, so employees work together in areas such as content development or marketing to deliver consistent services across all channels, as opposed to having separate, redundant teams for each channel.

Use Virtual Assistants to Enable Self-service

In the private sector, companies are using virtual assistants and other technologies to deliver quicker, more convenient services to customers. According to Gartner, 25 percent of customer service channels in the private sector will feature virtual assistants by 2020. Government is not as far along.

Federal agencies should take advantage of virtual assistants and other technologies that can automate simple functions and provide fast, convenient service, while saving money and enabling staff to focus on more complex tasks.

An example can be found at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, where a virtual assistant called Emma provides answers to questions on immigration through an online, self-service option. Two years after it was launched in 2015, Emma is able to accurately answer more than 90 percent of questions posed.

What happens when Emma can’t answer a question? USCIS recently launched a fail-safe option: a live chat feature on the website. The technology immediately connects citizens with an online agent so they do not have to contact the agency’s call center.

As these examples demonstrate, government needs to move beyond basic customer experience practices and adopt leading strategies to meet rapidly increasing citizen expectations, save money and improve how agencies achieve their missions.

Eric Keller is a senior program manager for research at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. 

Kathy Conrad is the director of digital government at Accenture Federal Services. She works with the Accenture Federal Digital Studio to help agencies use design thinking and service design to solve complex challenges, create great experiences and deliver mission outcomes.

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