In August, nine Federal agency teams completed Amplify, a three-month customer experience (CX) development program sponsored by the Cross-Agency Priority Goal on CX. Participation was a feat in itself, given the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the participating agencies and facilitators co-created a new model and training toolkit for developing a customer research practice.
From Policy to Progress
In 2018, OMB identified 25 High Impact Service Provider agencies (also known as HISPs) In Its foundational CX policy outlined In OMB Circular A11, Section 280. Each year, HISPs are directed to submit self-evaluated capacity assessments in their management of pubic-facing services and customer experience. In both 2019 and 2020, Customer Understanding - the discipline of identifying customers, understanding their needs, and coordinating agency activities and services to meet those needs, and continually learning from customers how we might Improve - was consistently the lowest-ranking area of Federal agency maturity.
The 2020 HISP evaluations included varied responses to the Customer Understanding assessment. While some HISPs cited progress gathering qualitative data, developing journey maps and personas, and refining customer segmentation, others still cited barriers related to cost, technology, complexity, low prioritization by leadership, lack of staff time and expertise, and the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). OMB probed these barriers during meetings with HISPs. The meetings yielded a few insights, and primarily pointed to two blockers: 1) service teams simply don’t know how to gather feedback directly from customers on a regular basis and often default to surveys only (If at all), and 2) many overthink the requirements (time, money, and training) needed to start customer research. To provide direct coaching and collaboration kick-starting this work, we realized that many HISPs could benefit from a program to amplify their customer understanding.
A Program Grounded in Human-Centered Design
We established the Amplify program to help make customer research more accessible to HISPs, tailored to different levels of maturity. The program would center on providing training and coaching to HISP teams so they could investigate existing administrative data and conduct new qualitative research. The initial strategy was to choose five HISPs at different stages to pioneer the learning and contribute best practices back to all 25 agencies. The CX CAP Goal team, with a project lead from GSA’s Office of Customer Experience, partnered with the Lab at OPM to develop and facilitate the program. Human-centered Design (HCD) is foundational to CX. And the Lab is the go-to organization for HCD training and practice across the Federal Government.
Pandemic and a Pivot
In early 2020, the Amplify team had a blueprint for the program and were ready to start. Then in March, COVID-19 hit and everything changed. Much of the original plan of in-person workshops and research wouldn’t work. At the same time, many of the 25 agencies were in the thick of pandemic response efforts. The Amplify team weighed the feasibility and appropriateness of continuing the program.
HISP teams spoke up with interest in Amplify, including a few juggling COVID-19 response. Their resilience motivated the Amplify team to rethink the program and start afresh. Participation was opened up to every agency with interest. Six of the 25 HISPs opted in. Three additional agencies joined as community members to engage in feedback sessions and presentations.
5 New Modes of Engagement
The program structure was designed with input of participating HISPs to meet their learning needs. It would revolve around synchronous work (monthly forums and ad hoc coaching sessions) and asynchronous work (recorded lectures, workbooks, activities, and resources). Participants engaged with the program in five ways.
1. Modules. Participants had access to 6 modules on the topics of Problem Framing, Building Internal Capacity, Quantitative Data, Qualitative Research, Developing Insights, and Storytelling. Modules include recorded video lectures on the topic, related workbook exercises, and additional resources. 2. Research. Participants were encouraged to interview 6 customers as a key part of their work in this program. 3. Coaching. A coach from the Lab was assigned to each team requesting this level of support. 4. Storytelling. Participants were prompted to do a simple weekly reflection. This material was drawn on for the Storytelling module in preparation for a presentation at the end of the program. 5. Forums. Monthly forums were held to share program updates from the Lab at OPM and to hear progress updates and questions from Amplify participants.
Five Takeaways from the 2020 Amplify Program
The program ran for nine weeks from June through early August 2020. All nine agencies who started the program completed it. Here’s what we learned:
A successful structure to accommodate different needs
A three-track structure (A. Building Internal Capacity, B. Working with Quantitative Data, C. Collecting Qualitative Data) effectively accommodated a diverse group of teams across government and their needs. They allowed each agency to pursue different goals.
“With the wide range of maturity and wide levels of understanding of CX across HISPs regarding customer understanding, Amplify can meet you at your own level, wherever you are on that journey.” - Amplify participant
Participants came in with different expectations
HISPs had wide interpretations of how Amplify might help them meet their goals. At times the value of customer experience and the HCD approach was misunderstood. In the future, orientation to HCD prior to a program like this is advised.
Start from the inside
Customer understanding sometimes starts with inside work. Building relationships with stakeholders, project framing and communicating opportunities can be essential to paving the way for doing external customer research. Sometimes small-scale research or ‘discovery’ should precede external research.
One Amplify participant used the Stakeholder Map (from the Building Internal Capacity module) to help her figure out who to contact internally, as she tries to build buy-in with the program offices. Another participant recognized how just changing the interaction of claims examiners and insurance/benefits calls would have a huge impact on the experience of citizens applying for benefits.
Leadership engagement is essential
Agency leaders can be critical allies or impediments to making a CX practice successful. This dynamic can be present at a macro scale with establishing a CX program and at a micro scale with supporting a project. In one situation, an agency encountered internal resistance to contacting external customers. This required strategic thinking and messaging to quell concerns and make a clear case for the purpose and value of customer research. The outcomes of small efforts like this can be a way to engage leadership to generate attention and support.
“There’s a difference between being a leader who ‘gets it’ vs. one who ‘gets it & can help when their team gets stuck.” - Amplify participant
PRA and technology were not barriers, but light-touch coaching helps
Not a single agency required a PRA clearance to effectively participate in Amplify. Customer research can be started in earnest by talking to fewer than ten people. Technology was also not a barrier (outside of occasionally getting into Zoom meetings!). Myth-busting the belief that good customer research required teams of expert consultants, expensive IT, and lots of approvals was empowering for agency teams &emdash; however, the role of a coach to check in with weekly, to provide advice and feedback on approach, and general guidance on HCD research techniques was critical. It was encouraging to see that even just a few office hours over the course of several months could have a huge Impact on the ability of existing Federal FTE to do customer understanding work.
Amplify public trust
The inaugural Amplify program has provided valuable Insights to our team and how we think about the Customer Understanding guidance across government. First, this program reaffirms the value of customer insights when CX teams talk to customers; there’s just no substitute. Even a couple of conversations can be eye-opening and build momentum.
Second, working closely with teams across government, a number of important questions were raised:
- What degree of customer understanding is reasonable to expect of agency teams at different levels of maturity across government?
- What activities should HISPs (and others) be doing to demonstrate competency towards A-11 Section 280’s section on customer understanding?
These questions surface the compliance issue. How, and should, the maturity of an agency’s Customer Understanding program be measured and enforced? We don’t currently have an accountability mechanism, other than beginning to publicly post trust scores on performance.gov/cx, to hold Federal agencies to account for “understanding their customer.” In fact, leaders are not often rewarded for these types of successes. And, how do we ensure that we are sure to communicate the value that comes from taking a human/customer-centered approach, so that this doesn’t simply become a box-checking exercise, but practices that leaders seek to create the time and space for? The participating teams in Amplify demonstrated interest extending these practices beyond the program, using the “compliance” angle as an initial hook for their leadership to support their efforts.
HISP teams that did customer research demonstrated that remote qualitative research can be effective — it can even enable new types of outreach and customer voices that are represented. Virtual team meetings, synthesis, and presentations also work. The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually subside. Traditional methods of customer research, including in-person interviews, observations, and team synthesis may return. But we’ve seen through Amplify that non- traditional approaches work and they can stay, perhaps making Customer Understanding even more accessible for CX teams.
Customer Understanding is about being in tune with and responsive to customer needs. This goes for firmly established services and customer segments. It also plays out in unpredictable and urgent times of need, as we’ve seen with COVID-19. The response we have seen shows us how important it is to have channels open and feedback systems in place to learn quickly and robustly from the public. This way, the Federal Government can learn, understand, and be responsive to improve experiences, building the public’s trust in public services and our government.
Our team will continue to explore how we can provide central capacity in the form of office hours to directly help HISP teams doing customer research and survey measurement work, as this support navigating bureaucratic barriers has proven Invaluable. We’ve also packaged ALL of our program materials, so that others across government can complete the modules and use the templates and resources we produced. Federal employees can find them on OMB Max.