Rapid technology development is changing customer experience expectations. While the private sector has led the way into a new era of customer experience, the f...
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Rapid technology development is changing customer experience expectations. While the private sector has led the way into a new era of customer experience, the federal government must catch up or risk becoming irrelevant.
“The customer experience challenges facing modern federal leaders are real – but so are the opportunities,” said Yasmeen Burns, a director and customer experience expert at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm, The Clearing.
“When we hear customer experience, we think of private sector companies like Amazon that provide effortless services and anticipate what customers need next. However, we often overlook one of the biggest providers of customer experiences for the American public: the federal government,” explains Robyn Klem, director of visual consulting at The Clearing.
Today, those private sector experiences largely shape our expectations around customer experience (CX). Thanks to the Amazons and USAAs of the world, Americans expect speed, ease of use, and personalization. Those same expectations expose the shortcomings in many federal government customer experiences.
“We are observing less space than ever between what the American public expects when it comes to private sector versus public sector customer experience. In short, Americans are not differentiating between them,” said Burns.
While the private sector’s pace of technology and anticipation of customer needs are increasing exponentially, in the public sector it’s oscillating. The impact of this goes beyond customer experience – it contributes to the declining trust of the American government.
According to the Pew Research Center, there was a confidence rating of 77% at the beginning of the Johnson Administration. Today, that trust is down to 18%. In addition, a recent American Customer Satisfaction Index study revealed Americans’ satisfaction with federal experiences is dropping, and currently ranks below their satisfaction with private-sector and local government experiences.
Burns, Klem, and other customer experience experts believe part of rebuilding trust in government is creating a better experience for customers of the federal government – and technology will be a catalyst for that. These CX experts note that this is beginning to happen in pockets across the federal government. The president issued an executive order dedicated to CX, multiple GAO audits have occurred or are in process, and a new experience delivery model from OMB is on the way.
“That means pressure to improve – and in turn, make better use of technology – is not just coming from the American public anymore. The oversight agencies and executive order have given this movement teeth and more access to resources and budget dollars in 2023 than ever before,” said Klem.
“As we’ve seen, when benchmarked against the private sector, the government is behind the curve in terms of customer experience. In many cases, it has yet to leverage technology as effectively or efficiently in service of customers as the private sector,” said The Clearing’s Burns. “It would be easy to say, ‘Look at what USAA is doing with customer technology and copy their plan.’”
However, outside of limiting factors such as budget and resources, there is the major issue of IT system age at many federal agencies – likely an obstacle the USAAs of the world don’t face.
“We work with a major agency whose IT system is approaching 50 years old. Imagine what’s changed in 50 years. This system doesn’t support an effective and efficient modern customer experience simply because it wasn’t built that way,” explains Burns. “It’s also costing the agency a lot of money to maintain. Now extrapolate that out and you can see the bigger issue.”
These legacy systems are only becoming more costly, as the way they were built is no longer relevant. According to Forbes, legacy IT systems cost the federal government $100 billion per year with 80% of that budget spent just on operations and maintenance.
That’s a problem, according to Burns. “There is no modernization, no transformation. Why? Well, it often seems easier to pull out the first aid kit and put a Band-Aid on parts of IT systems that aren’t running efficiently or effectively, which unintentionally creates a bit of a Frankenstein year over year.”
Both Klem and Burns pointed out this is not uncommon and not exclusive to the federal government.
“We regularly see new technologies render old technologies obsolete,” said Klem. “Remember VHS and landlines? Now, it’s time for many federal IT systems to take the same path. To put a point on it, imagine what progress could be made if that $100 billion were repurposed into modern, customer-focused systems?”
There’s also another looming issue with legacy IT systems.
“Included in those costs are legacy employees – many nearing retirement age. These skilled people are the lifeline for these systems, many of which were built with code from a bygone era,” said Burns. “Take COBOL, for instance. While this 60-year-old coding language still has uses, according to GAO it comes with a number of risk factors, ‘such as a rise in procurement and operating costs, and a decrease in the availability of individuals with the proper skill sets.’”
“Legacy systems, rising costs, dissatisfied customers. What’s a federal leader to do?” asks Burns. “Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. While these obstacles to great customer experience may seem insurmountable, leaders are making progress in their organizations.”
Burns and Klem note the Air Force and other defense agencies have had success using technology to improve customer experience (i.e., the lives of their people) on both the technical and human sides of its operations.
On the technical side, Forbes reports the Air Force has updated millions of lines of code in its Base Supply System from COBOL to Java. Burns says this effort ensures the system is operable by a new generation of IT professionals and enables a better experience for the airmen using it.
On the human side, said Klem, the pandemic spurred a major defense agency into using a technological solution for a human-centered challenge. The agency’s leaders noted they were falling short of supporting their employees and their families in several areas. In response, they leveraged unexpected methodologies like Human Centered Design and Design Thinking to tackle some of their biggest obstacles, from basic leave requests to retirement planning. The agency was willing to adopt these new practices and put aside old ways of working in order to update existing and in some cases create new platforms to support its people more effectively.
“This new mindset, coupled with the novel use of existing technological tools, enabled the agency to rapidly solicit employee feedback through user testing,” Klem told us. “This helped inform targeted solutions and rapid deployment of real-life prototypes, lowering costs and reducing timing to launch – meaning customers got the services they needed faster despite the challenges of the pandemic. This is noteworthy because while the challenge was not technology-centered, leaders leveraged technology to create better experiences for their people.”
These leaders are also creating a model for other agency executives to follow.
“They’ve shown that modernization isn’t impossible and that there are practical ways to use technology – even what you already have – to improve customer experience. What stands out to us is the willingness to take a risk and avoid the fallacy of sunk costs,” according to Klem. “Many leaders are averse to letting go of legacy systems because of the upfront cost it took to build them in the first place. In our first example, the Air Force, however, weighed that against ongoing maintenance costs and made a future- and customer-focused decision.”
Burns added that embracing new technology can be costly and difficult – it can be intimidating to be an early adopter or to try something new. However, she said, doing so is the best way toward creating the type of service and experience modern customers – and employees – demand.
Burns and Klem noted that if federal leaders haven’t already faced some of these challenges, it’s likely they will at some point soon. Here are three tips Burns and Klem recommend leaders to keep in mind as they lead their teams into the customer experience future.
Burns added that the pace of technology development and corresponding customer demands are unlikely to slow down.
“That’s why it is critical federal leaders proactively think about how they can optimize around their customers,” she said. “Getting ahead of the curve – and executive orders – will position you, your organization, and customers for success in an increasingly complex environment.”
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