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SSA’s new customer experience shop eyeing more real-time public feedback

After launching in May, the Office of Transformation at the Social Security Administration is taking a data-driven, proactive approach to try to improve custome...

Among tens of millions of beneficiaries, the Social Security Administration is trying to change its approach to customer experience by thinking about the process in reverse order.

The agency starts by considering the beneficiary’s perspective, then works outward to change interactions and services to better fit customers’ needs, said Betsy Beaumon, SSA’s chief transformation officer.

“This is much more about, ‘how can we start at the very beginning, get customers involved early and often?’” Beaumon said in an interview Federal News Network. “We map out their journeys at the beginning, provide the services and then ask them, ‘How did that go? What inputs do you have?’”

It’s the path that the Social Security Administration’s new Office of Transformation is taking, with one of the new office’s components targeting improvements to customer experience. After launching the office in May, the agency set a goal of driving ideas that are both good for customers and good for SSA employees, said Beaumon, the office’s leader.

Much of SSA’s approach to improving interactions is data-driven, with the agency’s customer experience team creating as many avenues of outreach as possible. By asking customers for feedback from the start, Beaumon said SSA can continually gather data. The idea is to connect with customers who interact with SSA across various platforms, and proactively identify pain points and areas for improvement.

“We are tapping real-time into what customer satisfaction is across different channels,” Beaumon said.

Social media, press releases and outreach events are some of the broader ways that the agency reaches the public, but Beaumon said SSA is trying to focus specifically on two-way communications with customers through the agency’s website, along with email, text, video, phone and in-person interactions. SSA also conducts surveys to hear from customers about their satisfaction with agency services across these various communication channels.

For example, the agency’s customer experience team recently reached out to over 160,000 customers who submitted disability applications in the last six months and received more than 15,000 responses.

“It’s like gold to be able to hear from our customers directly in that focused manner,” Beaumon said. “It’ll let us make sure that our services are going to align with their expectations better, and make it easier for them to understand the application process and reduce redundancies in the process.”

Technology is certainly an important piece of the customer experience puzzle as well, but it can’t be the only thing, and it can’t even be the first thing, Beaumon said.

“It really isn’t just about technology — to really improve the customer experience and employee experience, you need to look at your policies, your processes, as well as your technology, and really be able to work across all these different modes to be able to be successful,” she said.

SSA’s website, for one, is a key part of the technology that drives communications and interactions with beneficiaries. In January 2023, the agency redesigned its website, a major avenue for agency customers. SSA had 376 million website transactions in fiscal 2022.

But the website modernization project can only take the agency so far — that effort to improve technology has to couple with other customer experience goals at SSA. For example, similar to many agencies, one common pain point for federal customers is not knowing the timeline for an application, on the processing end within the agency. For SSA, it can get additionally challenging if the customer’s status hasn’t changed for a while.

“That’s one of those areas where we’re continually looking at how we can use these various channels to try to make sure there’s relevant status updates,” Beaumon said. “We know that some of the reasons they contact us is just to know the status. So that’s where we’re looking at, really all of our communication channels, to make sure that it’s updated while they’re waiting for something.”

The efforts to improve customer experience come as SSA struggles with workforce attrition and retention challenges, but Beaumon said her office aims to bring in agency employees’ perspectives, too.

Offering e-signatures and other digital documents, for instance, is one area that SSA employees themselves have specifically recommended a change, Beaumon said, to help ease their workloads and let them focus on other concerns from customers.

“Our employees have pushed for some time for allowing customers to upload documents instead of mailing them in or bringing them into the office,” she said. “Field office employees, who themselves are users of the processes and systems and have lots of interface, of course, with the customers — we want to be able to learn from all folks in the process.”

Moving forward, the Office of Transformation will continue its focus on being data-driven — something that’s especially important given the sheer number of customer transactions that SSA takes on.

“On the one hand, we are similar to other federal agencies, but of course, we have a high volume of transactions,” Beaumon said. “We are focused on customer service, and I think we’re getting there.”

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