VA cooking up new guide of CX strategies, training institute for its own employees

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Customer experience is a tried and true business practice at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the agency is preparing to soon share some of its recipes for success with other agencies.

To summarize and capture some of the lessons it and other agencies have learned in recent years, VA will soon publish a customer experience “cookbook,” department officials said last week.

“It lists out a lot of the levers in government — key ingredients if you will — that brothers and sisters across agencies can pull on and utilize to try to bake in and fold in customer experience as a core business discipline in their organizations,” Barbara Morton, VA’s deputy chief experience officer, said last week at a virtual CX summit produced by Government Executive. “There are a lot of adaptations and sequencing customizations that have to occur depending on the agency environment and environmental readiness, but we hope that this will be a great resource for folks to leverage as they continue on their CX journey.”

Morton hopes the CX “cookbook” will be available for agencies and the public next month. It will include case studies from other agencies, not just VA.

It will also highlight how and why agencies should embed CX practices into their federal regulations, internal organization policies and legislation submitted to Capitol Hill, which Morton described as key “ingredients” to build and sustain customer experience as a “core business principle.”

“[We’re] making sure that the code of federal regulations includes reference to customer experience for our veterans and for the entire department, making sure we have a directive available [and] including CX in some of the legislation that goes to the Hill,” said Lynda Davis, VA’s chief veterans experience officer. “And of course [we’re] making sure that we’re hardwiring all the data tools, technology and engagement that we have created and proven to be effective over the last several years.”

The cookbook serves as a culmination of VA’s efforts leading the president’s management agenda and the customer experience cross agency priority goal, Morton said.

The department also participated in a recent pilot effort aimed at hiring CX experts at multiple agencies. In collaboration with the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, 20 CX experts from nine different federal agencies wrote one shared job announcement to attract candidates with customer experience skills.

Morton served as one of the subject matter experts evaluating and interviewing the applicants.

According to the administration, OPM and the U.S. Digital Service have led seven successful subject-matter expert qualification assessment pilots in the last year or so, but this initiative was the first effort aimed at finding top talent governmentwide.

Subject matter experts, including Morton, joined forces to review resumes, administer assessments to measure the candidates’ skills, and then interview the most promising prospects.

“What we were all looking for are folks who have a design background, who are highly emotionally intelligent [and] really understand empathetic listening and [can translate] insights from human centered design into action and tangible results,” Morton said.

SMEs applied veterans preference after candidates passed through two skills-based assessments and interviews. Multiple agencies then used the same criteria to score and rank the candidates.

Within six weeks of posting the announcement for qualified CX experts, subject matter experts had a list of 44 prospective candidates who cleared both assessment levels, according to a recent update from the Trump administration on Performance.gov.

At least 17 qualified applicants have accepted job offers so far to work at one of the participating agencies, according to the Performance.gov update, dated Oct. 5.

The customer experience CAP goal team will mentor these employees as they embed within their agencies, Morton said.

VA launching customer experience institute

To help ensure their own employees are constantly learning best CX practices and embedding them into their work, VA is piloting a new customer experience institute.

Employees will move through a specific CX curriculum for a few weeks and then pick a project where they can apply those lessons directly within their own VA facilities, Morton said.

The Veterans Health Administration is partnering with VA’s CX shop first to pilot a “patient experience university.”

“We’re starting out of the gate piloting with our patient experience university with some core curriculum, some mentorship and practitioner guidance and ultimately a certification at the end,” she said. “This is really a way for us to teach folks how to fish and again, scale and sustain CX practices across the department.”

VA’s first cohort of patient experience students will begin their lessons this fall.

“There are other models that we may pressure test,” Morton said. “For example, we’ve talked about the idea bringing in fellows to … sit arm and arm with us for a period of time to really get drenched in how we do what we do. There are a number of different ways we can test it out. We will spend the next 12 months or so really pressure testing this variety of methodologies.”

Beyond the new CX institute, VA is also hosting several events throughout the month of October, which VA has named “CX month.” The department will share its CX best practices with its community and corporate strategic partners, as well as the non-profit organizations involved in VA’s work.

“All of these pieces help us hardwire into the VA culture processes, programs and policies the secretary’s number one priority of customer service and improving the customer experience,” Davis said.

The pandemic, in some sense, has accelerated VA’s customer service initiatives and prompted new ones.

VA has quadrupled its telehealth capacity since mid-March, and it launched a new chat bot to alleviate long wait times on the department’s customer service hotlines.

Feedback surveys have also allowed the Veterans Benefits Administration, for example, to quickly respond to the changes student veterans were experiencing as their colleges and universities pivoted to virtual instruction.

Those feedback surveys also helped inform VHA’s reopening plans. The health administration asked VA’s customer experience shop for advice in soliciting veteran feedback on how they’ll feel about returning to the department’s health facilities with full services up and running during the pandemic, Morton said.

“The fact that that was the first question that the leadership team wanted to know and came to us to support that effort, to do a human centered design sprint, to talk to veterans and gather those insights, to me is massively transformational,” Morton said. “We’re not assuming we know what would make veterans and their families comfortable. We’re actually asking them and then responding in that way and translating those insights into concrete actions.”

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