Everybody talks customer experience. This Veterans Affairs manager has done something about it

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has been concentrating on improving service to its veteran constituents. And its had some success. Surveys show a 24% jump in trust in VA over the past few years. One career manager who gets a lot of the credit is the VA’s deputy chief veterans experience officer. For her work, Barbara Morton...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been concentrating on improving service to its veteran constituents. And its had some success. Surveys show a 24% jump in trust in VA over the past few years. One career manager who gets a lot of the credit is the VA’s deputy chief veterans experience officer. For her work, Barbara Morton is a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program and she spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: I know how hard VA has been working on this since the issue of appointments and scheduling and all of this. But in general, it’s much more than scheduling and appointments that create the veteran experience. And so kudos on finally getting some recognition nationally, this way for the work you’ve done. Tell us some of the major steps you think VA has taken in recent years to just keep on chipping away at that idea of customer experience.

Barbara Morton: It really boils down to the passion and shared purpose and commitment of our VA brothers and sisters all across the nation. We had as you sort of alluded to a very big challenge back in 2014, with the Phoenix VA Medical Center, Wait Time Crisis. Crisis for veterans first and foremost, and certainly a wake up call, I think for us at the department to really understand that we needed to sort of have a mechanism to channel the voice of the customer to the highest levels of leadership. So we could really track and understand what their experiences were not just sort of what the operational dashboards were telling us, but really what veterans were experiencing boots on the ground. And so this has been a program built by thousands of efforts by many, many employees, again, across our facilities. And it’s been wonderful to see the impact and have veterans feel that impact over the years.

Tom Temin: And it strikes me that really the veterans, you’re the deputy chief experience officer, there’s an appointed experience officer, that channel, that silo of work, the experience officers, the best you can do is measure what is going on, and maybe point to some possible solutions where there are customer experience issues. But it really takes thousands of VA staff members individually to be able to raise those scores. Correct?

Barbara Morton: Indeed, and this is why I mean, it’s such an honor to be considered as a finalist in this wonderful network of public servants. And I think for me, what’s so wonderful is, you know, I’m representing these thousands of employees, I’m just one person who has this shared passion and shared purpose to focus our energies and empower employees, actually, to give them tools to know how to deliver these fantastic experiences that I know they all want to for veterans and their families. So it’s certainly an effort shared across by many, many people who have the same mindset. And we as individuals, and as a collective, have been able to move the needle for veterans. And that’s just it’s incredibly inspiring to me.

Tom Temin: And since, say, 2016, the baseline of where this uptick in trust has occurred. What did you identify as the area’s most crucial to improving veterans’ perceptions of VA?

Barbara Morton: Yeah, so you know, interesting. So we started on this journey back, as you mentioned, 2016, in 2017, you know, we knew we had landed on sort of a definition of what good experience should be, right? It should be easy, it should be effective. Veterans should feel like valued customers, like they belong with VA, right? And that’s all sort of leading us to build trust. But we knew we needed to start somewhere to sort of ground those concepts into tangibles and practices and trainings and artifacts, again, to empower employees to deliver these great experiences at scale. And so we partnered early on with our siblings in the Veterans Health Administration, they of course, many of them, see veterans on a daily basis treat care for veterans and their families. And so they were incredibly willing partners, early adopters of this vision and mission back in 2017. So we really began there and helped build some tools for the Veterans Health Administration in concert with them, we co-designed programs with them, and then we’re able to sort of roll that out at scale.

Tom Temin: I noticed just a small development recently, VA health care centers are getting rid of the kiosks for checking in. And now veterans, soon, they will be able to point their phones at a QR code to be able to check in. And often isn’t it simply walking in the door and checking in can be a huge turnoff, not just VA, but for any medical facility. Any any hotel and airline for that matter.

Barbara Morton: Yeah, exactly. And I think the power of experience is how adaptive it is. And it requires us to be, right? If you think about your real life outside of government, there are certain things that are common that are given nowadays. And we want to respond to those types of needs for veterans, and frankly, just general members of the public who happen to engage with VA as well. So on the digital side of the house, we’ve also spent the last few years really transforming our website, va.gov. So it’s much more veteran intuitive and user friendly. Again, using human centered design, a practice to co-design with your customer. Hey, tell us what you think about this new widget or that new widget, right? Really making sure we get that feedback to design in real time, and we’re sort of graduating now to the very kind of exciting next project, which is the VA mobile app. Flagship app, first of its kind, getting some wonderful reviews in the app store from veterans utilizing it. And really, it’s designed again, with the veteran in mind with veterans and making sure it’s very easy, very intuitive for them to utilize to get connected with the services they need at VA.

Tom Temin: Sounds like the best thing since Blue Button. We’re speaking—

Barbara Morton: Exactly.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Barbara—

Barbara Morton: Even better.

Tom Temin: All right, well, I’m gonna check it out myself. We’re speaking with Barbara Morton. She’s deputy chief veterans experience officer at Veterans Affairs and a finalist in this year’s service to America Medals program. I’m going to try it even though I’m not a veteran. But I like to check out these things as we hear about them in the government. And what is the I don’t know, secret sauce? Or what technique do you use when a possible solution is found to a customer experience issue? You’ve got to get that workforce here, there dysfunction, a call center, a receptionist, maybe even a medical staff person to change. And I imagine in a place as big as VA with a unionized workforce, to a large extent, that can be a challenge.

Barbara Morton: There can be many challenges. But I think one of the wonderful things about the practice of customer experience as a business in government and human centered design, is it really helps us orient towards those that we serve. So it brings us very much back to basics and our core mission. So I think at VA, it’s not a far stretch for our employees to really see that connection to our core values. We’re really here to serve the cause greater than themselves, and to be able to create tools that are going to be easy to deploy across different medical centers, regional offices, cemetery administration facilities, you know, employees are eager for that, and what we do with them as we kind of co-design with them, and so we bring them into that conversation. It’s not something imposed on anybody, it’s bringing their subject matter expertise as well, getting them energized around the art of possible. And then there are the stores that are able to execute and take it forward.

Tom Temin: And how fine grained does the analysis get to see okay, now, X percent, which is 24% more than Y percent trust VA on that survey. Are you able to determine, say, well, the Sacramento center is fantastic. And this or that measure, you know, Dallas, you got to improve this and that and New Jersey, you got to do this and that? Are you able to get to that drill down level so that individual locations can work on their CX?

Barbara Morton: Yes, absolutely. And that’s kind of one of the keys to your point, the secret sauce of being able to kind of have this macro score, VA-wide the general sentiment of what veterans are telling us about trust, but then also the opportunity, to your point, of drilling into specific facilities, regions, areas. So those particular leaders are empowered to use that data specific to their facility to make those improvements. And one of the things that our office has done, and this is sort of a demand signal that’s been built over the years, is literally going into facilities at their request and helping them understand the data. It’s not necessarily intuitive, and also understanding how to sort of put to action, different practices, again, trainings, tools, communication, artifacts, other products to address those particular areas in need of additional attention.

Tom Temin: And it must be, I guess, nice, luxurious to have a situation where changes in policy that might be proposed or changes in procedure. Nobody objects to them on political or philosophical grounds, nobody would argue with being better for the veterans?

Barbara Morton: You’re absolutely right. I love that comment. So one of the things I think I’m most inspired by and proud of with this movement, and it really is a movement in VA and across federal government. Here from a VA perspective, we’ve had the opportunity to bridge over multiple changes of administration and multiple secretaries, with you know, many different viewpoints, priorities, etc. But what’s remained constant is customer experience as a top priority. And that is just really, really incredible because what it does is it anchors us in something common that bridges across different policy changes or different perspectives, something that we as employees and public servants can ground and root in for the long haul.

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