Customer Experience

Cobert: Customer-facing services require finesse

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The administration's focus on customer service is being put to the test in the wake of the Office of Personnel Management data breach, acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said on Oct. 7.

Cobert, who spoke at the 2015 CX Summit convened by the government-industry collaboration group ACT-IAC, said customer service, or CX, figures into how her agency is notifying millions of federal employees of their exposure after OPM's databases were compromised.

Even in the most distressing situations, she noted, consumers of federal services want to have timely responses, clear expectations and understanding of how the services will work.  So Cobert has been getting the word out about how her agency is informing individuals whose information was compromised in the breach. 

Those efforts include sending formal letters informing exposed federal employees sent from secure Defense Department facilities about credit monitoring services and other protections the agency has put in place in the wake of the breach. The agency has also set up a website to explain the process that has two succinct paths from on its landing page that steers viewers to paths containing specifics about what to do after receiving notifications and a path for those who think they've been affected.

Cobert said she learned about the importance of customer service over the course of a 30-year career at consultancy McKinsey & Company, where she worked before her nomination for the post of Deputy Director for Management in Sept. 2013. She took over OPM in July on an acting basis, after the ouster Katherine Archuleta.

She advised developing services using customer experiments, trials and tests, with the purpose seeing some initial ideas fail. "There will be some hiccups," she said, so agencies must adapt,  discard things that don't work and move on.

Feedback is important, she said, noting government agencies have been pushing out "happy or not" service feedback kiosks, under the Feedback USA program rolled out in July, at their facilities to measure customer satisfaction and to immediately take care of problems.

Taking a cue from marketing

Customer experiences should also aim to cut across federal agency IT and data silos, much like more advanced commercial marketing ecosystems currently do, said Herb Strauss, assistant deputy commissioner for systems and deputy CIO at the Social Security Administration.

For instance, he said, when you buy a car now, not only will the car company send you advertisements, but other peripheral service providers, like insurance companies have access to that information and offer their services as well.

That kind of seamless services hand-off fits the customer service model for government, too, he said. While the Federal Emergency Management Administration provides disaster services for citizens, it could also be the "one-touch" base for other government services, like SSA and others who should also be aware of the disaster's impact on the customer.

That kind of interconnected service is what the Department of Veterans Affairs is striving for, said Sloan Gibson, the agency's deputy secretary. VA, he said, gets both extremely positive feedback and extremely negative feedback for the myriad services it offers through dozens of local offices. With so many facilities, functions and personnel, VA is striving to mold a consistent "principle-driven" customer service culture that employs interconnected systems more effectively, he said. And the front line staff is central to that effort.

"It's the little things that are often the big things" when it comes to customer services from government agencies, Gibson added.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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