This interview with Barbara C. Morton, Deputy Chief Veterans Experience Officer, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) discusses the value of the customer, and employee experience, COVID as a driver of empathy, sharing lessons learned to bolster Government, and what to expect for 2021.

Customer Experience (CX) as a Priority

Customer experience is VA’s top priority because those we serve – Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors – deserve the best from us. The way we can underscore the importance of CX is demonstrating how it moves the needle in a positive direction around the moments that matter most to Veterans. When we can show tangible impact, it becomes clear that CX is a key investment to make and a core part of the business. To this end, over the past four years, Veterans’ and their families’ trust in VA has increased by over 20 percent, which is a massive transformational change, and a credit to our front-line employees and focus on CX.

We spend a lot of time thinking about baking CX into everything, including governance, operations, performance measures, to ensure the focus on CX is not personality driven, but rather is part of the core business of how we deliver services to Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors.

We are fortunate to have leaders who are incredible champions of CX. For example, the VA Strategic Plan includes a statement from our Secretary, which puts a clear stake in the ground that CX is our top priority.

VA has gone even further to drive CX into the organization by amending our governing Code of Federal Regulations to include CX principles as part of the Agency’s core values and characteristics, adding CX performance measures to performance plans, and integrating CX into internal operations to be part of overall organizational drivers. We want CX to be infused throughout all internal functions and processes, so it continues to build as an essential part of our organizational culture.

Employee Experience (EX) as Part of CX

Intuitively we know that CX must have an equal focus on EX. At VA, when we practice Human-Centered Design (HCD) and prototyping, we always want to include those employees on the front lines who are experts in the business to support testing and feedback. They are the key players in the CX, and their expertise is critical to best understand the journey.

In addition, we are interested in the journeys that employees have while serving at VA, so we recently completed VA’s first ever employee experience journey map. We had already completed a Veteran experience journey map to follow the path of the Veteran and to better understand their overall journey and moments that matter most to them in their interactions with VA along their lifecycle. We wanted that same macro from the employee view. Working with HR, we performed internal HCD research, interviewing 150 employees. This effort will allow us to dive deeper into the moments that matter most along that journey in order to improve EX.

Collaborative Agency Focus

The Veterans Experience Office (VEO) is like-minded with many across the Department, including the VA’s Office of Information and Technology (OIT) who are also using HCD research principles, user testing and looking at similar strategies for rolling out tools. We see what collaboration can do with examples like VA.gov. A few years ago, VA.gov was a very bureaucratic looking site. We went to Veterans to better understand their view, to see what they saw as the front door to accessing VA services, and they told us VA.gov was that preferred access point. That was a huge insight and meant we needed to look at it from a different view, to make it easier to access what Veterans needed most, and to create a more personalized experience. Within a year of implementing those new strategies and Veteran-informed designs, their satisfaction in the site increased substantially.

We also partner very closely with other organizations across VA, including the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) where we together design and execute the patient experience program. To support VHA, the VEO team provides on the ground support at medical centers, offering CX training, tangible CX tools to empower employees to deliver outstanding experiences and other best practices in CX. To date, we have trained over 100k VHA employees on CX and have deployed dozens of toolkits and other best CX practices across the Nation. What is so great and effective about this collaboration is that our team understands VA culture and history, so they bring that knowledge and credibility to the table alongside the VHA team.

Sharing Lessons Learned Outside VA

As one of the first agencies in Government to institutionalize CX, sister agencies often come to us to learn more about our story and how VA stood up this CX capability. We always welcome these conversations to share lessons we have learned, understanding that the way VA has done it is just one way, not the only way.

Different agencies have unique ecosystems and are at different stages of CX maturity, so there are often a lot of questions about the drivers and mechanics of institutionalizing CX in an organization. To this end, we created a capstone project, a CX cookbook of sorts, in concert with our CX siblings at the Office of Management and Budget and across Federal agencies. The guide explains key ingredients or levers in Government that agencies can utilize to mature a CX practice, focusing on the drivers we all have in common. It is our hope that this cookbook will allow CX practitioners in Government to stand up or mature a CX program, customizing it with their own unique adaptations and sequencing based on their individual organization’s culture and environment.

The Silver Lining of COVID

COVID-19 has required an incredible shift for people and organizations across the globe. We noticed very early on in the COVID response that everyone was leading with empathy. Part of the COVID response was focused around addressing the anxiety, fear, and ensuring the safety of Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors. Customer experience is all about emotion, so seeing that empathy as a leading driver was amazing and really amplified the importance of CX.

When we lead with experience there is a different orientation, which is focused on how people feel about the services we provide and how what we do impacts their lives. We have been fortunate to be able to support our VA partners during COVID through HCD research, COVID survey instruments to provide real-time data across facilities, communications, including text messaging and a weekly newsletter that reaches millions of Veterans and other stakeholders, and community engagements among many other efforts. COVID has been a game changer for everyone, and we do not know yet what that full journey will look like, but when we listen, when we let experience guide us, we are on the right path in our response.

Looking Ahead to 2021

At VA we have been working to make CX a core of our business discipline in the organization and looking ahead, we need to focus on scaling and sustaining. VEO is relatively small, so we are exploring institutionalizing the practice of CX across VA through core curriculum and practical application together with our siblings in the Department through a Customer Experience Institute. We are currently piloting our first ever Patient Experience University to develop that institutional CX learning and practice capabilities to ensure CX as a core discipline is in place across VA now and in the future.

We are also focused on continuing to share our lessons learned and best practices with sister agencies that may be at different stages of their CX journey. Across Government, there is power and impact in pooling knowledge so we can build off each other, support each other and improve the customer experience together for the public we have the privilege of serving.

About Barbara C. Morton

Barbara C. Morton assumed her current duties in July 2016 when she joined VEO as Deputy Chief Veterans Experience Officer. In this role Ms. Morton is responsible for building a lasting customer experience capability at VA and sharing best practices across sister Federal agencies. She was a recipient of the Gears of Government President’s Award (2019) and the Service to the Citizen Award (2019) for her role in transforming VA’s capabilities to provide Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors with an excellent customer experience. She joined VA in 2006 as a Staff Attorney at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board), and served the Board in a variety of other capacities, to include Special Counsel to the Appellate Group, Special Assistant to the Vice Chairman, Executive Assistant to the Chairman, and Executive Director for the Office of Management, Planning & Analysis. While at the Board, Ms. Morton stood up and led the Board’s Appeals Modernization OIT efforts, which included securing industry technologists from United States Digital Service to develop and launch new appeals platforms.

Check out more articles from this year’s edition here.

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